The second of our interviews to mark World Mental Health Day this week. We caught up with Laura Willis, founder of Shine Offline, who had her own experience of a breakdown from overload, to talk about the correlation of a 24/7 connected world with poor mental health, overwhelm, anxiety and how this can have an extremely negative impact on performance and wellbeing.
Shine Offline works with businesses and organisation on how to develop an effective digital culture to ensure staff are using their smartphones and other digital technology in a balanced and sustainable way leading to a healthier, happier and more productive workplace and improved work v life balance.
Laura, you founded Shine Offline in 2015 following a career in Marketing and PR. What was your ‘lightbulb’ moment?
I always had a bit of a dysfunctional relationship with my email. I was constantly refreshing and found it hard to focus as my inbox and what may be on its way in to me was really distracting. When I got my first smartphone it made my working life really flexible as I travelled a lot for my work and could carry the office around with me. But I was totally overwhelmed and suffered from panic attacks which I now realise were my brain’s way of trying to shut down from all the information I was processing on an ongoing basis. Becoming a mum shone a light on my work life balance. I had no boundaries around how I used my phone and the way I allowed my work to infiltrate my day and night. I had a breakdown and this low point was the catalyst for me to start to make some improvements in my life. I started practicing mindfulness meditation and the space and pause this gave me helped me see my phone was causing all my stress. So I rose to the challenge of changing how I used it and although it was hard the benefits showed themselves pretty quickly. I then talked to friends and family about what I’d realized and discovered that everyone seemed to be struggling with the role their phone played in their life in one way or another. My light bulb moment was on a commuter train, surrounded by people on their phones, and realizing I was the weirdo looking out the window. People are overloaded, they’re connected all the time, and I know from personal experience that this is unhealthy. I decided it was time to do something to let people see there was another way to live and spoke to my good friend and colleague Anna about the idea. She was having her own “constant connectivity” struggles and so very quickly we decided to give up our careers in PR and Marketing and start this new journey.
Shine Offline aims to “empower people with the insight and skills to manage the digital technology in their lives in a more mindful way.” How do you work with businesses in allowing them to achieve this?
It’s all about creating the space to allow people to pause and question how they are spending their time in work and in their personal lives. Mobile technology has brought an unbelievable amount of benefits to our lives. But very rarely do we stop and think about how we are using this technology and if the role it plays is a healthy, sustainable and effective one. I hit breaking point before I had my realization that the way I was using the device was really dysfunctional. We want to help people before they get to that point – although our research shows that 95% of people recognise that they need to improve the role their smartphone and other digital tech is currently playing, and that many people are struggling. We also help businesses to audit their digital communications and work out whether the tech their people are using is helping them do their jobs or overwhelming, overloading and stressing them out. Having a healthy digital culture is imperative for all businesses. This technology is central to every organization and it’s only now that businesses are recognizing that they need to really examine and assess the tech/human interaction and ensure their people aren’t adversely affected by our 24/7 connected culture.
In an increasingly advanced 24/7 connected world and culture, what impact is technology having on business and on individuals and what problems are arising as a result?
If you don’t have a balanced and healthy relationship with your digital technology in today’s world you simply can’t be your best self at work and at home. And people are the building blocks of business. If the blocks aren’t stable then everything collapses. This is why businesses are taking the wellbeing of their staff so seriously these days. But if you are serious about their wellbeing then you simply can’t ignore the impact constant connectivity has on them. There are a host of negative impacts and we have found in the work that we do that everyone can relate to at least one, if not all of these. Distraction – this is impacting our ability to focus at work get our heads down, concentrate. Lack of space and no downtime – people don’t get the chance to pause anymore as many carry their smartphones around with them and so are flitting on and off them all day. This creates an overwhelm but also humans need down time in order to tap into their most innovative and creative sides. Disconnection – we increasingly communicating through texting and typing which is removing face to face conversation which is really important when it comes to developing strong relationships – both at work and at home. Also, people are disconnected from those they are sharing their space with as they are getting pulled away into their devices every time they ping. Work life balance is a thing of the past and this is because we no longer finish up at the end of the day to head home for some rest time. Most of us have our work communications on our phone and so the boundaries are totally blurred. People don’t have proper breaks in the evening, weekends and on holiday. And the result is an increasing amount of people going off work due to high stress, burnout, overwhelm. We need to rest and for many it just isn’t happening. And speaking of rest – our 24/7 connected world is impacting our ability to get a good nights sleep. People are on their work email, social media and news feeds in the moments before they turn in for the night and so are closing their eyes in an overstimulated state. 1 in 3 are checking for messages in their night. There is a sleep epidemic in the UK and the way we use our phones is central to this issue.
Why implement a digital culture and vision? What are the benefits of being a digitally mindful workplace?
This is so obvious to me. The business world is totally dependent on communications technology to function effectively and it is people who are using this technology. You can’t become totally reliant on something that is known to not be all bells and whistles and a barrel of laughs all the time and not continually assess its effectiveness. Many businesses now use a variety of digital channels to communicate internally. Gone are the days when it was picking up the phone for a chat or emailing someone. Texting, instant messenger, Whatsapp, Slack – we work with business who have multiple applications being used and yet the response from many staff is that it’s overwhelming, confusing, time wasting and irritating. I would urge businesses to really think about this. Don’t just add another solution into the mix. Really think about how that solution is going to compliment what you are already using. Please don’t use tech for tech’s sake. Stop, pause, assess and decide if it is going to truly benefit the business and its people. Streamlining is the future.
Barclays, Three Mobile and the National Grid are just some of the organisations you have helped to ‘shine offline’. Is the law sector embracing the importance of being a digitally mindful workplace?
When we launched people told us the legal sector would never engage with our messaging due to the cultural expectations within law that you are working all hours and are contactable all the time. This is the reason why legal firms need us more than anyone! Businesses that have a high level of stress amongst their staff must address this issue and ensure their people are empowered to use their digital technology in a mindful and balanced way. It’s definitely baby steps with the legal sector but we are being invited to be included in wellbeing weeks and other mental health at work initiatives being organized by an increasing numbers of firms. To date we have facilitated a host of our Time to Shine Offline workshops for a variety of law firms where staff are given the time and space to really assess the relationships they have with their smartphones and other digital devices. Participants are then supported to make some small behavioural changes to ensure their phones are enhancing their lives rather than overwhelming them. We are getting recommended internally too which is great as this is a way for the ethos to be spread throughout a business. And we are starting to have indepth conversations with firms about helping them to assess their current digital cultures and support them to improve their current situation.
What are your three top practical techniques and habits which we could all apply in the workplace or at home to improve our relationships with technology?
It’s about bringing consciousness to your behaviour. Everyone needs to stop and pause before you act. Turning to your tech is the first thing many of us do in any moment of down time and we need to stop before we act and decide if we really need to or want to check our phones or refresh our inboxes. Mindfulness really helps with the pausing and removing autopilot and we are seeing more and more clients starting to programme drop in mindfulness sessions for their staff at lunch time. Creating a physical barrier between yourself and your tech is also really powerful. This may be about putting it in the kitchen drawer when you open it to get the cutlery out to lay the table for dinner, or sticking it in your handbag on flight mode when you are in a meeting to ensure it doesn’t distract you and pull you away from the people you’re with. And removing your phone from the bedroom is so simple and yet something very few people think of. 80% use their phone as their alarm clock and so the temptation to be on it last thing at night, in the middle of the night and first thing in the morning is really strong. Get it out of the way – charge it downstairs on flight mode – and you won’t be tempted to check it and you’ll get a better night’s sleep.
What one change have you made in your life which has empowered you to ‘shine offline’? And what impact has this change made to your life?
Becoming a mum was the defining moment for me. Not only is my time much more precious than ever before – as I simply don’t have enough of it! – but also where I place my attention is so important to me. My work is my truest passion but my husband and children are my universe and I want to make sure that when I am with them I am really with them. I remember the days when half your head wasn’t on your phone and wondering if there were any messages, posts or news updates to check. I remember what it was like to not feel distracted and disconnected and overwhelmed. And I am determined to harness that feeling for myself and show my kids that you don’t need to have your phone within reach all of the time. So I guess the answer is the big change that empowered me to Shine Offline was becoming a parent – although that’s not one of our official top tips!! Me, Anna and the team are improving people’s lives through the work we do at Shine Offline and helping them to get the balance back and all I can say is that everyone has it in them to make these small, positive changes and live a life that is complimented rather than dominated by their digital technology.