STAYING MENTALLY WELL IN THE AGE OF TECHNOLOGY

Research by the Institute of Directors has shown that only 7% of employers have discussed mental health issues with their staff, and three quarters of businesses don’t have a mental health policy in place.

In a world where we are evermore connected to our jobs and society through portable technology, this is particularly concerning.

I recently reviewed a couple of articles on the relationship between sleep and the use of social media. Apparently those who were studied had difficulty sleeping when using social media last thing at night.

At one level, this is not surprising at all. Modern technology gives us simultaneously the blessing and curse of immediacy of availability on a 24/7 basis into our very bedrooms, if we permit it. Years ago, it was the telephone that was the last point of contact into one’s own private residence and there were social rules about disturbing people later in the evening, except in cases of emergency.

In the modern days of technology, there is no such social “fire break”. Modern communication pursues us in multi-media forms on a round the clock basis.

We hardly dare turn our technology off. Aside from those people who seek to either manage their time badly or impress us by pinging off emails in the early hours of the morning to convince the rest of us of just how busy they are (or indeed, sad), people maintain contact through text, Facebook, Twitter, Linked In and all sorts of other social media platforms.

One’s social presence and standing on such platforms requires regular maintenance. Equally, the minutiae that is published there on people’s lives can connect us, but nonetheless can increase information overload as people describe tiny points of their day to their friends and other contacts in ways that would never have occurred hitherto. Equally, we see valuable pieces of information passed around, shared or reTweeted, which again is extremely useful but can contribute to a sense of overwhelm.

And let’s not forget whilst this is happening, frequently we are receiving SMS messages and the mobile is often ringing at the same time.

I feel for younger people who don’t have the normal social boundary we previously had, of going home to family and bed in the evening after a spat with their mates. They instead find that minor disputes or the need to be part of the group, are escalated by text or similar, once they are home.   All too often now a young person, instead of putting down the matters of the day, gets continually enmeshed by them in the solitude of their own bedrooms. Typically this easily runs well into the early hours of the morning, causing agitation at a time we evolved to seek rest.

We also have to be aware that social media is a mixture of connectivity both with people and with the markets those people occupy and, therefore, typical friendship exchanges are mixed with pure business 24/7. It’s often hard for some to tell the two apart and the term “friend” acquires new connotations that are altogether shallower and less enduring then many of the people that one enjoys meeting for coffee, or perhaps has known since school or a first job etc.

It’s a fierce mix when this technology coalesces together to prevent us sleeping. We know that poor sleep is positively correlated with anxiety and depression. We can’t lay the responsibility for this totally at the door of social media, let’s face it, we’ve come through recessions, we are facing years of unprecedented austerity and young people have fewer life chances in the world of work than has been the case for generations. It is, however, one tangible area where one really can take control and mitigate the harm.

But it is not just social media as a communication medium that causes the problem, it is also the nature of the technology as delivered that contributes to this. In addition to the stimulation, conflicts, information overloading etc. that occurs with the media, people often take tablets and mobiles to the bed chamber. Looking at a back lit screen last thing at night etches light onto the back of the retina. Ever used an iPad and seen the square for half an hour afterwards? One can only guess what the long term impact of back lit screens will have in an ocular sense to us but, what we do know is that this imprint gives a false daylight signal to the brain and therefore mitigates against sleep. Add to that the typical stimulus-response conditioning that occurs through the use of devices; is there a message for me? isn’t there? if there isn’t, what can I look at out of interest in the pile of things that have been shared? Before we know where we are, we have a device that may connect us, but it is a cerebral stimulant on a grand scale, which we then expect to drop to the side of the bed and go to sleep. I’ve got news, it isn’t going to happen!

Psychologist Erik Erikson described humankind as a social animal. Clearly social media has been widely adopted as a source of personal connectivity and business communication. Its ease of use and its availability means very rarely do we allow ourselves down time to reflect quietly. The more-for-less work and business culture we live in, actively militates against us having quiet moments. We always want to appear busy and indeed we talk up just how pressured we are. I was quite surprised at somebody’s response to me when I said I’d had a really slack day. It was almost counter intuitive, like somehow the business is not doing so well or whatever else. Well business is just fine but the last thing I want is to fill a cancellation or two that occurs with the next available task or to chain myself to the computer to see what Twitter has to offer.

We have two nervous system circuits: the sympathetic and the parasympathetic. The former relates to “up time” problem solving, reactive thinking; the latter to more relaxed, reflective, tranquil thinking. Guess which one we are under using these days?

As a social animal, we do not wish to be anything other than part of the tribe. This means connecting with people is really important. I can understand that, however, the immediacy of social media requires responses that very much have a “be there or be square” feel, almost as if one is missing out if one cannot apply one’s commentary or instant response to something that is shared.

I actually foresee a whole new genre of psychiatric disorders in the future. How about “Social Media Anxiety Syndrome”, replacing the current wave of “Social Anxiety Disorder”, or “Twitrettes” syndrome the tendency to come out with inappropriate comments and the occasional obscenity in text form that is purely involuntary. Or how about “Post Trollmatic Stress Syndrome”. “Levinson’s Disorder” where once constantly gets hacked off with life. The list can go on, leave it to the psychologists to secure their future by rewriting another version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders to refine this!

The bottom line is, we are diurnal creatures. We have rhythms that were set to the rising and setting of the sun and linked to approximately ninety day cycles relating to the seasons. These were hard wired into us long before the first clock ticked and the first thermionic valve started to meddle with the electron in ways that allowed us to transmit data. They don’t change because of these technologies, they are there and they are part of our humanity. As such they need to be respected and we need to establish a discipline that balances our use of technology alongside our human condition.

Sleep, for example, is not something that should be “fitted in” when we have managed to get through our emails or tweets. It is something that requires a combination of healthy ritual and discipline if it is to be refreshing and fulfilling. It is something that we need to practice and preserve if we are going to maintain our emotional state, be present and available in our closest relationships, and make sound management decisions unsullied by excessive mental clutter.

We have got to get beyond the feeling of being anxious of missing something on social media and start to use personal mastery that allows us to be the controllers of the device we are using, not simply a reactive creature, responding to a stimulus it generates, effectively handing over control to the machine. There are some simple tips for this:

1) Protect your sleep at all costs, really any electronic item should be avoided, including the television for an hour before sleep;

2) Just be unavailable sometimes. The world won’t stop because you can’t respond to an email within an hour;

3) Take time out to reflect. Our best decisions, those that are most aligned to who we are and what we believe in, come from an opportunity to mull over complex matters and bring discerning judgement to certain situations that have been arrived at by a process of reiteration;

4) Value face to face contact. Our most authentic, most powerful and most meaningful relationships come from situations where we have direct contact with the person and can assimilate all the subtleties of their communication. We have the expression “press the flesh” for a reason. It has powerful connotations;

5) Develop regular habits around electronic media. Perhaps deal with your emails, Facebook etc, two to three times a day, rather than as they occur. Sure it’s different if there is something genuinely urgent but how often is that? Next: sift the junk: get out of groups; memberships; junk emails; subscriptions and other things that you have managed to get yourself wound into but don’t really use. A little house cleaning reduces clutter in any environment, including cyber space;

6) Read books. Books have many benefits, they allow our visual imagined processes to flourish, rather than having these defined by photographs and pictures online, they require a concentration span longer than most online texts and the rhythmic movement of eyes back and forward across the page actively assists subconscious processing;

7) Keep technology out of the bedroom. Get the bed back to its basic functions: sleep and intimacy.

Technology follows us far more readily than it ever did. Portability already adds to the omnipresence, with 4G and Wi-Fi zones. The next generation of technology is already with us, as people now increasingly carry monitors that oversee one’s health state and the mobile phone is something we strap to our wrists and will deliver images through our spectacles. As we get increasingly closer to this technology, we must find rules of engagement that continue to allow our humanity to somehow prevail through all of this so that it becomes an enhancement of our living experience rather than something that detracts from who we are.

 

David Cliff is Managing Director of Gedanken and Chairman of the Institute of Directors’ Northern Sector Group.