Combating the “Always On” epidemic in Asia-Pacific
The world of work has certainly transformed since I began my career. Immediate communication was restricted to in-person conversation or a phone call, and the landscape was nothing like it is today, where we can connect virtually in an instant with anyone around the globe.
Consequences of an evolving landscape
In the days before we were seemingly connected around the clock, communication was often on the receiver’s terms; you could choose when, and if, to answer a voice message, and responses to letters and faxes were counted in days. Today, there’s frequently an expectation that a receiver will respond to email or text within minutes, and colleagues have a view of whether we’re online at any time of the day or night. We’re hyper-connected, and our health is suffering as a result.
With the proliferation of these new technologies and the uber-connectedness they provide us all, has come an “Always on” culture, which is now the norm for many people and, in many cases, expected.
The consequences of this cultural shift are significant. Results from the 2019 Cigna Annual 360 Wellbeing Survey, in which we asked more than 13,000 people in 23 countries and jurisdictions about their physical and mental health, indicate that two thirds of all respondents (64%) feel the need to constantly access work emails, attend work calls, or check mobile phones for work purposes – regardless of the time of day.
Not surprisingly, 87% of people who work say they are stressed and 12% find this stress unmanageable.
What it means to be “Always on”
Most of us feel harried, pulled in multiple directions at once, and hyper-connected to technology, our work lives and the world around us. But how does this translate and impact our health and wellbeing?
In an ‘Always on’ culture, we’re essentially always working; whether physically or virtually, we’re plugged-in around the clock, allowing ourselves little if any time to recharge, refresh, and rejuvenate. Whether in the evening, during the night, or on the weekends – even on vacations – our lives are consistently punctuated by work calls, emails and messages. We never switch off. As our minds and bodies experience it, we’re always at the office, working.
You only have to look around at a restaurant, or in a movie, to see this phenomenon. People everywhere have their smart phones on the table, or in their hands, no matter where they may be. This isn’t time off, it’s constant work without reprieve. And this lifestyle is making us sick in record numbers.
Stress takes a toll
While most are familiar with being constantly connected and the reality of stress in the workplace, they may not realise how detrimental this can be to our overall health and wellbeing. While some types of stress are good – the short-term rush you experience as you race to complete a project and the great feeling you have when you complete it – unending stress can have seriously harmful effects.
After years of being “Always On”, constantly connected to our mobile devices, living in a state of stress has become the norm for many. And it’s common for people to go from feeling slightly stressed to being regularly anxious, and then developing related health issues such as high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.
The more access to technology, the more we typically take advantage of it. A seemingly benign routine of checking email in the evening or during the weekend as a way of getting ahead of the day often evolves into an unhealthy habit. And the more we connect, the more we feel we need to, or should.
It’s up to each of us to manage our digital interactions and the stress that frequently accompanies them. At the office, we encourage staff to close their laptops and put away mobile devices, so they can be fully present, and participate in, team meetings. And we certainly encourage our staff to disconnect and pursue a balanced work-life mix. Staff are urged to use their personal time off and take time to rest, recharge.
Driven by more than corporate benevolence, the evidence indicates that rested and refreshed people make better workers and are ultimately more likely to perform well, as compared to their depleted and stressed counterparts.
The role of workplace wellness
In our hyper-connected culture, workplace wellness programmes can play a pivotal role in helping us achieve – and maintain – a better work-life balance. At Cigna, our focus is on wellness – for our customers and for our staff. As a result, wellness permeates our corporate culture and we offer many wellness programmes for staff, including a global fitness challenge, onsite fitness centers, educational offerings, and employee assistance services.
But even robust wellness programmes have room for improvement. Nearly half (45%) of this year’s 360 Wellbeing Survey respondents indicated that there is a gap between employers’ workplace wellness programmes and workers’ needs. Most respondents believed their employers’ wellness programmes focused more on physical rather than mental wellbeing and tend to have been ‘one size fits all’.
There was also the perception that workplace wellness programmes lacked senior management support.
While workplaces and the wellbeing needs of employees have evolved over time, many corporate wellness programmes have remained unchanged. These generic offerings are typically leveraged only by a small proportion of the employee population.
Increasingly, employers today are realising that for their businesses to grow, they must also prioritise the wellness of all of their employees. This can best be achieved with a customised workplace wellness programme that caters to varying tastes, offers robust activities options, and provides need-specific services for issues such as stress, time management, and coping with personal and professional challenges.
While employers certainly have a critical role to play in employee wellbeing, it’s equally important that people assume personal responsibility for keeping themselves well – physically, emotionally, and mentally. An easy first step in fostering a greater sense of wellness is to disconnect: to literally put the phone or mobile device down and spend more time interacting with communities, friends, family, coworkers, and the world around us.
Creating greater separation is essential for good health of all kinds.
About the author
Patrick Graham is the Asia-Pacific CEO for insurance business Cigna.