• Alexandra Sanyal

The Downside to Digital

As March's stay-at-home mandate extends into an August "stay-cation," most activities — work, school, camp, exercise class, etc. — stay digital. The first few weeks required major adjustments, from learning how to homeschool your kids while juggling a full day of meetings to going on a first date via Zoom. Once we started to get the hang of things, we started to see the silver linings of doing everything online: ordering groceries, leading a meeting, taking an exam ... all in your pajamas!

However, here we are, some 6 months later, and it seems like digital activities really are becoming our "new normal" with no end in sight. Although technology has allowed us to stay engaged in many positive ways, it also implies a level of constant availability which makes it possible to virtually (pun-intended) work and interact, all the time. The real question is, just because it's possible, does that mean that we should?

Many have started to feel the effects of what is colloquially being called "Zoom Fatigue" — named for the famed communications technology company that exploded in the wake of quarantine to provide video-telephony and online chat services for teleconferencing, telecommuting, distance education, and social relations. The experience of fatigue, however, refers to the constant communication and overtime work schedules facilitated by services such as Zoom, Skype, GoogleMeet, etc. This fatigue, defined as "extreme tiredness resulting from mental or physical exertion or illness," is a result of spending the entire day with your eyes on the screen, sitting through one meeting after another, in which you are forced to engage constantly. This digital work environment removes transition periods between meetings that workers would rely on for caffeine refills, bathroom breaks, mid-day stretching or just some alone time to process the day's happenings. You might enjoy taking your first meeting of the day from the comfort of your bed, but you may just find yourself stuck there into the afternoon before you get the chance to officially "start" your day.

This incessant digital work culture may be boosting productivity in some cases but it can be extremely detrimental for those that struggle with online activities; from a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) to a migraine-prone working mom. We've been telling children for years not to strain their eyes by constantly looking at screens, especially in the evening hours before bed, but now we find ourselves settling into patterns that we've been warned about for years.

What complicates this is that it seems to be expected that everyone adjusts to this new environment and those that express their concerns are told to embrace the "new normal" and cooperate — we're all grappling with the impacts of COVID-19 on our lives and cities and digital collaboration is just one part. However, by promoting this culture of compliancy makes topics of "self-care," even more difficult to broach. How can you take a personal day when everyone knows you're sitting at home by your phone or computer? We are now expected to sign on and check in regarding work, classes, or social events, even if we're on a summer vacation with family — losing any semblance of work-life balance that we may have had pre-COVID-19 quarantine.

The truth is, we're standing at the top of a slippery slope. We can continue on this path, eventually reaching a point where "digital" dominates — with courses staying online for convenience sake (despite in-person learning being an option) and work days extend from whenever you log on to whenever you log off. Or, we have the option to understand and acknowledge the benefits of digital engagement (within the scope of a pandemic) but also agree upon the importance of "unplugging" not just when you have to but when you want to. At this point, it could honestly go either way which means that it is up to us to be open and honest with ourselves, our friends, and our employers and set boundaries that will preserve our well-being. We're hopeful that in-person engagement will resume at the earliest but no one can be sure just how soon that will be, thus we must protect ourselves within this digital interim.

To those of you, feeling particularly hit by Zoom-fatigue: you're not alone! If you're reading this, take a second to sign-off and reflect on what your own boundaries are and whether or not they seem reasonable. Unsure of where to start? Check out this article from the Harvard Business Review on How to Combat Zoom Fatigue.







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