Understanding and managing digital burnout

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“It’s harder now to manage than it was 15 years ago.”

We’ve all been in front of our computer for hours, working, in the groove and getting things done. Gradually, we slow down and become more tired. Perhaps, anxious about our productivity, we work longer in an attempt to compensate. Eventually, if we’re not careful, we can become worn out and performance can suffer.

Major signs of burnout include:

  • Temperamental moods
  • Tiredness
  • Forgetfulness
  • Struggling to maintain relationships
  • Lower productivity or underperformance

App overload

The proliferation of apps and software has been a boon for the accounting profession as a whole, but it has had some downsides.

Stuart Hurst, director at Accounts & Legal, is one who harnesses the power of the top-of-the-range apps but occasionally finds himself missing simpler times.

“I do wish integration would get better,” he says. “Sometimes you find a piece of software sitting outside the other integrations you have and you end up dual working or having to go into your practice management software or somewhere else to enter some information. In the world of open APIs, you do wish there could be one source of truth rather than seven different systems.

“I love cloud accounting and what it brings, but it has fractured functionality quite a lot. For internally managing your accounting practice, it’s actually made it harder because you can have seven or eight best-of-breed apps and they don’t always speak to each other. That means it’s harder now to manage than it was 15 years ago.”

Always on and often interrupted

“Accountants are going to be spending a lot of their time on screens,” explains Stephanie Henson, managing director of TechTimeOut, which advocates for digital wellbeing. “Often, in order for teams to complete their work, they need to use technology. If people can work from anywhere, including from home, it can create this ‘always-on’ culture, so you can end up overworked, fatigued and not switching off properly.”

According to TechTimeOut’s research, it takes around 23 minutes to refocus on a task once we are interrupted. Given the number of emails, instant messages and phone calls we field in a day, it is easy to see how burnout is a risk. “It means deep work is quite difficult to accomplish,” Henson adds.

Shared experience

Majors Accounts managing director Eriona Bajrakurtaj has experienced digital burnout and has found ways to manage its effects. She led the firm’s digital overhaul over a two-year period, but found herself blurring the lines between work and home.

“With Covid came extra work and extra hours, working alone with a million different apps to get used to,” she says. “Not only that, but everything being on the phone or virtual, it became really tiring. It got lonely, and one thing I noticed was that I’d work much longer hours at home than if I was at the office. I think the commute served as a transition for me, but at home, if I was hungry, I’d get something from the kitchen, put it next to me on my desk and keep working.”

It wasn’t just Bajrakurtaj who was feeling the effects of too much screen time at Majors. Many of her colleagues felt it too.

“If I see someone working late online, I’ll ask them what they’re doing, because our job isn’t critical to someone’s life. I don’t want them working these extra hours, the whole point of the digital journey is to make things easier. We should be more flexible and work fewer hours.”

Setting boundaries

Key to preventing these issues is taking steps to set boundaries in order to manage screen time and its effect on mental health.

“What people experience when they struggle with digital burnout is a lack of boundaries and a lack of clear prioritisation,” says Henson. “When people are starting to spot the signs of burnout, there are things they can change in their own behaviours that can help.”

These include asking yourself how happy you are with your relationship with technology on a scale of 1 to 10, and if there are any realistic changes you are able to make, Henson says.

“There might be some things to do with the way things are done in your organisation, but perhaps you will be able to influence that,” she adds. “It’s important to be very clear with boundaries and one of the things we often talk about is creating a non-negotiable time for the rest that you need. Then it’s important to have some set structure around recognising the way in which you’re using tech – is it positive or negative?”

While staying flexible

However, Henson is clear that flexibility is important, as being too strict can create further stress. “Some people try to have Zoom-free Fridays, for example, but that’s not realistic and can make Thursdays and Mondays really stressful,” she explains. “It’s about setting sensible rules and guidelines. Instead, say, ‘ideally we’ll have fewer meetings on a Friday; however, there has to be flexibility.'”

“Set boundaries and clear expectations, and give yourself a little bit of space. Think about the impact you’re having on other people’s digital wellbeing too. Are you sending emails at 11pm, expecting a response by 8am the next morning? Because very little is that urgent. The answer has to start with the individual, then the workplace. You can only do so much as an individual, but you have to start there, with addressing people’s habits.”

AAT Comment offers news and opinion on the world of business and finance from the Association of Accounting Technicians.

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