Screen exhaustion: 4 proven ways to deal with burnout from staring at a screen

With the work from home movement at its peak, we’re spending more time online than ever before. Becca Caddy, tech journalist and author of the new book Screen Time, explains how to manage your digital presence without burning out.

Since lockdown restrictions were introduced across the UK in March 2020, many of us have spent more time in front of our screens. Stats show the average person clocked up three hours and 29 minutes online each day pre-Covid. This went up to more than four hours as of April 2020 – a number that, nearly a year on, is likely to now be even higher. 

This is expected. As social distancing measures have kept us apart from friends, family and colleagues, our devices have given us much-needed ways to connect, work and relax. But relying on our phones, tablets, laptops and TV screens can have downsides.

What is screen exhaustion?

A woman scrolling on her phone
Screen time has shot up over the course of the past year, coupled with the stress of multiple lockdowns

Screen exhaustion, Zoom fatigue, tech burnout. These are catch-all terms we might use to describe the stress, frustration and headaches that can sometimes accompany time spent on screens. This is particularly the case for work-based tech use, which is why these symptoms are similar to the signs of burnout – best described as feelings of exhaustion and negativity towards your job.

These mental and physical symptoms aren’t new. Many of us worked long hours, skirted the edges of burnout and spent more time on tech than seemed healthy in the past, too. But with the added pressures of home schooling, working from home and navigating a calendar packed full of video calls – and without support structures and access to other ways of coping – it’s no surprise we’re struggling to find balance right now.

However, tech isn’t the enemy. It’s the combination of always-on devices with always-on expectations of work that can create the perfect conditions for elevated stress levels – this applies whether you’re working in an office or at your kitchen table.

What’s the answer? Rather than turn off our screens and risk shunning work commitments or cutting ourselves off from much-needed support and opportunities for connection, let’s set better tech boundaries between our work lives and home lives.

Divide work life and home life

A woman doing back exercises
It helps to lay down boundaries between your work and home identities

A 2019 study by social media management company Buffer found the biggest challenge to remote working for most people is unplugging after finishing work – and that was way before Covid worries took up most of our time. 

Studies refer to this problem as work-home interference. It’s a conflict between expectations at work and at home. Think a conference call that eats into time with your family in the evening or home schooling commitments that mean your deadlines are often missed. This ‘interference’ can lead to poor sleep, exhaustion and, eventually, burnout.

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Without the ritual of commuting home from an office, it might not feel like you can ever truly leave work behind. That means you need to do something to mark the end of the day, like go for a walk, workout or set an alarm. 

This won’t always be possible, but even the smallest act – like making a tea and dimming the lights – could create a much-needed distinction between work life and home life, even if all you plan to do is turn your gaze away from your laptop screen and towards your TV screen.

Pay attention to your posture

A woman working from home
Posture makes a surprisingly big difference to screen exposure

As of June 2020, half of the UK’s workforce was working from home. But our homes aren’t designed for all-day working. If you don’t have a dedicated work set-up or an office you’ll find that tilting your head down to look at your screen can lead to back problems, eye strain, and other aches and pains.

There are options to improve your posture: a good chair, a desk, an ergonomic mouse. But if money and space are limited, elevate your screen by balancing your laptop on a pile of books on a table and sit down to work – or use a kitchen countertop and stand up.

Lauren, a writer and author, told me: “I was always reluctant to try a standing desk – sitting down is the best, why would I deny myself? – but after years of recurring lower back problems, I aggravated my old injury during the first week of lockdown, and finally decided to give one a go.” 

Lauren explains the standing desk converter she now puts on top of her dining table has been a “game-changer” for her back pain. But that’s not all. An upgraded WFH set-up can also create an all-important boundary between work and relaxation.

“Without being able to ‘go to work’ the way I used to, I have to find ways to create some kind of artificial distinction between work time and leisure time, and standing up helps with that,” Lauren tells me. “When I’m standing at my desk, I’m in work mode. My posture is better, my brain feels (slightly) more alert. And I appreciate sitting down to eat lunch or crashing onto the sofa at the end of the day all the more.” 

Push back on video calls

A woman on her computer
Deliberately limit the time you spend on Zoom

Complaining about Zoom fatigue has become a way for us to express our exhaustion with video calls – I’ve heard this phrase used to refer to time spent on Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, and every other video calling app and service.

Why do video calls make us feel tired and fed-up? For starters, they blur the line between work and home that’s already fuzzy and grant people you work with access to your personal life – no matter how much you try to reposition your laundry and bookshelves.

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The lack of in-person body language cues also means we have to concentrate more – all the while knowing we’re very much on display and performing for others – to read, see and interpret what’s going on. Interestingly, studies also show that tech glitches on video calls can negatively affect what we think of the people we’re talking to.

What’s more, despite bringing people together in one way, video calls also remind us of what we’re currently lacking: real-life interaction. If the company you work for allows it, you can turn off your camera to relieve some of the pressure now and again. But the best advice if you’ve reached peak Zoom fatigue is to cut down on video calls that aren’t absolutely necessary. Can the same thing be done in an email or a shared document instead?

Take regular breaks

One way to make work stressors and video calls more bearable is with breaks. Your usual routine might have gone out the window since you started working from home, but breaks are important and, ideally, should be scheduled and protected at all costs.

There’s an expectation that if you can’t go anywhere you should be constantly online taking back-to-back video calls and replying to emails straight away with no rest in between. But you need to take a time-out wherever you are.

There’s no right way to take a break. I recommend doing something that feels different: a stomp around the block or a whole-body stretch both work wonders. But replacing one screen for another can help, too. I find browsing Pinterest on my phone soothing and I know other people enjoy switching off from work by switching on their favourite games. One study found playing a video game during a work break helped participants to relax more than a guided relaxation.

I spoke to Angela, a tech journalist, who told me she’d recently bought a Tamagotchi, like one she had when she was younger, as a way to switch-off.

“It’s kind of relaxing to have this slightly needy device that I can take care of extremely easily, and also doesn’t require I open my phone at all,” she tells me. “I say this as someone who neither games, nor is typically very open to new products that appear in my inbox, but I’m really glad I have it.”

Breaks don’t have to be idyllic walks through a park or silent meditation sessions. Yes, our devices can be a source of stress, but our screens can also be portals to connection, joy and relaxation, too. 

Screen Time by Becca Caddy
Screen Time by Becca Caddy

Images: Main photo by Andras Vas/ Unsplash. Other pictures:  Ezra Bailey on Getty, Arman Zhenikeyev on Getty, Gary Yeowell on Getty, Katleho Seisa on Getty, Westend61 on Getty, Blink Publishing – Bonnier Books UK

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