Podcast: How to help your employees use technology in a way that maintains their mental health

Podcast: How to help your employees use technology in a way that maintains their mental health

Author: Sarah Churchman, Chief Inclusion and Wellbeing Officer, PwC

The world of work has been and continues to be transformed by technology. It’s an extremely exciting time and one filled with change and opportunity. Every organisation in every industry in every part of the world now has the chance to benefit from all the value this technology can bring.

Technology can help us reach new customers and engage with existing ones. It can help us develop new products and services and optimise internal processes to make them faster, more efficient, and more agile.

Technology has the power to bring lots of good to our working lives. However, if it’s not managed and used properly, it can have potentially damaging consequences, particularly on our mental health. Many people feel that because the technology is available 24/7 they should always be available and responsive.

So today I’m joined by Sarah Churchman, Chief Inclusion and Wellbeing officer at PwC. Sarah is here to talk to us about how business leaders and employers can help their employees have a positive relationship with technology in a way that maintains good mental health.



1) Before we begin it would be great if you could introduce yourself to our listeners.

Of course, my name is Sarah Churchman, I am one of the HR directors at PwC here in the UK and I’ve got a fabulous remit, so I lead on all of our activity in advancing the diversity and inclusion agenda, all of our activity around employee mental health and their wellbeing more broadly, and then finally all of our community engagement activity too. So, it’s quite a full portfolio.

2) As I alluded to in the introduction, the always-on culture we all live and work in today is said by many commentators to be causing a mental health crisis. Do you think this is true and what do you think are the main contribution factors in the workplace?

I certainly agree that we have a mental health crisis. I think there’s a crisis in terms of support to people who are experiencing mental ill-health and I think many of the factors that are driving or impeding our mental health are all around us, not just in the workplace. So I think from a technology perspective, there are so many benefits to technology and perhaps we’ve all focused on the benefits historically, but I think it is something that we all need to be aware of, there is a downside to technology as well and therefore how we embrace technology in our workplaces is really important to the overall wellbeing of our people.

3) And of course, unfortunately, there is still something of a stigma around mental health and particularly around mental health in the workplace. Do you think workplaces are making enough meaningful progress in this area or do you think there’s still work that needs to be done?

I think there’s definitely work that still needs to be done in addressing mental health in the workplace. I think there is a stigma, let’s accept it, and I think the good news is the media have latched onto this and there’s a lot of talk now about this stigma that goes with mental ill-health and how much easier it is to talk about a physical health condition and an agreed objective to put the two on a par. When we talk about wellbeing at PwC, we talk about wellbeing in a very holistic way; mental, physical, spiritual and emotional and feeling energised in all of those areas is how people generally feel well or not. It’s all the constituent elements of wellbeing. So, our approach has been to say historically nobody talked about mental health, it was a big secret. Let’s start the conversation, let’s talk about it because only by talking about something can you begin to surface some of the issues and therefore put some solutions into place.

But to do that I think it needs to be led from the very top of the organisation and you need very senior role models who are willing to talk about their own mental health or the firsthand experience that they may have of mental ill-health, be that personal or somebody close to them experiencing mental ill-health. And I think they are the key to unlocking the door of starting the conversation. Starting the conversation is critical to making progress in supporting mental health in the workplace.

4) Now you mentioned that you think technology has a part to play in rising levels of mental health issues. Why do you think that is? Is our over-reliance on technology and issue and how do you think that this manifests work?

I think with technology, it’s pervasive. In my own organisation it goes to the very heart of our strategy. We are embracing technology, we see it is critical to our future business success and there are so many upsides to technology, but technology is only one lever. It’s very much how you use it and what you add to the technology that really makes it a value, so we talk in my organisation about, this concept of intelligent digital. Technology is only as useful as the business knowledge you apply to it and also the human skills that you use with it. There’s a real mix there so I think technology is a given. It’s not going to go away, but I think we need to think about the culture in which it is used and put some rules and boundaries around how technology is used until those boundaries become the norm.

Just coming here today actually I was thinking about how we have shifted the conversation of work-life balance for example from twenty years ago when we talked about presenteeism in the workplace leading to an imbalance when it comes to work-life balance and the sort of associated mental health conditions rather than physical presenteeism. We now have almost technology presenteeism, people wanting to be seen to be on. I think therefore some of the things that we did to address workplace presenteeism, we need to apply to the technology space to get people comfortable. As I said earlier, to get comfortable with putting some boundaries down and people will have different boundaries because everyone is different and talking about these things all comes back to human interactions, talking about these things and talking about individual boundaries is the way forward.

5) Do you think that employers have a duty of care to promote the healthy use of technology by their employees?

Absolutely, I think employers have a real responsibility here. I can draw on my own experience here, in my own organisation at PwC people are very ambitious, they join PwC to develop their careers. They will work very hard, they will have career goals and we have to make sure that people aren’t working excessive hours or if they are working long hours, we’re then giving them some time off ensuring that people take their annual holiday allowance, et cetera, et cetera.

So yes, we do need to promote a healthy use of technology and we’ve done that in a variety of ways, which I can come on to, but I’m just giving people some examples of how they might embrace technology and use it differently as a starting block. Sometimes people get into such a habit in terms of their use of technology that they can’t see any other way. So, it’s a classic case of breaking down some of those habits and instructing them in new behavioural patterns that is quite important I think.

6) So, we discussed boundaries and habits, but how can our listeners help their employees establish these healthy digital consumption habits both inside and outside of the workplace?

We’ve thought hard about this in my own organisation and we have something that we call digital dieting. Encouraging our people to take a digital detox, if you like. It’s a bit like any diet, everything in moderation really, so again that’s about providing people with some hints and tips and sharing stories about what works well for certain people. So, for example, our chairman and senior partner before he embarked on his two weeks on vacation, talked about what he was going to be doing and I think to some extent without realising it, I’ve role-modelled the same behaviour. I have said during my two-week holiday that I’m not going to be looking at my work phone. However, my secretary has my personal phone details and can message me if there is something very urgent that I need to attend to, but I’m not going to be religiously getting up early as I have in the past and check my emails for the day to ensure I know what’s going on and I think that’s really important.

So just encouraging people or nudging them to do some things differently and giving them some cues as to how other people cope with the potentially always-on culture. I like the concept of digital dieting, not least because the five plus two diet was actually quite successful for my husband. I think if you apply that to the workplace and technology – so five days we do work – most people if they work full time, they work five days a week and you do need two days off. And that applies to your use of workplace technology as well and you can always flex that. So I think yes, just helping people to latch on to some ideas, some different ways of doing things is really quite helpful.

7) So, you’ve just mentioned PwC’s digital diet, with the digital era that we live and work in changing so very quickly, how important do you think it is that business leaders and employers regularly review their policies and guidelines in this area?

I think it’s really important and funnily enough just this summer we have reviewed our own responsible technology policy and I’m not sure whether all organisations have such a policy. We implemented ours back in 2017 so two years on we’ve reviewed it and we still think it’s fit for purpose, but we developed a responsible technology policy with a number of things in mind.

One was the health and wellbeing of our people, but equally, it linked to jobs and skills, recognising that digital skills were essential for the future. So very much supporting our people to develop their digital skills, but beyond that going into our communities and supporting the development of digital skills amongst those communities who may not have access to the opportunity to upskill.

So, we take our responsible technology policy very seriously for our own people and for the wider impact on society because of all the research that both PwC and other organisations have done, looking at the future of work and how work will be done in the future. What will the roles be? What will the jobs be? There’s lots of scaremongering out there about jobs disappearing. I think jobs will be enriched, but there will be new jobs and I think that’s what the research shows, that the backbone to all of that is a certain level of digital upskilling that will be required, and I think as a responsible business we have a responsible technology policy to ensure that we’re playing our part in that.

8) How important do you think it is that leaders role model a healthy relationship with technology. Can they set a good example in this area for their employees, particularly as leaders as you mentioned are nearly always very on?

Yes, and I think that’s absolutely right, and I think in my own organisation, our leaders are the owners of the business. I think anyone who has ever set up their own business, be it big or a growing business, it’s very difficult to separate work from the rest of your life. But I think it is really important that they set the tone for the top, from the top because the tone from the top and what your leaders do is critical to the culture that exist within your own working environment.

I think at the end of the day in many organisations, unless you’re working in certain parts of the NHS, not being on for a day, it doesn’t necessarily mean someone, or something is going to die. Sometimes I think there’s a matter of getting some perspective into what we do and it just comes back I think to good planning, to some discipline which can be hard, particularly for more senior people who may have had a way of working for many, many years. It’s difficult to break some of those habits, but I think their role in leading the change it is absolutely fundamental and I think it is fair to say that some will be better at it than others, a little bit like work-life balance means different things to different people.

I think how we use technology will vary between one person and the other, and what’s more important is that we understand people’s boundaries and how they tend to use technology and we don’t assume that the way we use it will be the way everybody else uses it. So, for example, many people in my organisation have a footer on their emails, which highlights the fact that they may have sent an email out of working hours because that suits them, but not that they’re expecting a response. What we need to do is get people feeling very comfortable that they aren’t going to respond rather than feeling, “Oh my goodness, I should respond because somebody has sent me an email after working hours.” If we truly do respect difference and value difference, we will be true to our word and not expect a response outside of hours.

I think a lot of this is about helping people to understand some of the hidden benefits of the tools that we use as well. In my case, for example, we use Google apps at work, we use Gmail, and I’ve only just discovered how you can defer schedule sending an email. So rather than sending something to somebody at night when you’ve thought of it or you’ve dealt with an email you can defer sending it to the following morning or two days later or the other side of the weekend. So there are lots of ways in which technology can be a friend if we know how to use it properly.

9) You’ve spoken about your recent switch off during your holiday, but on a more personal note is there anything else that you try to do to help promote this at PwC yourself?

From my own personal perspective, it’s about continuing to learn how I can better use technology, like the example I just gave around deferred scheduling of sending emails. I think it’s also just being a little bit more disciplined any way in yourself, I mean email I think creates some very bad habits. People like to deal with things by sending an email and I think sometimes picking up the phone, let’s not forget other ways of communicating or different forms of communication are often preferable. So, it’s being selective and being considerate as well rather than just working through your to-do list which of course we’re all prone to doing when we’re very, very busy, but showing some consideration for others and recognising that different people will have different priorities. But I think also as I said, always be curious and learn new ways in which technology can be used differently.

10) So understandably many employees may feel a little bit worried as new technology starts to change the way they work, and we’ve touched on this briefly. Perhaps they are struggling to learn a new tool or a technology which their employer has recently acquired for example. What advice would you give to business leaders to help them proactively support their employees in such a situation?

We all have to recognise that we’re experiencing the fourth industrial revolution. Technology is changing and evolving at an unprecedented rate and not everybody will feel totally comfortable with that and it will take variable times in terms of adjusting to that. So, a big part of my remit at PwC is leading on diversity and it’s almost a natural consequence of embracing difference. Everybody will need different kinds of support to become comfortable with the technological changes that we are seeing.

Everybody needs to show curiosity though and I think there needs to be a widespread acceptance that we’re not going to go back to the quill pen. I think with technology, we need to recognise that there are great opportunities, but a lot of upskilling is also required and that requires a bit of time and investment of time to learn some of these new skills and really understand the power of technology and the new technologies that we’re investing in. So, I think most employers recognise that upskilling and time out for upskilling is required.

I think the other thing we need to understand is that generations we’re bringing into the world of work are probably more comfortable with technology than the generation that are leading our organisations in many cases. Therefore, that generational difference in terms of comfort, in terms of using some of the tools is something that we’ve probably never seen before, but a great opportunity to bring the generations together, and one of the things that we’ve been trialling in my own organisation has been reverse mentoring.

Reverse mentoring is a great way of achieving a number of things, but it’s a great way of ensuring that some of our more senior people really do understand how to use their iPad, for example. And fortunately, I have got children who keep me true and tell me how slow I am in texting and how old fashioned I am in wanting grammatical correctness in my texts. Yes, we can learn in surprisingly different ways of how to really embrace this technology and use it and understand the power of it. So yes, we do need to be supportive, but we just recognise that not everybody will be comfortable with the pace of change.

11) And similarly, some employees may be feeling stressed, unsettled or a bit daunted by the fact that technology has started to automate some of their longstanding repetitive business as usual tasks. How would you recommend listeners go about reassuring their staff during these times of technological change?

I think that’s where there’s been the scary reports of the bots taking over and that jobs will change. There’s lots of research in this space that shows school children today in junior school, 65% of the roles they will be doing when they enter the world of work don’t even exist today. So I think it’s scary to think about what is being lost, what will change, but it’s a fantastic opportunity to think about what will be different and what will be new, and as I said earlier, what we do know is digital skills will pervade everything and therefore upskilling the next generation making sure they have the right skills is pretty essential.

I think our role is to actually calm people. I think yes, change is happening, but technology is only as good as the way in which it’s used. It’s only as good as the human input into the technology and there will always be a role for people. Let’s look at the positives of technology, technology has enabled many people to have a much better work-life balance. The fact that it’s really supported workplace flexibility enables people to take control, which many years ago was what they wanted.

Of course, not everybody wants to work from home, everyone values the social interaction of being in work, but technology allows us that choice. So there are many, many positives and I think the role of employers is to focus on the positives. Acknowledge that there will be changes and not everybody is comfortable with change, but I think focus on the positives and the opportunities that presents.

12) So, we’ve talked about the fact that technology and the constantly connected culture in which we live can have a potentially damaging impact on our mental health if not managed properly, but encouragingly the rise of new technology has also led to an emergence of innovative tools and resources which employers can use to help their employees maintain good mental health at work. Are there any digital mental health tools that you’ve come across that you think are particularly effective or interesting, for example, online therapists, chat-bots or other apps?

Yes, I mean, I think this is a really good question because there are so many apps out there now and we promote many of them to our people and indeed are looking at developing some ourselves. I think at the end of the day what’s really useful about these tools is they help people to understand that we need to do a number of things to ensure that we are well, that we’re maintaining our wellbeing both physically and mentally and in doing so I’ve heard a lot of people talking about the importance of sleep and the value of sleep, the importance of diets, the importance of exercise, and I think historically a lot of people downplay the importance of those things. I remember years ago Margaret Thatcher only required four hours sleep every night and I think the evidence is that we do need longer. I think some of these tools now help us to understand how we sleep, how much sleep we get, deep sleep and I think people are data-hungry for this information to better support their sense of wellbeing.

And at the end of the day, wellbeing is critical to individual performance and to exercising sound judgement. In my world that’s absolutely crucial and individual performance is critical to business performance. So, making tools available, encouraging people to think about their sleep, their diet, their exercise, offering opportunities, discounted gym memberships, all of these things are interconnected, but really helping people to take a broad view to wellbeing.

Really understanding all believers what they need to focus on in terms of ensuring that they are well and therefore able to fulfill their potential and deliver at work is really important. I think it’s just fascinating how years ago golf was the big business sport. We now have so many cycle bays in our offices across the country with people cycling into work as part of their fitness or health regime.

It’s amazing to see the focus on healthy options in our staff restaurants, water availability, all these things which were historically probably laughed about. People drinking more water, having endless bottles of water when we provided bottles of water at work. It’s become pretty much normal to honour these things and focus on them, so I think using technology to help people really think about their wellbeing, monitor their own wellbeing is critical, and so we as an employer have a job to encourage people to use these tools.

13) We have one final question and it’s a question that we’ve asked all our podcasts guests. What do you think are the top three qualities that make a good leader?

So, my top three qualities would be excellent listening skills, secondly, to have a vision, and thirdly to have a strong sense of purpose.




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