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The Drain Game: A new normal in work?

For your employees

As we navigate the changing world of work caused by the global health pandemic, a new set of challenges for HR professionals (as if there weren’t already enough) may be emerging. If current trends continue, they will have profound consequences on employee productivity and WHS policy. 

A growing body of research shows, since 2020 and the outbreak of the coronavirus, we now spend more time than ever in front of our computer screens and on portable digital devices like laptop computers, smartphones, and tablets. These kinds of findings aren’t surprising given the shift to online learning in schools at the height of the pandemic, and the accelerated shift to remote or hybrid work practices.  

In many instances, working from home has led to situations where workers are spending increased time in front of a computer or tablet screen to satisfy real or imagined productivity expectations while they’re away from the office. Coupled with the ever-growing use of streaming services in our downtime or when travelling for entertainment – and our persistent use of social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and TikTok – will HR professionals need to start formulating guidelines about the time employees spend at a screen when working? 

The downside to upping your screentime 

Putting employee burnout aside, longer hours spent on digital devices have some undisputed negative health impacts that affect employee productivity in the short and long-term. Physical illnesses associated with excessive screentime include poor sleep and increased risk factors for cardiovascular diseases like high blood pressure, obesity, high stress levels and insulin resistance (which is a precursor condition to type 2 diabetes). 

Sleep quality

We’re all well-aware of the risk factors for cardiovascular diseases and how to avoid them. What’s becoming more widely accepted is the importance of a good night’s sleep as the cornerstone of both good physical and mental health. Accordingly, too much time in front of screens is a major contributor to a poor night’s sleep in terms of both quality and quantity.  

Devices including smartphones, tablets, e-readers and computers emit short-wavelength-enriched light, also known as blue light, which has been shown to reduce or delay the natural production of melatonin in the evening and decrease feelings of sleepiness, explains The Sleep Foundation. Blue light plays a role in reducing the amount of time you spend in “slow-wave and rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, two stages of the sleep cycle that are vital for cognitive functioning.” 

And the problem is more pronounced in teenagers. Data collected from over 85,000 teenagers by The Sleep Foundation “showed that different forms of technology use (e.g., televisions, computers, phones – and even video gaming) were related to later bedtimes. The more frequently adolescents used technology in the evening, the later they went to bed. Using technology often may increase alertness and/or reduce the ability to recognise sleepiness at night. Thus, the teenagers keep playing, surfing, texting, and chatting, resulting in delayed bedtime.”  

The implication of this trend on today’s teens cannot be underestimated when we consider what the workforce of the future may look like. 

The problem of sleep quality is also an issue with shift workers. A joint British French study published in The Lancet recently found that night work significantly disrupts both workers’ sleep quality and their circadian rhythms, and that workers can experience such disruption even after years of night shift work. 

“I think there’s a misunderstanding that night shift work is just an inconvenience, whereas it can be linked to serious health risks,” noted one of the report’s co-authors, Dr Julia Brettschneider. “We can’t avoid shift work for many professions, like healthcare workers, so we should be thinking about what can be done in terms of real-world adjustments to improve working conditions and schedules of shift workers.” 

Eye illness

Vision problems have long been recognised as a consequence of excessive screentime. In an article for the American Medical Association (AMA), Dr David Aizuss, a Los Angeles-based ophthalmologist, said that ‘digital eye strain’ – also known as Computer Vision Syndrome – and incidences of dry eye disease have risen since the outbreak of the pandemic.  

“We know that dry eye disease impacts quality of life as well as work productivity, and we know that dry eye disease has been worsening during the pandemic due to the hours spent on Zoom and other video display terminals,” Dr Aizuss told the AMA. “Focusing on video display terminals results in a longer blinking interval that exacerbates tear film evaporation and increases the risk of developing dry eye disease.” 


Along with the physical issues related to excessive screentime, there are some significant psychological side effects. These include depression and anxiety, poor socialisation skills and impulsive or unregulated behaviour.  

Excessive screentime and exposure to digital devices – most importantly in the context of today’s workplace – also lead to decreased executive function: planning and time management; short and long-term memory and recall; adaptability (our capacity to deal with disruption and change, and to improvise solutions); and stress tolerance. One of the most important areas of executive function, however, is our capacity to focus and pay attention. And, as we increase the amount of time we spend looking at digital devices and screens, we reduce our capacity to focus on a range of important tasks – both in the office, in our interactions with others and in our day-to-day lives.  

A December 2021 article in Discover magazine with the director of the ADHD Centre for Evaluation and Treatment at the Cleveland Clinic, Michael Manos, discusses how electronic devices can impact on our ability to focus. While the article’s focus is on research, which shows that children aged five or younger who get more than two hours of screentime per day are eight times more likely to develop an attention disorder, there are arguably some important takeaways from the article to consider when it comes to adults exposed to large amounts of time in front of screens. 

“Electronics allow for repeated stimulation and immediate gratification every few seconds,” writes the article’s author, Sara Novak. “And when we become accustomed to such rapid and frequent stimulation, it can be hard to focus when things in the real world aren’t as [mesmerising].” 

“This is largely due to the fact that the brain operates with two kinds of attention: automatic and directed,” she continues. “Automatic attention is associated with the brain’s default mode network… We typically use it when interacting with something that’s easily engaging, such as social media, video games and television.”  

“Directed attention is associated with the task-positive network, which we [utilise] when we’re concentrating on tedious (and sometimes boring) tasks like studying, reading a book and folding laundry. Activities that are more laborious require significant directed attention. When a child spends too much time on screens being constantly rewarded, it can become hard to exercise directed attention doing the tasks that aren’t as fun but are necessary in life.”  

Protecting your employees 

With so much in the online space competing for our attention, it’s understandable that many digital workers are struggling to stay focused and increasingly reporting instances of screentime-related health impacts.  

While you obviously can’t control what employees do in their downtime, there are some valuable tips you may like to share with your people to help minimise the adverse effects of digital eye strain during work hours at their digital devices:  

  • Make sure your main source of light (such as a window) is not shining into your face or directly onto the computer screen 
  • Tilt the screen slightly to avoid reflections or glare 
  • Make sure the screen is not too close to your face 
  • Put the screen either at eye level or slightly lower 
  • Reduce the contrast and brightness of your screen by adjusting the controls 
  • Frequently look away from the screen and focus on faraway objects. Practice the 20-20-20 rule, so you remember to blink. Set a timer to remind you to look 20 feet away from your screen every 20 minutes for 20 seconds. You could also just close your eyes for 20 seconds every 20 minutes. If you have a window in your office, take advantage of the view with every break 
  • Avoid digital devices for at least 30 minutes before bed to ensure better quality sleep 
  • Have regular eye examinations to check that any blurring, headaches, and other associated problems are not caused by underlying disorders 



As the popularity of flexible work hours, online meeting platforms, streaming services for entertainment and social media use increases, mitigating the harmful effects of excessive screentime for employees is likely to be a growing area of concern for HR professionals.  

What might your WHS responsibilities to an employee be if you are not limiting screentime, or there’s inferred pressure on them to work and deprive themselves of sleep?  

If this becomes a trait of the next generation of workers, what does that mean to the traditional workday, and what could be the possible impacts of chronic sleep deprivation? What responsibilities might you have as an employer to not let that happen?  

These are the talking points that HR professionals would be wise to consider now, so they’re equipped with the answers as the issue becomes even more prevalent tomorrow. 

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