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How to have a mentally healthy relationship with technology

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 employee in every industry in every part of the world, now has the chance to benefit from all the value that technology can bring. It can help us to do our work more effectively from anywhere – technology can help us with the more repetitive aspects of our jobs and certainly 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, especially towards our mental health. So today, I’m joined by Sarah Churchman, Chief Inclusion and Wellbeing Officer at PwC. Sarah is here to talk to us today about how we can all establish healthy digital technology consumption habits to enable us to thrive both inside and outside of work.


1) Before we begin, would you be able to quickly introduce yourself to our listeners?


My name is Sarah Churchman and I’m a HR Director working at PwC. My remit at PwC includes leading on our diversity and inclusion agenda, our employee wellbeing and mental health agenda and also all of the work we do in our communities, our community engagement activity. It’s a great remit and I’m delighted to be here today, thank you.

2) As I mentioned in the introduction, the always on culture, many commentators have been saying it can cause mental health issues and a mental health crisis. Do you think this is true and if so, what do you think are the main contributing factors in the workplace?


I think there is a mental health crisis in the extent that we are talking about mental health more, which is a good thing and the importance of good mental health. I think the crisis is in supporting people, if they are unwell, to reach the sources of support that are available. And I think the nature of technology, the way we’re using it to just speed up the ways in which we work – historically, I think back to when I started out in the world of work and you’d send an internal memo to somebody and expect a response in a week’s time, whereas now you expect a response to an email in a few minutes. So, everything is faster, and I think it’s the speed at which transactions and interactions are happening that can be quite stressful.

But it’s like anything else in respect of our sense of being in balance and work life balance. It’s about what’s going on in your life entirety. So, one thing that you might cope with very ably at work, if something’s going wrong outside of work in your personal life, sometimes, things that you would normally cope with very well at work you’re no longer coping with very well.

I think that the crisis is in getting people the support when they need it and I think technology means that we have to be more attentive to just the broader wellbeing of our people more generally – because as you say, of the downsides of technology and the way in which it can be used to extend the working day for example.

3) There is an over reliance on technology presumably and that’s an issue. How do you think that manifests itself in our performance and wellbeing at work?


An over-reliance probably means, not disconnecting yourself and, and never disconnecting I think is not good from a wellbeing perspective. And if we’re not well it impairs our performance. Overuse of technology can have both physical or very many physical implications. For example, it can disturb our sleep, it can lead to RSI (Repetitive strain injury), believe it or not. And it could also lead to poor posture or as somebody described it to me recently, text neck. So, I think, yes, clearly there are definitely downsides to it from a wellbeing perspective.

4) Being connected and never truly leaving the office means that the lines between work and personal lives are becoming increasingly blurred -and this can have a negative impact on our mental health, as you’ve just mentioned


Yes, I think that’s absolutely right. I mean technology is great in giving, I mean the upside is that technology allows us to have a greater offer and a greater control over where, when, and how we work. But I guess there’s always the risk of people not knowing when to stop work or when to switch off.

So, I do think there is a need for some people to put some kind of rules around this, if not rules that you can’t rigorously apply, certainly an emphasis on best practices. And I think for many people you’re trying to break habits of a lifetime in terms of how these behaviours build up and when they become habits and it’s very difficult to break them like any habit.

So being quite prescriptive as to what people might do differently to change those habits but a lot of that I think is getting people at all levels but particularly senior levels to role model good behaviours. So, if you see more senior people talking about a way of using technology or a way of detoxing how senior people maybe switch off at certain times, it gives people more of a license to, to do it themselves.

5) We recently ran a poll and 73% of people check their work emails outside of work. Now you mentioned a few suggestions there, which can encourage people to switch off outside of work. Is there anything else that you would add to that to recommend how they tackle the issue, so that they’re able to restore some balance?


Personally, I have a work phone and a personal phone and it was only brought to my attention relatively recently, but a lot of people don’t. So that must make it very, very difficult. So I think if you are the sort of person who can’t resist looking, you might know that you shouldn’t but you can’t resist it, might not separate your lives from a technology or a device perspective, use separate devices or just use some of the functionality of those devices to ensure that you have quite time.

Use the ‘do not disturb’ functionality, use silence. It’s common sense, but common sense doesn’t change the habits of a lifetime or long-term habits. So, I think in my own organisation, we do produce a digital detox guide just to help our people think about, “Oh yes, I hadn’t thought of that, why don’t I do that?” And trial it, not everything will work for everybody, but if you can offer almost a pick and mix approach, people can work out what does work for them.

I actually have a friend, he and his wife have a drawer at home where they put their work phones after a certain time and the draw gets closed and it’s not opened until the next morning, which is a great way of dealing with that as well I imagine.

It’s very hard I think at home as well when, if you’ve got a family of sort of growing or teenage children. Plus, and how many of us have done it, we’ve looked around and the whole family are on their devices and not talking and so I think having some rules at home is a requirement as well because if you have some rules at home, you’re more likely to abide by some rules at work and I think it’s also good discipline as parents to sort of instill some discipline around how to use devices and when to use them.

Yes, that’s very true. I suppose if they pick up those habits and put some barriers in place at that age, then hopefully they’ll carry that through to when they start their professional working life.

6) For listeners who have just started a new role at a new company, would you recommend that they discuss with their manager during the first weeks, the organisations approach to technology use outside of working hours?


I think that’s a very sensible thing to do, but I think I’d probably go a step further and when looking for a job, look on the company websites to see whether there are any cues or hints about how they do support people in the use of technology.

So, in my own organisation we developed our responsible technology policy, which everybody can read if they use the photocopier, it’s up on the board and it’s in the employment handbook. But I think when you’re looking for a job, have these things in mind.

What we do find is, particularly amongst the student population that we recruit quite heavily, so, school leavers and university graduates, many of them do ask about flexibility, workplace flexibility. They may not necessarily ask us about technology, but they do ask us about flexibility. So, I think more and more organisations are putting policies on to their websites or their approach to flexibility or technology on their websites. So, I’d encourage job applicants to look out for these things and maybe ask about it in an interview if they can’t find any information.

7) Going back to technology and how quickly it advances, how quickly it changes. Perhaps, for any employees who are struggling to learn the latest tool. What advice would you give them to help them take a positive, proactive approach to it?


Well, I think we could all be incredibly intimidated by the different tools out there. I think one quality of a good leader is to be curious and to be inquisitive. One of the things that I’ve learned is that we have an increasing number of generations in the workplace and certainly younger people entering the world of work, the so called ‘digital natives’ are much more comfortable with many of these tools than someone like myself, who is always running to keep up and know what the latest technology is.

So, I think just being curious and spanning that generational divide and learning from perhaps those who find it much more comfortable, who do seem to have this innate ability to just work out how to use new tools and technologies. It’s helpful beyond actually the technology space and I think it builds good workplace relations, it supports diversity. Be curious, ask and learn from those who better understand it than you do.

There’s a lot to be said for reverse mentoring. Traditionally, obviously, it’s generally your older employees that teach the younger ones. But yes, there’s so many digital savvy people that have obviously grown up with technology and they’ve got something to teach the older people as well, so it goes both ways.

Absolutely, I mean, technology is often associated with changing the way we’ve done things or changing current processes. It’s also associated with innovation as well, a different way of doing things as a new product or service altogether. And, certainly in my organisation we have invested in that and I’ve come across quite a few people who’ve taught themselves how to use a tool and they’ve developed a proposition on the back of that, which is fantastic.

One of the things that we’ve just done in our organisation, which others might want to think about is, embarked on a broad process of up skilling all of our people. So, we all in my organisation have an objective to ensure that we’re keeping abreast of technological developments. We have fantastic online resources to help us understand what are the key technologies that are transforming the world of work now and in the future.

But we’ve just identified a significant number of people who we are going to give some deep, deep training to help them to become what we’re calling ‘digital accelerators’ to then go back into their business to rethink the work that their existing teams already do. How might that work be transformed by technology? How might we do it differently? Which I think is a great investment on our part, but I think it’s something that perhaps all organisations should think about.

So how do you invest in a few? You can support everybody to become more comfortable with technology, but you could invest in a few to really begin to transform the ways in which we are working and then the work that we are doing. So, yes, just a couple of thoughts there.

8) I guess touching on that, talking about technology advancing. We’ve seen all the headlines that say, “Robots are going to take your job” and what not. Depending on how you look at that, there might be some people out there that feel stressed or unsettled, daunted by the fact that technology has started to automate some aspects of their role or other roles or made some roles redundant. How would you recommend our listeners could approach their employer to seek reassurance that it might not affect them or what it involves?


There’s always this tendency to latch onto the negative and some of the writing that’s in the press has been quite negative. I think we all have to get comfortable with workplace transformation. I think the world of work is changing and who knows what jobs will exist in five or ten years’ time. I think there will always be technology, actually, it defines today’s workplace and defines our world today. I think there will always be a need for the human element in terms of leveraging technology.

So, I do think roles will change and I think people have to get comfortable and it can be very uncomfortable actually for many people, but I think they do have to accept that things will change. But being curious about what that change looks like and how their employer has thought about the implications in terms of the future of work and the future of their workforce, they’re all good questions to ask an employer. And I think most forward-thinking employers are thinking about this and planning the workforce of the future.

Well that’s it and there’s opportunities to up skill and take on new skills and make yourself even more employable.

9) Now obviously we talked about how technology can have a negative impact on your mental health, but everything about technology obviously isn’t negative. Now there are some positive aspects of it and I just wanted to know, are there any new apps or tools that can help us maintain good mental health? And are there any that you’ve come across that you think are quite helpful that our listeners could perhaps try?


I think what the apps, the devices, the tools do, is to help people understand in a holistic way all the elements that constitute our sense of wellbeing. So in my organisation at PwC, we talk about all the sources of wellbeing really, whether it’s physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, and how the energy that you have in those areas, you need to keep it in balance. And there are lots of apps and tools out there that can help you to measure your physical wellbeing.

So, the steps you take for example, your heartbeat, I think never have people been more engaged in their physical health and their mental health. So how much sleep they’re getting and the quality of their sleep, meditation, online apps, supporting meditation, yoga – it’s really helpful in highlighting to people all aspects of wellbeing and the sources of energy that enable you to feel well and how to keep all that in balance. And we’re looking at developing some ourselves actually. So, I think in that sense that technology is a force for good.

10) Thank you. It’s been incredibly insightful. It’s a very important topic that we discussed, so I really appreciate you coming in and speaking to us today. But before I let you go, I’ve got one more question that we ask all of our guests and that’s if you had one piece of career advice that you could give to our listeners, what would that be?


My advice would be, ensure that in pursuing a career, in looking for a job and looking for an employer, think about your own personal values and your own personal sense of purpose and ensure that of the career you’re choosing or the employer you’re choosing, is aligned because I think it will give you a far more fulfilling and enjoyable workplace experience.

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Sarah is a senior Human Resources professional with over 30 years’ experience, including 17 years in the specialist area of Diversity & Inclusion. She is one of the country’s most seasoned professionals in this field, is widely regarded as a thought leader and is frequently quoted in the media on issues such as women on boards, gender and ethnicity pay gap, social mobility, work-life balance, generational diversity and, more recently, on mental health. She is leading PwC’s focus on inclusion and wellbeing both within the workplace and across the communities in which PwC operates.

She has featured in Personnel Today’s Most Influential People in HR list (ranked 28th), was awarded Diversity Leader of the Year in the 2015 Excellence in Diversity Awards and, for the second consecutive year, featured in the Accountancy Age Financial Power List 2019. Her work on gender equality at PwC has been recognised externally with a series of accolades and Sarah herself was awarded an OBE in the 2018 New Year’s Honours List for services to women in business, equality, diversity and inclusion.




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