Six Pixels of Separation - The Blog
June 19, 2012 9:39 AM

In The Age Of (Digital) Anxiety

Are you stressing out?

In a world of global economic instability, a deplorable job market, the digitization of everything, Occupy Wall Street movements, student protests and the general atrocities of a sadistic few, the headlines - whether you read them on paper, watch them on TV or get them from Twitter - are a constant stream of doom and gloom. For years, I was involved in a charitable organization called, NABS (the National Advertising Benevolent Society), which was a business-to-business charity that helped people in the marketing, advertising and communications industry get help should they need it. To this day, the majority of support is for people who are dealing with burnout. My industry has a specific capability in taking smart and able people and burning them out to the point of no return. In a world that no longer delivers a true work/life balance, more and more people are taking significant leaves of absence that are caused by mental illness.

It's taking a massive economic and health toll on our society, and there is no relief in sight.

Stress, anxiety, panic attacks - according to recent studies, the majority of our population deals with these types of health issues. While it can get extremely bad for some (these people wind up taking leaves of absence along with therapy and medication), the mass majority of people don't even recognize their illness because they're too busy self-medicating with everything from a few glasses of wine at dinner to hard drugs (and other vices). How many people do you know who never complain about stress or anxiety at their workplace?

It's something we all grapple with.

With all of this technology and connectivity, one would think that we - as a society - have become a whole lot better at working less because we are both more productive, and technology empowers us to remove some of the more tedious components of work. It makes perfect sense: shouldn't technology be doing a lot of the work that used to be relegated to non-skilled workers? It turns out that nothing could be further from the truth. We're so connected and communications is moving so rapidly that we're all just trying to keep pace. It's a dangerous treadmill.


As the screen goes completely black for several seconds before loading, you just know you're entering into a completely different digital experience. Users are then asked to select between two and ten minute relaxation programs with a selection of beautiful scenery, soothing music and even a voice-guided mediation to chill you out. Can you imagine Facebook or Twitter asking you to do absolutely nothing for ten minutes? Is a unique website? No, there are others, but it seems to be all the rage in Silicon Valley, where a forty-hour workweek happens before Wednesday.

Is it somewhat ironic that we need the same technology that is keeping us stagnant and staring at a screen all day to also decompress and remove us from that experience?

What ever happened to getting up and heading outside for a nice, brisk walk? Iconic entrepreneurs, Steve Jobs (Apple) and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) are known to conduct meetings by taking their team members out for a long walk outside to work through a business challenge. At the C2-MTL conference on creativity and commerce, held in Montreal at the end of May 2012, I was asked to lead a conversation with Arianna Huffington (founder of The Huffington Post). We discussed her latest project for The Huffington Post (and, no, it wasn't the launch of another local edition of the very popular online newspaper). Huffington and her team are about to release something called, GPS For The Soul. Arianna calls this "the killer app for better living." Why would an online publisher suddenly spend money and resources on creating an app that reminds you of all of the good things in our lives (you can add personal photos, music and quotes that make you happy)? Why is Arianna suddenly fascinated with how stressed out and sleepless so many of us are, and what we can do to align our body, mind and spirit? "The Internet and the rise of social media have, of course, given us amazing tools to connect, and to effect change in ways large and small," she recently said on her blog. "At the same time, there's a snake lurking in this cyber Garden of Eden. Our 24/7 connection to the digital world often disconnects us from the real world around us - from our physical surroundings, from our loved ones, and especially from ourselves. We see the effects of this in every aspect of our lives."

It's time for freedom.

There's also a popular application called, Freedom, which allows users to block their access to the online channels for a determined amount of time (no Internet for you!). With over three hundred thousand users and growing, the idea is to reclaim focus and purpose at work by not being distracted by your Facebook timeline or videos of squirrels water-skiing on YouTube. The idea is that there is a peace from within when you're not being pulled in a million digital directions.

The sad truth comes in the paradox of needing technology to disconnect from technology.

There should be no loss of irony in recognizing that the better technology gets, the better the apps, tools and programs become for us to disconnect and re-connect to ourselves. It's clearly not just a personal transformation either. It's also about the ones we are sitting next to us - each and every day - in the workplace. It's about a physical world and tangible relationships that we're ignoring as our headphones and smartphones become the new "do not disturb" sign of our over-worked generation.

Do you use technology to unplug?

The above post is my twice-monthly column for the Montreal Gazette and Vancouver Sun newspapers called, New Business - Six Pixels of Separation. I cross-post it here with all the links and tags for your reading pleasure, but you can check out the original versions online here:

By Mitch Joel