Dr. Mary Donohue is CEO of the Digital Wellness Center (DWC). Recognized as North America’s leading proactive mental health and digital psychology expert, she has reframed wellness as a communication issue.
Dr. Mary’s work has allowed organizations to identify and measure the symptoms of stress among their employees and treat those symptoms before they result in employee burnout. As co-author of the DWC’s artificial intelligence that gamifies the reduction of stress, Dr. Mary is empowering individuals, leaders, and
organizations to be proactive about positive mental health, rather than reactive. Her innovative technology is contributing to wellness by mitigating emotional exhaustion in organizations including Microsoft, Walmart, American Airlines, TD Bank, Bank of Montreal, OLG, and Kaiser Permanente.
Recognized by peers, prime ministers, and Queen Elizabeth, Dr. Mary was honored as one of 18 Outstanding Women in Tech and named one of the 100 Most Influential Women in America by Diversity MBA. Her work has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Huffington Post, Financial Post, and on-air for all North American major news networks. Dr. Mary is the author of the best-selling book Message Received and a Columbia Business School Lang Center Innovation Fellow. When she is not working, she is a volunteer, yogi, runner, mom, and overall nerd. And for a brief shining moment she will never forget, she was a Supreme with Miss Diana Ross.
What’s your inspiring story behind being North America’s leading proactive mental health and digital psychology expert?
I am so passionate about my work because I’ve almost died three times because of it. I feel like I was put on this earth to make a difference, and I’m not sure how much time I have left so I might as well love every minute of my work.
I’m reminded of this passion for my work every night before I go to sleep because of one man, a cardiologist.
After a few hours of fantastic care one time in the emergency room, I was moved into the cardiac care intensive unit at the hospital. It was 4:45 am, normally a time I get up for a run. I was told no water, no food, because we were waiting for the next steps in my care, which would be a heart operation. There was only one problem I wouldn’t go to sleep. The cardiologist whom I believed had just saved my life came and told me to go to sleep. I said no. He asked me why and I told him I was afraid I was going to die if I went to sleep, and I didn’t really want to die. Without batting an eye, he said you won’t die, I am here, the nurses are here and you are hooked up to so many machines we know what your entire body is doing.
He created a sanctuary for me. He stayed with me until I fell asleep for a short time. It was a good rest.
As I recuperated, I knew I needed to create a sanctuary for people like me. Technology has evolved how we communicate at work. And, while convenience has improved, many of us are still establishing meaningful boundaries between our personal lives and the digital marathon that is battling for our attention. Without these guardrails, the never-ceasing communication stream of emails and instant messages threatens us with anxiety, burnout, and even stress.
I call high performers who know they need guardrails, digital athletes. Every day the never-ending communication stream we face is like running a marathon. This volume of digital information, if not balanced properly, threatens us with burnout and anxiety or death. I wanted to create a micro-sanctuary, that included guardrails, for brief periods of rest that reboot and reset the brain, as I had experienced.
From our beta testing of the Digital Wellness Center (DWC), I realized that if we married AI and microbreaks together using the structure of a workout like Peloton, we could create content therapy to recharge and reboot the brain.
In the same way my cardiologist gave sanctuary the DWC will give you rest to get your energy back by establishing meaningful boundaries between your personal life and the digital marathon battling for your attention.
As we have been largely communicating digitally, digital fatigue has become an emerging issue that leads to poor mental health. What do you have to say about this?
Digital fatigue is THE emerging issue that causes poor mental health. We are all suffering from screen stress syndrome. Our eyes are exhausted, we have more headaches, and we are exhausted. Why, because we now consume as much data in a single day as an average person from the 1400s would have in an entire lifetime. We are digital athletes and the internet treadmill we are running on is set to the highest pace.
Today, over 90% of employees believe their HR team should be providing a better digital mental health culture. And there is good reason to listen to them. A recent study in Harvard Business Review revealed that mental health is causing high attrition rates. Due to the volume of messaging, team members slip into an unsustainable 24/7 digital work culture.
Sixty-eight percent of Millennials (50% in 2019) and 81% of Gen Zers (75% in 2019) have left roles for mental health reasons, both voluntarily and involuntarily, compared with 50% of respondents overall (34% in 2019).
The groundwork for the Digital Wellness Center began in 2018 when we saw this happening. More and more of our clients were leaving amazing jobs they loved because they were overwhelmed and had no tools to deal with it. Great hires were just walking out the door, entrepreneurs were just closing shop and going to work for someone else.
My research demonstrates that the tools everyone needs today for their mental health and wellness are ones that create balance. The balance between work and life outside of work makes for a more productive and fulfilled life, in or out of the office. This fall, we will launch our Stride™ program (MyStride.co) to help you reach your optimal state of flow. To hit your stride is to find that equilibrium where effort is matched with pace in a sustainable way. It’s a step toward a goal; one of many that collectively adds up to your race. We know you can’t get your employees to stop their digital race – truth is, over 82% of adults can’t put down their phones – but you can give them tools to make their race a little easier.
How is technology negatively impacting our mental health at work? Why do we feel so tired after too much time on email, on virtual calls, etc.?
Technology is negatively impacting our mental health at work because of time on screens. Our culture has taught everyone that they have to lean in rather than lean out and take care of themselves. All of us working today, but particularly Gen X and older Millennials, have been taught to feel guilt for relaxing.
If you run hard every day what’s going to happen to you – you’re going to hurt yourself. Every athlete knows you need to pace your running. We are not pacing ourselves at work we can’t find our cadence, because it’s not built into our cultures.
Senior team leaders spend at least 11 hours per day emailing and in virtual meetings and then we have to start work. This time on task and the overtime to do our work leads to depression, chronic anxiety, and burnout not to mention the physical costs, including heart attacks in relatively young people, diabetes, and digestive ailments.
The cost of mental health is an unrealized liability. And it is a liability that can be easily reduced according to research that began in 2013. 80% of people report they feel they have no work/life balance, 30 days after using Digital Wellness Center that feeling drops to 67% Subscribers, report, feeling better, sleeping better, getting more done and having more time for themselves.
Mental health problems cost the Canadian economy $50 billion yearly or 2% of Canada’s 2020 gross domestic product. Research indicates that workplace safety incidents have increased by 198% throughout Covid. This is the tip of the iceberg. It is estimated that over 80% of employees burned out. Burnout is a risk. It affects retention, critical thought, ethical decision-making, and productivity.
Direct costs of mental health include healthcare costs, including psychological care benefits and drug costs as well as income support, including short- and long-term disability claims. Indirect costs include absenteeism, presenteeism (i.e. attending work while unwell but with reduced productivity), and as mentioned earlier, employee turnover. According to recent research presented to the Canadian Armed Forces, the median yearly ROI of $1.62 has been observed amongst companies with less than three years of establishing workplace mental health programs. Companies with programs in place for three or more years had a median yearly ROI of $2.18.
30 days is all it takes to reduce this liability.
While technology plays a big role in our work, what are some scientifically proven ways that we can manage the mental exhaustion that comes from working online and remotely for hours?
To manage the mental exhaustion that comes from working online and remotely for hours,
it’s all about delivering wellness where it matters through technology, which means on your phone, your laptop or your tablet. People are app exhausted, that’s why we push training to you via email, no log in just one click and you are good to go. We are like a coach, but we bring the training session to reduce exhaustion and build work/life balance.
Practicing digital wellness isn’t as simple as limiting screen time, we need to use our screens and devices to help heal with content that is designed to promote and measure good mental health.
The research found that 30 minutes a day of mindfulness increases grey matter in the hippocampus (the part of the brain that plays an important role in memory and learning). But research also found that most of us won’t spend 30 minutes a day relaxing. We feel guilty. Our research, with subscribers, indicates the same benefits to the brain including increasing grey matter in the hippocampus is achieved in 9 minutes a week because of our scientific approach to content creation and production. Most people will give themselves 3 minutes a day to relax almost everyone will find 9 minutes a week for themselves. That’s why we are a runaway success story.
The DWC uses neuroscience to define how we can take brief moments to recharge. These moments are called microbreaks. Based on the principles of digital psychology, they are specifically designed to slow down the brain and allow it to rest. In the same way, a smartphone tracks your running performance, we offer employees tools to track their good days and bad days. And when they have too many bad days, we alert them to help decrease the emotional drain they’re likely feeling. We’re like a stretch before a run; we reduce the risk of injury.
Your phone/computer can be therapeutic it just takes 30 days and 9 minutes a week to find work/life balance.
How we can better manage Mental Health in the Workplace by tapping into the Power of Microbreaks and Mental Stretching Click To Tweet
What are microbreaks and mental stretches?
Microbreaks are 30-second puzzles, movements or aha movements delivered via email or customized through MyStride.co. Microbreaks are designed to be a daily digital habit.
The look and feel of a microbreak are more boardrooms than an ashram. We recognize that many wellness enthusiasts would advocate for less screen time but we lean into it. We’re not about “unplugging,” but more about how to better spend your time on devices to maximize your virtual employee potential and personal wellbeing.
They are the first preventive mental health exercise. Microbreaks unlock a process known as “transient hypofrontality,” which occurs when you mentally disengage from work-based tasks and allow your brain to recover.
Research has shown corporate high performers and entrepreneurs feel guilty when they relax so we recommend everyone start at 3 times a week. We use the best animators, directors, producers, and writers in the world to produce and deliver 30-second to five-minute microbreaks to ease the body and reboot the brain. Though these breaks are short they drive a disproportionately powerful impact on positive mental health.
How effective are microbreaks taken throughout the workday at keeping you engaged, productive, and happier?
We all know that if you run you need to stretch, and microbreaks are stretches for your brain.
To stay engaged, productive and happier during your day, we’ve discovered that even a few minutes three times weekly of mental stretching gives workers the mental energy to overcome exhaustion in their day. The average knowledge worker spends approximately three hours a day on email. The University of California Irvine found that “the longer one spends on email in an hour, the higher one’s stress for that hour.”
In our research, we observed the progressive use of microbreaks reduced the emotional drain of work that typically negatively affects performance and productivity. We found that for all organizations, excluding manufacturing, people who took 3½-minute microbreaks three times a week reduced the emotional drain of work and reported having more good days than bad. The results included better self-assessed mental health, better sleep, and 30 more minutes of stress-free time daily. That’s something my cardiologist could really get behind.
About the Digital Wellness Center
At the Digital Wellness Center (DWC), we use neuroscience to define how we can take brief moments to recharge. These moments are called microbreaks. They are specifically designed to slow down the brain and allow it to rest based on the principles of digital psychology. In the same way, a smartphone tracks your running performance we offer employees tools to track their good days and bad days. And when they have too many bad days, we alert them to help decrease the emotional drain of a bad day and provide long-term insights into good and bad days. We’re like a stretch before a run, we reduce the risk of injury.