Why being able to pay attention affects wellbeing

How can we create workplaces which prioritise attention and how do all the distractions we face in a day affect our wellbeing? A panel discussion this week sought to start a conversation on digital wellbeing and attention.


Sad, Depressed woman


We’re all feeling distracted these days. There are so many gadgets, social media platforms and pulls on our time that it can be hard to keep up.

A session organised by Jesus College, Cambridge’s Intellectual Forum this week focused on digital well-being and the future of work – in particular the impact of digital technologies on wellbeing –  and called for a greater understanding of the role of attention in wellbeing.

Iliana Grosse-Buening and Matthew J. Dennis gave a talk on “Creating a culture of attention: Individual and collectives approaches to digital wellbeing” and spoke about the need to create an ecology of attention, through everything from training for HR workers to office design [for instance, booths for in-depth calls] and compliance [the French law giving employees a right to disconnect was mentioned].

Iliana is the founder of the Quiet Social Club, an education platform, ecosystem and community with the aim of fostering individual and societal wellbeing in the digital age. Matthew is Co Director of the Eindhoven Center for the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence.

Matthew spoke about how we need to get on top of the issue before we are hit by the “tsunami” of distraction that may come from Generative AI’s ability to create unlimited, highly personalised content in a world where we are already being bombarded with persuasive technologies that distract via notifications and gamification. He spoke too of how in the post-Covid, more hybrid world the line between work and life has become more blurred which makes it difficult for people to switch off and can affect their wellbeing.

Starting a conversation

Matthew and Iliana said there is a serious productivity and wellbeing issue relating to attention that needs to be tackled through a top down and bottom up approach. Cultivating a culture of attention should not be down to individuals’ fragmented efforts to curb distractions through, for instance, wellbeing apps, but should be seen as a strategy that is prioritised at every level of an organisation, said Iliana. That would involve communicating its importance for everything from human connection to team engagement.

Matthew spoke of the need to start a conversation at work about what contributes to a good attention ecology, including encouraging individuals to better understand their own attention rhythms. It is not, said Iliana, about forcing people to be absolutely alert eight hours a day, but about the quality of attention at certain times in the day when people are focused on particular tasks.

The presentation was followed by a discussion of the use of things like fidget toys to help neurodivergent employees keep focused and of how games could be used to hone attention skills that could flow into work. Experts also spoke of the need to address issues such as overwork and understaffing rather than just doling out wellbeing apps and for managers to role model ways of working that don’t damage wellbeing.

Lawrence A, Strategy & Transformation Lead at Vodafone Intelligent Solutions [VOIS], said emerging technologies could improve mindfulness. VOIS are looking at how technology can be employed to tackle the everyday interactions, for instance, queuing on the phone to get a GP appointment, that affect wellbeing.

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