Is It Sensory Overload or Screen Fatigue?

Your work environment can have a negative impact on your health. Here’s what you can do about it.
Alexandria Jacobson
Staff Reporter
May 31, 2022
Updated: June 23, 2022
Alexandria Jacobson
Staff Reporter
May 31, 2022
Updated: June 23, 2022

When Jeremy Freeman was first building his startup Allstacks, he began suffering from awful headaches pretty consistently.

“I was one of two people working here. I was working all the time, crazy hours. I was writing code at 3 a.m. on most nights, things like that,” said Freeman, co-founder and CEO of Allstacks, a value stream intelligence platform. “I didn’t really think much about it at the time until a couple of months went by, and it was pretty problematic.”

Definitions

  • Sensory overload: the concept of one or more of the body’s senses experiencing overstimulation from an environment, taking in more information than the brain can process. 
  • Screen fatigue: eye strain from looking at light-emitting devices for too long that can lead to dry and irritated eyes, headaches and fatigue. 

Freeman ended up getting his glasses adjusted and switching to transition lenses which made all the difference. Plus he started backlighting his computer, so he wasn’t trying to read a bright screen in the dark anymore.

“The switch between light and dark when I was going from a dark room staring at a computer, coding, to having to run to a meeting caused a lot of eye fatigue,” he said. 

Freeman was suffering from what’s referred to as screen fatigue, or eye strain from looking at light-emitting devices too long. Screen fatigue can get confused with sensory overload, which occurs when one of the body’s senses experiences overstimulation.

“When we’re talking about screen fatigue, it can influence sensory overwhelm when we’re talking about the visual system, but it can also be a little bit different,” said Nicole Villegas, an occupational therapist and founder of the The Institute for Sensory Conscious Living, who Built In spoke with to clarify what screen fatigue and sensory overload look like in the workplace.

 

So, What Is Screen Fatigue?

Screen fatigue occurs when your eyes get tired and overworked from looking at light-emitting devices for long periods of time. People suffering from this issue might experience dry and irritated eyes, headaches and fatigue.

“It’s a phenomenon that’s really increased in this country over the last five to 10 years,” said Dr. Seku Gathers, a concierge physician and author of Total Body Wellness: The Truth About Your Health. “The muscles in the eyes become fatigued because there’s an overemphasis or over focus on one particular focal point because people don’t realize the eye is a lens.”

Alan Hedge, professor emeritus of human-centered design at Cornell University, explains that the visual system has what’s called a “resting point of vergence,” which is the distance where the eyes converge when there is no focal point to be seen, like in a dark room. 

“It’s the point at which the muscles that are controlling the eyes are in balance, and it’s nice and neutral,” Hedge said. “What happens when you put a computer screen in front of you is typically that screen ends up being much closer than the resting point of vergence … Now your eyes are having to work much harder, because what they’re looking at is closer to you.”

“The muscles in the eyes become fatigued because there’s an overemphasis or over focus on one particular focal point because people don’t realize the eye is a lens.”

Screen fatigue or eye strain can strike after many hours of screen time or as soon as an hour, Villegas said. Virtual reality can trigger the issue even sooner, she said.

“I struggle with this problem, struggle with screen fatigue, because I need to have a rest at the moment, but I also need to do these things using different devices,” said Sergii Opanasenko, founder at Greenice, a web development agency. “Sometimes I try to avoid using all the devices in the evening, but time-to-time, I must solve some unfinished questions.”

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What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s five senses experiences overstimulation from an environment. 

“Sensory overload is when one or more of your sensory systems has an amount of information that’s coming in. It’s too much for your body to process, and this can lead to a stress response in your body — anything ranging from discomfort to significant distress,” Villegas said. “When the nervous system is in the stress response, it’s doing whatever it can to help you find regulation.”

This can certainly include the visual system, which can be affected by screen fatigue as well.

“I would guess an average person in tech, their vision threshold for receiving information through the screen is pretty high because you’re choosing to have a lifestyle where you’re having a lot of visual information coming in, and that visual information can have to do with your screen size, the lighting in your room, the speed of which things are moving on your screen,” Villegas said. “It’s when our individual thresholds are met or it goes beyond the threshold that we experience sensory overwhelm.”

Sensory overload in the workplace might be triggered when someone is experiencing too many stimuli like strong smells, bright lights and loud noises, which can be especially triggering for neurodivergent individuals.

“So for one person, if it’s in a shared workplace, it may mean that they sit under their desk because the overhead lights are too bright. That’s okay,” Villegas said. “For another person, it might mean that they have a chair that allows them to move, or they want to stand. Or a person wants to have their favorite coffee or tea with them.”

 

What Are the Consequences of Sensory Overload?

When someone is experiencing sensory overload, their body might respond with fear, anxiety or irritability. If someone is experiencing visual overload, their eyes might begin to move erratically or a headache could set in, Villegas said. 

“Your nervous system is going into the stress response, and that might be from a sympathetic fight-or-flight response, which is active. It may be from a dorsal vagal response, which is more freezing and quiet,” Villegas said.

“Sensory overload is when one or more of your sensory systems has an amount of information that’s coming in. It’s too much for your body to process, and this can lead to a stress response in your body — anything ranging from discomfort to significant distress.”

Long-term exposure to stress can lead to serious problems like heart issues, hypertension or stroke, according to the American Psychological Association

“Your body is taking that sense of overwhelm as a significant distress, and if we don’t support ourselves to move through that distress, then it can increase the impacts of it over time,” Villegas said.

Gathers suggests someone who is experiencing sensory overload to remove themselves from the situation as fast as possible. “Over long, sustained periods of time, you just have this overwhelming fatigue in your neurologic system, and it can cause big problems,” he said. 

 

What Are the Potential Effects of Screen Fatigue?

In addition to the immediate effects of dry and irritated eyes, headaches and fatigue, screen fatigue can lead to more serious issues down the road like sleep and heart issues and eye problems like myopia, cataracts and glaucoma, Villegas said. 

“Screen fatigue is quite fascinating because screen fatigue happens in the moment. You might feel your eyes getting itchy. You’re uncomfortable. You’re like ‘I need a break from this,’” Villegas said. “But over time, the use of screens or light-emitting devices can impact things like our circadian rhythm, our sleep and our alertness in the evening and the daytime.”

The blue light from screens can mess with peoples’ sleep and cause what Villegas calls a “screen hangover” that comes from the blue light preventing people from falling asleep. Hedge points out that some research shows that blue light can be particularly concerning for teenage girls and women because blue light seems to suppress the production of the sleep hormone melatonin and that increases the risks of breast cancer in women.

“It’s one of the reasons that we don’t advise people to use a screen just before you want to go to sleep because that blue light has an effect,” Hedge said. “If you see blue wavelengths just before you go to bed, it triggers the gland to start producing a hormone that says ‘wake up’ because that’s the wake up color.”

How to Create a Healthy Work Environment for Yourself

  • Seek natural light.
  • Backlight your computer.
  • Adjust your screen accessibility and lighting features.
  • Use the 20-20-20 rule.
  • Move your body and take walks.
  • Get a change of scenery.
  • Find comforting resources for times of overload.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Don’t forget to blink.
  • Communicate your needs.

 

What Can You Do Personally to Address These Issues?

Baruch Labunski, CEO at SEO company Rank Secure, said he often finds himself in front of his screen for numerous hours a day. Even with a standing desk, he knows that’s not a great practice. That’s why he makes sure to get up for outdoor walks and maintains an active lifestyle and healthy diet.

“People don’t realize how much damage you can do to your body by just sitting and staring at a computer for a long period of time, so you really have to work with yourself, in a way,” Labunski said. “The best piece of advice I can give for those who are facing long days like me in front of the computer is to get up, walk around at least once an hour and take a 10-minute break.” 

Gather said getting into a physical routine can help combat both of these workplace-related health issues, and he recommends getting up every 60 minutes for 60 seconds. Opanasenko prioritizes leaving his desk and finding natural scenery to look at in order to feel refreshed and give his eyes a break from the computer.

“A couple quick, standing mini squats can help, or while you’re sitting in your chair, you can pull your feet up and do some ankle pumps,” Villegas said. “That helps getting information through your vestibular system, through these other sensory systems, so that your body can be at a sense of balance.”

Labunski also uses the 20-20-20 rule, which Gather and Villegas both endorse. It’s the idea that every 20 minutes you should look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds so that your eye muscles can relax and rest. As a general rule, also be sure your screen is about 16 to 20 inches away from your face, which is about an arm’s length away. 

“It’s not someone’s fault that they’re on the screen all the time,” Villegas said. “It’s part of the lifestyle. It’s what you have to do, and there are things that you can do to help yourself to mitigate or decrease the risk for both screen fatigue and sensory overwhelm.”

For those with issues like dry eye, hydration is critical, and being more conscious of making sure to blink is helpful with eye issues too. Be sure to consult a doctor for appropriate vision wear, if needed, as with Freeman’s experience.

Hedge created an app called Home Office Ergonomics to help people set up their home offices to benefit their health. Be sure your workspace has appropriate lighting — natural light is recommended to reduce headaches and eye strain, according to research from Hedge. You can also adjust your computer accessibility settings and lighting to be most comfortable to you, and if you’re working in dark spaces at times, consider backlighting your computer like Freeman did.

If one of your senses is being overloaded, you should turn to another sense that can provide comfort during a time of distress, Villegas said. That could be turning on favorite music that makes you feel good or grabbing coffee or tea that has a comforting smell.

Communicating your needs in the workplace, like needing to reschedule a meeting if you’re experiencing overwhelm, is one of the best ways to help the situation, Freeman said. 

“I think the hardest thing for me was calling out when it was happening,” he said. “I always felt the need to just be on all the time. I think everybody gets it, so just be okay telling your teammates and the folks that you work with, ‘Hey, I need a minute. I need a break. Just hold on a second.”’

More on People Management5 Burnout Symptoms: How Employers Can Take Action

 

How Can the Workplace Support Employees in Combating These Issues?

The open concept office can be triggering for those who have experienced sensory overload because of all of the stimuli in the shared environment, Hedge said. Private or quiet spaces can be helpful to allow people to better control their environments.

“Starting in the 1960s and 70s, office buildings started to open up and become these open plan, large landscape offices,” Hedge said. “One [issue] was the loss of acoustic privacy and the disturbance and distraction you get from other people talking. The human voice is something that is highly disturbing.”

Companies can create a culture that supports employees in taking breaks and leaving their desks for walks and breaks from screen time during the work day. Organizations can offer time off following a particularly busy work time to allow employees to get a break from their screens.

“Sometimes we need our employees to do some things in the evening,” Opanasenko said. “For example, when we release some software, or we need to spend all night, for example, to be ready to fix something if something happened. After such days, our employees should have a day off, maybe two days off, because they have to restore their health.” 

Employers can provide employees with tools that can help ease their visual inputs or stress, especially as more people are working remotely since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. One example is Verbit.ai, an AI-powered transcription and closed captioning platform that can be used to transcribe meetings so employees aren’t feeling the need to feverishly type notes or to try to focus on multiple tasks during meetings. 

“If it wasn’t enough that initially we were sitting in front of a computer screen the whole day, now there’s no running away from it,” said Nir Veledniger, director of customer success, corporate, at Verbit. “If you were to have a live transcript next to it, it might help you sometimes if you miss something and stay within the conversation. It is also very, very helpful to refer back to content and to be able to search.”

Leaders should create an open environment where employees can feel comfortable expressing any of their struggles with these workplace issues. 

“I think first and foremost have an open channel of communication and then check in with the employees and see what they need,” Veledniger said. “I think businesses should, in general, not wait for the employees and have this open channel of communication because this is new for everyone, and so I can only imagine that technological changes will happen and the environment will change.”

Bringing such technological changes into the workplace like incredibly large high definition screens can trigger these health challenges with some employees, so it’s important for leaders to understand that some employees might not be able to engage with technology in the same way as others, Villegas added.

“It’s really important for managers, team leaders, even coworkers, to be aware that we all have different needs in the workplace, including our senses,” Villegas said. “The way one person engages with the workspace with the technology isn’t going to be exactly the same as the next person.”

Even for employees who are used to taking in a lot of sensory information or using screens frequently, they can be at risk for these workplace issues.

“With the workforce changing, there are people who have used screens in their adolescence going into tech jobs, and that may mean that their threshold for screen time is different, but it doesn’t take away the fact that the wellness in their body and their nervous system needs the support and regulation of all their other systems and the support of a team, the support of their workplace,” Villegas said.

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