As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world in early 2020, countries were forced to impose strict lockdowns and quarantine measures on their populations.
Inevitably, this entailed many who previously worked in offices to work from home, provided their jobs could be effectively conducted remotely through a computer with an internet connection.
This work modality lasted for months, with restrictions easing in the late spring of 2020 and through the summer. Many businesses and organizations are continuing to have their employees work from home. However, as the new coronavirus saw a rapid resurgence heading into the winter, several countries went back into heavy lockdowns like the ones seen earlier in the year.
Much has been discussed about the unexpected benefits of working from home. Many cited the amount of time it saved people from their commutes, giving employees more time to sleep and spend at home with their families. Others mentioned the energy and maintenance costs that were saved from not running an office.
As restrictions continue to be lifted around the world with more than a billion people vaccinated, there has even been talk about a permanent conversion to working from home now that managers and employers have seen the benefits. In many cases, there was no need to have an office and the team working in close physical proximity, apparently.
However, there is a side to this shift in work that has largely been ignored in the conversation and is only beginning to be acknowledged: how work-from-home affects and can exacerbate mental health, work burnout and destroy work-life balance.
Over the last year, several studies and surveys have been conducted to assess the impact of remote working and its popularity among workers, with mixed results.
By September 2020, several US based companies reported a 7.2 percent decrease in productivity, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that more than 40 percent of US adults had reported struggling with their mental health.
Research that was then conducted by TELUS International found that many employees were “missing their traditional work environments” and that 51 percent of American workers reported feeling less connected to their work. “Those workers report missing interacting with their colleagues, collaborating in person and the separation between work and home.”
In recent years, a condition known as “burnout” has come into increased use. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, reports of workers feeling burnout have increased.
“As the COVID-19 pandemic wears on, many people will experience poor mental health including elevated anxiety, depression and isolation,” says Nellie El Enany, an assistant professor of management at the AUC School of Business who has taught relevant subjects such as entrepreneurial leadership, organizational behavior, human resource management and critical issues of management.
Also having a keen interest in mental health, El Enany adds “loneliness can be a major factor of concern – having poor social connections can reduce the immune system and increase proinflammation.”
Even before the pandemic, research showed that remote workers were far more likely to suffer from burnout. In 2019, DigitalOcean found that 66 percent of remote tech professionals globally reported feeling “fried”, compared to 64 percent of those who went to an office daily.
In the US, those figures rise dramatically, where 82 percent of remote tech workers reported feeling burnt out. 52 percent of them said this was down to them working longer hours while 42 percent reported they were expected to do more work.
Among other reasons cited were isolation and missing out on offline communications. This only increased exponentially with the lockdowns imposed worldwide since COVID-19’s outbreak.
El Enany says “while many people initially enjoyed working from home, as time has gone on, the boundaries between home and work life have become more blurred. Many people have children, elderly family to care for, have had family members pass away or become ill, or [they] themselves have been infected and as a result may suffer with mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”
Not all public opinion has embraced the new work-from-home modality, and many want to get back albeit with a more hybrid model. In a survey conducted last year in the UK by the investment bank, Jefferies, 60 percent said they were eager to return to the office after lockdown, with 35 percent saying they want a mixture of working at the office and from home.
In an interview with Business Because, Dominique Steiler, a professor at Grenoble School of Business whose work specializes in mental health and mindfulness in the workplace, said he saw a rise in work-related anxiety and depression since COVID-19 began.
He said there are three ways that working from home has been damaging to mental health.
Firstly, a lack of the needed support contributes to people feeling more alone. When workers are feeling anxious or stressed out, at home they lack the physical connection with their colleagues that they can turn to. The support networks that informally exist in an office disappear.
Secondly, adapting to working from home can increase the workload. Working longer hours becomes more common and “for those who don’t have a home office setup there’s no disconnect between home and office life. Where do you draw the line between working from home and homeing from work?”
Virtual meetings being held back-to-back throughout the day have also been attributed to deteriorating mental health, Steiler adds. Without an office, employees have little opportunities for informal interactions with their colleagues and the meetings tend to drag on, eating up time from the day.
Over the long term, virtual meetings can also cause fatigue and make team members feel disconnected from each other.
“It causes a sudden increase in your psychological and emotional workload,” Steiler said to Business Because, which in turn causes an increase in stress and anxiety. While obviously bad for the employees’ health, it also hurts a company’s productivity.
The blurring of the line between work and personal lives has been one of the most common themes of working from home. At the start of the pandemic, Microsoft began a cross-company initiative called “The New Future of Work” to research the impact of remote working.
The initiative brings together over 50 research projects spanning Microsoft’s entire staff including engineering, human resources, marketing, Office, Xbox and Windows.
In a section looking into work-life balance, the report says, “the downside of the flexibility of remote work, particularly when it involves working from home, is the blurring of the boundary between work and home life that comes from the elimination of physical boundaries separating the office and home –as well as the temporal boundary afforded by a commute.”
Information workers both inside and outside of Microsoft said they always felt they were in work mode and struggled with switching off when working from home. Many reported the challenge of maintaining work commitments along with their family commitments and household chores at the same time and in the same place.
So, how can companies move forward from this? What can organizations and managers do to protect the wellbeing of their employees? Should teams fully return to the office after the pandemic? Can remote working be managed better? Or should a more hybrid system be put in place?
In the survey conducted in the UK by Jefferies investment bank, most wanted to return to work immediately but 35 percent of them said they wanted to work from home three to four days of the week.
Some management solutions include giving breaks between virtual meetings and allocating meeting-free days every month. Another is holding smaller meetings so the interactions between colleagues can be more personal and engaging. Team leaders can also arrange one-on-one catchups with team members and organize social gatherings in-person if possible and safe.
“Know your people,” El Enany says. “How many managers or leaders can say they understand their colleague or employees? Do you know if your employee is anxious or has reduced self-efficacy, is going through a personal difficulty, or has a physical or mental health issue? This goes beyond asking “how are you?”, assigning them a task, following up and having periodic reviews. This means carving out the time to care, to be kind and compassionate, and to actively listen. More importantly, leaders need to give their managers the time to build a psychologically safe culture.”
In the context of COVID-19, she adds “during remote work and the pandemic, this is even more critical; personalizing work as much as possible will help to reduce the cognitive and emotional load on employees and reduce the potential for burnout. Proactively managing communication channels is critical, this has to go beyond emails or messages that can often lack emotion and real connection. Taking time to listen, empathise and support, helps to ensure employee retention, boost happiness and in turn performance and profits. Asking employees where and how they are working, if the organization can support them in designing their physical workspaces at home, can improve work performance.”
El Enany emphasizes that managers need to look out for the warning signs indicating burnout and poor mental health in their team members such as consistently missing deadlines and being less engaged.
She also says that organizations and leaders clearly and confidently knowing their values and their paths are very crucial to employee well-being.
“Carefully crafting and nourishing an organizational culture requires commitment, effort and a sincere desire for employee togetherness, progression and retention […] Only rewarding high performance is a major mistake a manager or leader can make.”
El Enany cited “the overly competitive performance review system at Enron [an American energy company] for example led to a domino effect of mishaps, failures and long-term mental health issues for their employees, even after Enron’s collapse. Revisiting organizational values during the pandemic, and indeed any crises is important.”
An organization’s long-term strategy also play a major role in employee well-being. Knowing an organization’s path means knowing what is important to it, its staff, its brand and future reputation.
“Leadership is critical here, we know from research that authentic leadership helps to build trust, improving employee loyalty, engagement and performance. Leaders and managers are in these ethically responsible and important positions and need to be reflective and vulnerable with their teams.”