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The benefits of WFH are evident: spending more time with family, saving on gas or public transport costs due to not having to leave the comfort of your home, and being able to adapt the day’s schedule to what is most suitable to you.
But is the reality of working from home as effective as this sounds? Since COVID-19 has continued longer than anticipated, companies are in the process of deciding how long to expand their WFH policies for the foreseeable future. Some companies have even made the decision to close their offices and have all employees work from home indefinitely. Although there are benefits to WFH, one major drawback could be its impact on individuals’ mental health.
How has WFH Negatively Impacted Mental Health?
Earlier this year, CNN Business looked into the darker side of working from home and how it resulted in increased levels of loneliness. In an office space setting, many people crave being alone, particularly after long days of meetings or interactions. However, the opposite is now setting in, where the in-person, face-to-face connectivity is now lost to Zoom meetings and calls.
The Opposite of Social
While at first many enjoyed the solace of being at home in their own spaces, it has evolved into feelings of dismay and decreased capabilities to interact with others. This could come into play with being hyper-aware when in social situations or not being able to properly handle the minimally demanding social situations that are still happening virtually. While many want more social interaction, they are losing the ability to do so in an organic manner. Without co-workers passing their desk or being able to chat with a colleague in a meeting, many individuals are finding it difficult to maintain relationships in the new virtual work environment.
Though loneliness is a primary mental health problem with WFH, another is the issue of burnout. In a pre-pandemic survey in 2019, Digital Ocean, a cloud infrastructure company, found that for the United States, 82% of respondents reported burnout. Many of these respondents cited working longer hours while working from home under pressure to appear productive.
WFH has previously been tied to not being as strenuous as in-person work or correlated to lower productivity. As a result, many now feel that they need to over-compensate. This added drain of having to prove productivity can lead to longer hours and, given the lack of additional post-work recreational activities, make it harder to step away from the computer and result in a growing workload.
Sam Tackeff, co-founder of Ompractice, a virtual yoga and wellness class platform, was asked, “What challenges do COVID-19 and WFH pose for you and your employees?” Their company was in a fortunate position wherein, they had always been remote and their business was prime for the shift to WFH. Tackeff mentions, however, that like so many others, they found themselves dealing with the human realities of running a business during a pandemic- including parenting with a lack of childcare, caregiving for family members, and finding ways to best support their team, teachers, and community members.
What Is the Future of the Workplace?
A question in many employees’ minds is, “what will happen now?”
A looming decision for employers is whether to return to the physical office environment or work remote in a permanent capacity. Many workers have adjusted to their new lifestyles and are now beginning to settle into their home routines. The flexibility that is provided with WFH is not something that will be easily translatable to in-person offices nor something that will be done in a quick manner. In addition, companies have seen increases or maintenance of productivity rates while allowing remote work.
A lack of a proper working space at home or a hectic family presence can reduce efficiency. Though employees are missing in-person connectivity and office spaces, the office space they will return to will not be the same as the one they left. In compliance with local government and health official policies, many office spaces will require temperature checks, health and wellness surveys and check-ins, as well as distance maintained in the office. And, of course, masks. These, obviously, will also create distraction for efficiency.
In addition, there are financial costs to be considered in making a switch back to being in an office space. Smaller companies may not want to foot the bill of having to rent out a physical space, particularly with the possibility of the pandemic seeing another large destructive wave, wherein it would safer to have employees primarily work from home. There will also be new additional costs that will need to be accounted for, such as office space renovations to ensure a safe working environment, mandatory wellness checks, increased cleaning services, etc. Notably, this is not to say that the costs of continuing an online work environment are negligible, as many companies will need to provide additional resources for the maintenance of long term WFH. This could be in the form of a stipend that allows employees to buy an extra monitor, a better desk or chair, or a stronger WiFi package.
More from Ompractice on Their Operating Strategy with Working From Home
Tackeff further discussed what she foresaw the future of their company’s work life to be and whether they had plans to continue to operate virtually for the foreseeable future. Their current focus is on growing and scaling their company remotely. They are hopeful to get back to a world where team off-sites and quarterly planning are a reality again; and that they will be allowed to go back to building meaningful in-person experiences to serve and more deeply connect their wide-reaching global community. As she put it, "One has to hold hope!”
Whether returning to an in-person workplace or continuing working online, a “new normal” will be established for employers and employees.
The ways in which we interact and communicate in-office will not return to its original form, at least not anytime soon. Companies such as Google have already extended work from home until 2021 summer. However, for the companies where office work is something that is prioritized, it may occur in waves based on team or job. This may involve a department going into the office one week with others alternating. If you have a friend who works in a completely different department, chances of bumping into them in the office are slim for right now.
In the meantime, how are employers able to help their employees in their endeavors to maintain healthy work schedules, mindsets and productivity?
How to Maintain Overall Health & Wellness
Tackeff was able to provide a unique perspective from her time teaching an online course on “Self-Care for Entrepreneurs”. She discussed within that class the value of self-care in energy management and building a business. One of the key teachings from that was self-care needs to be an active process - with continuous iteration over a lifetime – and we generally need "tune-ups" particularly during life inflection points (or pandemics).
In attempts to blur the lines between work and social life to enjoy others as people, not only as colleagues, Tackeff encourages, “a lot of pets on Zoom, impromptu Frozen sing-alongs with littles during quarterly goal setting, and hopefully some social distance kayaking in the near future! There are also just some quick hacks that I'm working on right now: sending out boxes of "retro-snacks" to all team members before a retrospective to relax and enjoy ourselves together.”
Employers can support their employees by encouraging best practices as well as resources to maintain their overall health and mental well-being. Here are some examples of how from the American Psychiatric Association Foundation:
Maintaining a regular schedule
This will allow for separations in personal and work life and allow employees to know that after a certain point in the day, that part of their life is over. This will hopefully battle the blurred lines that come with WFH. It is important to have an official end to the workday to have the mental freedom to not be bogged down with work topics for the rest of the night.
Stay connected with family and friends
While many people have succumbed to the loneliness that comes from being indoors for extended periods of time, make the active effort to reach out to family members or friends who have not recently been in contact. It doesn’t have to be long; it could just be a quick 15 minute catch-up. The new reality is that while everyone seems to be at home and doing nothing, it is more important than ever to book times to talk and have those social interactions that are missing.
This can include reading a book, watching a tv show, or even doing exercise. It is important to section out times of the day to do certain activities and tasks to avoid the guise of having an abundance of time. It is easy to say, “I will exercise later, I have time” and then not do it and get caught up with work or life in general. By having a schedule and a time to do specific activities, there will be greater encouragement and accountability to do so.
Engage networks and therapeutic outlets
This could be as simple as video calling a friend. It could also be seeking out professional help from a therapist or counselor who will be able to provide tele-therapy.
Not all executives may always understand how best to relay to their employees that they care for them and their mental well-being. While Tackeff discusses some approaches above, outlined below are additional ways that employers can do so:
Have open dialogue
Allow for candid conversations for employees to express how to better situations given the uncertainties that are brought up each day. Everyone’s situation is different and that needs to be acknowledged.
Encourage virtual happy hours and/or donut chats
Do so using video communication applications such as Zoom. While it may not be the same as in person, the “face-to-face” component helps in establishing a sense of connection between people.
Provide resources or tools to allow for professional development
For many people, while WFH has not caused a decrease in workload, it has opened more time in their personal lives for development of skills that can be useful in not only their current job, but also for their career paths moving forward.
For those that may be suffering from mental health deterioration due to social and physical isolations, this will also provide an outlet for them to interact with others, such as in trainings or classes, or a creative outlet to learn something new. It can act as a break from a routine that will allow for different thinking.
What Startups are Tackling This Challenge?
As a result of COVID-19, there has been an increase in emerging innovative technologies addressing the virus and other related challenges. For example, entrepreneurs have been working to address the challenges of social isolation and loneliness as well as offer resources for overall health and wellness. Here is a list of some of these innovative companies:
The Sukhi Project
The Sukhi Project, a MassChallenge Boston 2019 alum, works to foster an inclusive community and enhance general well-being. Through moderated peer groups, virtual meditations and matching providers based on cultural needs, their resources allow for a wholistic approach to one’s mental, physical and emotional needs.
Ompractice, a MassChallenge HealthTech 2020 alum, is an online platform that hosts interactive yoga and meditation classes. While this platform may not be able to duplicate your regular gym sessions, it does replicate the class feeling and allows you to take part in guided physical exercise.
Valera Health, a MassChallenge HealthTech 2019 alum, helps patients connect with health coaches and therapists to chat face-to-face via televideo with clinicians, access a digital wellness library, and take part in meditation programs. Their mobile application equips patients and their care managers with access to an online dashboard for their clinical interactions.
An add-on to the popular messaging application Slack, Spill acts as mental health support for employees. This application offers an easier way to book video therapy sessions and provides mental health resources.
It's Tough for Everyone
2020 has been a challenging year, to say the least. While this year still brings many uncertainties and unanswered questions, it is important to practice self-care and keep in touch with loved ones. While work life may not be going back to the normal that we once knew, a new work-life balance will be created by individuals and the companies where they work. It is important that employers work with their employees and check in regularly about mental health wellbeing. Even though it is hard to maintain the old bar of social interaction, collectively we need to move forward in making active changes and ensuring that we are taking care of ourselves and those around us.
There are many resources available that focus on overall health and wellness. Be sure to prioritize not only physical health, but also check up on your mental and emotional health. If you or someone you know needs support, seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.