Working from home can raise mental health concerns

Jon & Caroline | Ink-Stained Hearts

How to stay on top of your mental health in the “new normal”
7 Tips to Beat The Working From Home BluesPhoto by Ave Calvar on Unsplash

The pandemic is almost over!

Vaccines are being rolled out, pubs and restaurants are open again, you can attend sports events, all so long as you follow state guidelines for tackling the virus.

Thank God — life is returning to normal!

Right? Well, yes and no.

This might be one “reality” as some societies open up more than they have in the last year and a half. For many of us, we’re going to be working at home for a little longer, and our “new normal” now comprises phrases like:

“Hybrid working”
“Flexible working”
“Alternative working locations”
“Permanently home based”

Any of these sounding familiar?

The idea of a new working style will please many. But for some, the prospect of yet more “working from home” will fill them with the same dread as attending a job interview. Not everyone loves this “new normal”.

If this is you, what can you do about it?

Lies, damn lies and statistics

If you’re fortunate enough to live in a wealthy country that bought up large stocks of COVID-19 vaccines then chances are your situation looks quite rosy compared to other parts of the world. The US can boast full vaccination for 54.0% of the entire population at the time of writing.

Sounds like everything is going in the right direction — until you consider that according to Our World in Data only 41.3% of the global population have received one dose of a vaccine, and of greater concern only 1.9% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.

Why am I throwing in these stats and what have they got to do with working from home you may ask? Well, the truth is across the globe the pandemic is far from over. Cases of the “delta variant” remain high, and there is the prospect of a third wave with school terms beginning.

Its severity in terms of serious illness and death is likely to be far less, but the fact remains the need to be “working from home” in response to the pandemic will last longer than we imagine, and employers less keen on this approach who value “presenteeism” in the workplace need to understand this.

Data from the American Time Use Survey found that working from rates grew from 22% in 2019 to 42% in 2020, which is not a surprise with the outbreak of the pandemic.

It’s always swings and roundabouts

Many of us have found this forced way of working to be to our advantage in achieving a greater work/life balance. Many employers, mine included, are moving towards a mix of time in the workplace and continued “working from home”. Your workplace will grapple with these same questions too.

But flexibility comes at a cost. Research findings published in July by the UK's National Centre for Social Research highlight those working from home and who live alone are facing larger increases in mental distress than other workers at the start of the pandemic. We often forget the impact of loneliness and isolation when we see someone on a screen day after day. It’s easy to assume everything is fine in their lives. Often this isn’t the case.

But maybe this isn’t a colleague — maybe this is how you feel too?

Add to this data from a survey by The Royal Society for Public Health which shows alongside the benefits of home-working people were:

  • feeling less connected to colleagues (67%)
  • taking less exercise (46%)
  • developing musculoskeletal problems (39%)
  • experiencing disturbed sleep (37%)
  • over one in four (26%) are working from home from either a sofa or a bedroom
  • nearly half (48%) of people who work from a sofa or bedroom said they had developed musculoskeletal problems
  • women were more likely than men to feel isolated (58% of women vs. 39% of men)

For many, continuing this “new normal” isn’t something they’re looking forward to with much enthusiasm.

Beating the “working from home blues”

When I first started working from home, I didn’t like it at all. As someone more on the extrovert end of the Myers-Briggs scale, I missed the interaction with people — even those I’d rather not see day-to-day!

If you’re anything like me, it took a while to get into the swing of both working from home and finding some tactics to deal with a new daily routine. When I was “in the office” I would always go for a lunchtime walk, as well as taking my dog out in the evening when I was back home. But being home-based, I stopped doing this for various reasons. I imagine you have similar examples.

Once the initial novelty of “home working” wore off, we needed to make it as comfortable as possible. Here are some techniques I tried myself, and some my employer put in place, to tackle the “working from home blues”.

  1. Daily check-ins with other team members — not just to talk about work but to have some human contact.
  2. A scheduled regular break from the screen and getting up and moving — without this many of us will spend all day on video calls.
  3. Virtual coffee and chats with friends — a lunchtime walk would often be with a work friend — there’s no reason not to still hang out with them over a virtual coffee and talk about the latest sports results.
  4. Mindfulness video sessions run by a qualified practitioner — just taking half an hour to breathe and be present with yourself was very therapeutic.
  5. Turn off work notifications on my phone — many of us struggled with the blurring between work and home, so unless it’s an emergency don’t be checking your email late into the evening.
  6. Create a Microsoft Team (other platforms available!) on an issue of interest — I joined a football group, but “knit and natter” and “book clubs” also sprang up where I work.
  7. Let your pets join you where you’re working — we will all have seen cats walking across keyboards and dogs snoring in the background of video calls, but there is lots of research on the therapeutic value of pets on your mental health. If you don’t have a pet, consider getting one. They’ll benefit as much as you do from the interaction.

But did they really work?

Every tip listed above is something I tried and continue to do. Each one has had a positive impact on my mental health. Days can still be stressful with too much work to do and family or other issues to take care of. These approaches won’t make “working from home” hassle-free but they will go some way to tackling a distinct set of challenges the pandemic has thrown up for us all.

But don’t just take my word for it, there are plenty of other curated lists of brilliant advice on taking care of yourself out there too. A few of my favourites are below.

We are all unique and have different views on this subject, but I’ll leave you with a quote from Erik Erikson that sums up what I need from working from home.

“Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.”

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