Work From Home and Mental Well-Being: Psychological Impact of the Practice over a Prolonged Period 0

Work From Home and Mental Well-Being
Before the pandemic struck, many studies highlighted the benefits of remote working and it seemed like an incredible perk for many employees. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced everyone to Work from Home, it was expected to be a win-win situation for the employee, however, the outcome has been quite the opposite, studies have shown - the trade-off is often long hours, more virtual never-ending meetings, and if there were boundaries separating work and personal life, it seems they have faded away.

Bandwagons are easy to get on, they are difficult to stay balanced on, however. As the pandemic hit us, organizations that used to look at work from home with suspicion, suddenly found themselves opening their hearts to the idea. Revenue depended on it, after all. Suddenly, quite early into this experiment, we had a whole bunch of organizations committing a future roadmap without fully studying the feasibility of the idea, especially the psychological impact on a social entity. Everyone wanted to hook on to this biggest thing since the steam engine!

10 months hence, with schools still largely closed, never-ending calls, and twice the amount of work, the entire WFH house of cards is collapsing in on itself. The pragmatics are getting back to work in a more normal fashion. If the traffic on the roads is any indication, barring IT, everyone else is getting back to work. Despite the Internet of Things, wheat still largely gets cultivated by farmers who actually go out there and toil in their fields and then get it ground on machines run by workers on an actual shop floor and that’s how we get to eat. That is the real deal about how human beings work and how they socialize.

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That, however, is not how we have been functioning over the last year. Many of us have been reduced to 12-14 hours of seeing a lot of faces on a computer screen (if the video is on, which strangely is not even the case most of the time and that tells a lot about whether we are enjoying it at all) and productivity has been reduced to meetings. Somehow actions have been reduced to activities.

Many of us have been reduced to 12-14 hours of seeing a lot of faces on a computer screen (if the video is on, which strangely is not even the case most of the time and that tells a lot about whether we are enjoying it at all) and productivity has been reduced to meetings. Somehow actions have been reduced to activities.

On top of this, almost neverending meetings with travel restrictions and lack of workplace socialization with possible home workstation ergonomic stress and you have a heady cocktail whose hangover symptoms are going to be despondency and depression. Study after study is proving this. More than 50% of American adults have had a negative impact on their mental well-being as it has been extremely difficult for most of them to fall back on the support networks that exist in the physical workspace. On almost all parameters, 60% and more respondents fared poorly on all psychological parameters associated with stress and depression.

According to one paper published with the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, decreased overall physical and mental well-being after WFH were associated with physical exercise, food intake, communication with co-workers, children at home, distractions while working, adjusted work hours, workstation set-up, and satisfaction with workspace indoor environmental factors.

A 2006 paper on psychosocial environment and mental health (we had 14 years to read it before going down the road of work from home) suggests that psychological responses may include low mood, low motivation, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, burnout, and suicidal thoughts.

Unfortunately, as organizations, one thing we have been guilty of has been poor organizational research before going down the road of implementing fad-surfing moves. Somehow organizational behaviour is just a two-credit course in MBA classes, never to be referred back to again.

This is an HR failure. We have not undertaken a significant risk assessment of some of our wide-ranging actions of psychosocial impact.

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A typical risk assessment process would include:

  • Assessing the hazards
  • Knowing or exploring who might be harmed and how
  • Quantifying the risks in terms of levels
  • Exploring the risk mitigation actions

Let us just examine four impact areas of work from home that don’t get talked about. These are areas that attack the very nature of the ubiquitous work-life balance.

When we framed our rules against sexual harassment, we did not realize that it will very quickly shift to virtual meeting rooms with very little understanding and even lesser sensibilities around what constitutes a sexual crime in… Click To Tweet

The Family Ecosystem and Its Fabric is Getting Destroyed

There is no doubt that work from home has created significant emotional challenges in the family ecosystem. Stay at home kids who in their formative years have been missing peers from their lives; partners who have different work schedules and the same is being magnified by uncaring organizational ecosystems (barring a few lip-service moves in the form of a blanket rule like no calls during certain times, which gets broken all the time).

“WFH has destroyed personal boundaries,” Murali Rao, Chairman, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences, Loyola University Medical Centre in Chicago. Click To Tweet

If one were to think in terms of risks, we are talking domestic violence, sexual abuse (including that of minors), lack of sexual intimacy, the risk of being reduced to a series of robot-like actions, impact on studies and grades, et al.

We are also talking about stress-induced interactions at home which are more frequent, have a longer time span of continuity. Today, you can’t have an argument in the morning, step out to work and then come back home perfectly normal; you are necessarily in a zone where two people won’t talk to each other through the day and yet expect to keep each other company.

Women are Being Expected to Take Front and Centre Roles in Restrictive Environments. Work from Home Tends to Aggravate That

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It is reported that women exhibit a conflict between heightened anxiety and depression in emergencies as also a surprising amount of resilience. Women are also overrepresented in sectors impacted by emergencies say healthcare, education, unpaid household work, et al. This is a potent mix.

It is completely being ignored that work from home is pushing working women further into traditional roles and a whole generation of gains are being undone within the year. I have had instances where the husband has literally taken two weeks of vacation travel while the wife can’t go to work even for something critical for a day because she has to take care of kids at home. Then there are women who could earlier escape unconsciously patriarchal households between 9 and 6 (they were still getting up at 5 to cook and clean and send kids to school, make no mistakes) and now need to navigate those rules through the day while trying to earn an honest day’s wages!

It is completely being ignored that work from home is pushing working women further into traditional roles and a whole generation of gains are being undone within the year. I have had instances where the husband has literally taken two weeks of vacation travel while the wife can’t go to work even for something critical for a day because she has to take care of kids at home.

If a study was to be conducted about sabbaticals, voluntary exits and health concerns among women during the pandemic, I am sure it will tell a very sad story and how much of that is WFH induced is a very critical subset of the study.

Workplace Ergonomics, Environment and Support

So, when one works from home is there someone who is at their service and runs the coffee machine? The question isn’t obvious and the answers are not being sought. However, is there a psychological impact of making tea (and who is making tea and washing the kettle) 4 times a day at home?

When we shop chairs and tables for a home office (which by the way can be bought many times over with the money saved on reduced commute), do we wonder whether the laptop’s efficiencies are defined by the job profile or undefined policies of procurement? I have seen 500-1000 attendees’ town halls getting destroyed because something did not work.

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There has been an unwritten rule in organizations for as long as they have existed that the quality of laptops provided is inversely proportional to the job level. While the intensity of work done (and hence the technical specs) on the laptops is directly proportional to the job level. Now, this did not matter much when one worked from the office because it was easier to seek support.

There is less likelihood of being served a hot cup of coffee while attending a 90 minutes high intensity meeting from home. That is the kind of support that is not obvious but deeply impactful. If ever the motivation-hygiene theory was tested, it was when we moved workstations home. Suddenly the hygiene factors took a southward journey. When this happens over a prolonged time span, there is a likely impact of “absence of hygiene factors demotivates” coming into play.

Cyberbullying is quite rampant in a work from home setting. Workplace harassment has taken this form. Managers and powerful peers are setting up calls at odd hours thus encroaching upon a couple’s intimacy calendar. Many times this is done in the garb of Time Zone issues and it is very common to get unwarranted video call requests at odd hours from bosses and colleagues.

Cyber-Bullying and Virtual Sexual Harassment

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Cyberbullying is quite rampant in a work from home setting. Workplace harassment has taken this form. Managers and powerful peers are setting up calls at odd hours thus encroaching upon a couple’s intimacy calendar. Many times this is done in the garb of Time Zone issues and it is very common to get unwarranted video call requests at odd hours from bosses and colleagues.

There are faceless, insulting conversations about performance.

Somehow when you talk into an instrument, it is becoming easier to be a jerk.

A subset of work from home is to attend schools from home. Good teachers are becoming better and bad ones are becoming worse. One can actually experience one’s child being bullied by someone who is not qualified to be dealing with kids and adolescents. The child on the other hand now has missing peer support, a great coping mechanism.

When we framed our rules against sexual harassment, we did not realize that it will very quickly shift to virtual meeting rooms with very little understanding and even lesser sensibilities around what constitutes a sexual crime in a virtual setting.

So, Where Does It Lead Us as We Commit to Work from Home as Organizations?

First, I am taking a position. I believe it is insensitive and irresponsible to do it without considering scientific evidence. If you have not studied it, nor examined the risks, don’t do it. There are a dozen peer-reviewed studies that are telling us how perilous it is.

Second, if it must be done, do a proper risk assessment. Mankind invented societies to guard against predators and in the process started sharing stories around a fire. When we do away with societies, we must still enable the stories.

Third, think from the perspective of diversity. Will it enable the diversity agenda or subvert it? Not coming to work is perhaps an advantage. Perhaps it is not for certain sections who have to deal with unconscious bias every moment of their lives.

Work from home is a great short term solution. It may perhaps even be a great long-term solution for those for whom the choice was either this or quitting work altogether. Whether it is a great long term solution for everyone, under all circumstances is an unanswered question that should not be answered by well-intentioned decision making, it should be answered by well-researched decisions.

The new normal isn’t quite normal it seems.

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Prabhash Nirbhay the Founder & Director of Consulting at Flipcarbon is a Strategy Consultant, Performance Coach, and a Behavioral Trainer. A senior professional with 20 years of experience in various facets of HR across blue-chip companies, he has a proven track record and ability in conceptualising, designing and implementing Strategic Employee Communication interventions that foster high performance, high engagement culture. As a performance coach, he has helped start-up founders and middle managers extract the best value from themselves & their teams. His other core areas are - Unconscious Bias, Diversity and Inclusion including enabling areas like POSH. A Postgraduate in HR from XISS, Prabhash has held senior HR leadership roles and is currently focussed on Growth Consulting for Startups and Small and Medium Businesses.”

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