When I moved to Singapore four years ago, I experienced the joys and sorrows of my mental health working from home for the first time.
Suddenly I was free from the corporate physical constraints. I could work from anywhere and anytime. I could even fit in some physical exercise during “working hours” at times. It sounds amazing, right?
On the flip side, I missed chatting with my colleagues at the watercooler and I was finding myself replying to emails and doing some work during evenings and weekends; in my previous job, evenings and weekends were regarded as my “personal” time.
And then there was “that look” when I told people I was working from home – that skeptical look as if to say I was “pretending” to work!
It has taken a while for me to adapt to this way of working, but when 2020 arrived I was well prepared for the “new normal”. No traumatic changes for me (other than now delivering training virtually instead of face to face). And as I am now part of the majority of people, I don’t receive “that look” anymore.
Over one year has passed since the beginning of the pandemic and the world has been part of a gigantic social experiment, where the number of people working remotely has grown exponentially, where the impossible has become possible and even those companies which were reluctant about remote working had to make changes to adapt to the current situation.
In this scenario, questions and concerns about our wellbeing are emerging. What are the psychological effects on our mental health working from home? Is working from home impacting our wellbeing positively or negatively?
Before the pandemic struck, working from home was considered a “privilege” with the benefit of flexibility. Positive effects included increased productivity, saving commuting time, and better work-life balance. So working from home was considered a contributing factor to greater happiness as a whole.
Yet, what we couldn’t predict was that when extended over long periods, as well as when it is perceived as “forced” upon us, remote working can actually have the opposite effect.
Consequences can range from fostering feelings of isolation and disconnect, struggling to set boundaries, lack of motivation, and decrease in productivity. So remote working on a large scale can rapidly become problematic and have a negative impact on mental health.
During the pandemic, there has been a surge in mental health conditions, especially anxiety, stress, burnout, and depression. We feel the need to be “on” 24/7 and squeeze in work whenever we can. But without time to disconnect and unplug, we risk burning out.
The boundary between work and home life blurs for those who work in the same place they sleep. The anxiety, stress, and loneliness of working from home can lead to depression or make it worse.
Depression isn’t just feeling down. Depression symptoms (defined by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM 5) may include:
· loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
· sleep disturbances
· tiredness and lack of energy
· increased cravings for food
· trouble concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
· unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
But we are not all in the same boat! The experience of our mental health working from home could be very different for each of us, depending on our circumstances. When we compare home-office environments, it’s clear that everyone’s conditions differ. Factors could include whether homes offer a separate space for a fixed workplace or computer workstation, or whether work is being done at the kitchen table, or whether someone lives with children or older relatives.
Homeworking could provide opportunities for healthy eating and more exercise. However, some people tend to eat unhealthy food, exercise less, and gain weight, putting a strain on their well-being.
Research on how working from home (WFH) impacts our wellbeing is still limited and the findings are sometimes conflicting as several variables influence the outcomes.
A study was undertaken by BMC Public Health considering three databases - PsychInfo, ProQuest, and Web of Science - from 2007 to May 2020. This research showed that the impacts of WFH on individuals’ mental and physical health vary considerably.
The outcomes were strongly influenced by the degree of organisational support available to employees, colleague support, social connectedness (outside of work), and levels of work to family conflict.
Organisations need to implement formalised WFH policies that consider work-home boundary management support, role clarity, workload, performance indicators, technical support, facilitation of co-worker networking, and training for managers.
At the very least, the opportunity for regular communication between managers and their team and between colleagues is essential and helps to reduce the negative impacts associated with feeling isolated whilst WFH.
But what can WE do to take care of our mental health when we work from home?
A few adjustments can go long way to keep our brain happy while WFH. Here are some suggestions that have worked for me:
#1. Set up a routine and create a schedule
Many people consider their flexible schedule as the best part of working remotely. But it’s how we organise those hours in our day that makes all the difference. Do you have a daily routine and schedule you follow?
It’s easier to work towards achieving the goals you set, rather than loosely moving towards them. Scheduling also prevents distractions from creeping into your day. It’s also important you build breaks away from your screen into your schedule.
Also, schedule fun activities in your daily routine. Focusing on hobbies, self-care, and anything else that makes you happy for a few minutes every day will have a great impact on your wellbeing.
#2. Create a dedicated home-office space
If you don’t have a dedicated workspace, create one. Bonus points if you have an office with a door you can close to mentally and physically separate work and home life.
Buy a wide desk and an ergonomic chair that supports your back. Your physical wellbeing will benefit greatly from these adjustments.
#3. Move your body!
Go for a walk or bike ride, stretch or do yoga, dance like no one is watching!
Exercising 20 to 30 minutes daily can significantly lower anxiety levels. You’ll also boost endorphins and serotonin to flood your brain with happiness.
#4. Make time to meet people you like
Set up time each week to spend with your core group of friends and family members who lift you up.
#5. Get close to nature
Spending some time in nature eases anxiety, stress, and depression. Studies show outdoor walks may help lower blood pressure and stress hormones.
Try exercising in nature to accomplish two tasks in one. Or organise a group hike to add a social layer to your outdoor time. (Hit three points in one go!)
#6. Learn to say "NO"
Know your limitations, set boundaries based on your schedule and workload, and don’t extend yourself beyond them. Be assertive yet polite and your clients and colleagues will still respect you.
Limit the number of team calls to only the necessary ones to reduce Zoom’s fatigue and avoid breaking your focus when tackling your core priorities.
Reach out to someone you trust, speak to your doctor, or find a mental health professional if you’re struggling with depression or anxiety. You’re not alone. And remember, tomorrow is always a fresh start.
Will WFH replace working from the office in the longer term?
Perhaps it will for a large part; however, as face-to-face interactions are important for our wellbeing, I hope most businesses will opt for a hybrid solution so we can get the best of both worlds. I hope we will be able to benefit from the flexibility of WFH and also enjoy the physical interactions with peers and co-workers, which foster creativity and a sense of connectedness.
Written by Ivana Fertitta
MetaMind is a Training Consultancy in Singapore which is renowned for its Best Corporate Training . We consult on Authentic Leadership Training, Leadership Transformation, Diversity and Inclusion, Executive Coaching in Leadership, Culture Change, Harrison Assessments and Employee Engagement. We look at your systems and processes, as well as the skillset and mindset that you need to succeed.