We may have mastered the physical side of working remotely but what about the emotional side? A year ago, Canadians were three months into the pandemic. We were through the initial shock of shutdowns and closures, but most of us were still trying to find our groove in navigating the “new normal”. For millions of working Canadians, this included a sudden and drastic transition to working from home or another remote location, physically isolated from coworkers. While employees were sorting out logistics and the practical side of things, employers were scrambling to find innovative ways to bring employees together virtually, create a sense of camaraderie and keep morale (and productivity) high. Despite best efforts on both sides of the equation, there was an immediate impact on the mental health and well-being of millions of workers. Surely these would only be temporary challenges and set-backs…
With more than a year behind us working under these conditions, it might be natural to assume that employees have come a long way since we started down this path. In some respects, we have. After all, we have learned to adjust and “make due” with our displaced and reconfigured work environments and schedules. We’ve got the physical side of working from home sorted out, even if it’s not perfect. Thanks to technology, we can connect to our work world from remote places better than ever. Stress and anxiety levels must be lower because it’s certainly not as tough as it was in the beginning. Or is it?
New Normal Not so “New” – 56% of Canadians Still Feel Stressed & Anxious
In fact, an Ipsos survey conducted in February 2021 showed that more Canadians (56%) are feeling stress and anxiety as a result of COVID-19 compared to 55% in November 2020. This increase, while only +1%, indicates that the challenges with mental health are not diminishing. While we may have adjusted to the physical restrictions placed upon us, many people are still struggling mentally. In the survey, respondents were asked if they agree with this statement: “Physical (social) distancing has left me feeling lonely or isolated.” A whopping 54% agreed with the statement in February 2021, 11% higher than the national average in November 2020. The 55+ age group saw the most dramatic increase of 14% in this area.
Canada’s work-from-home numbers are nearly the same as they were 12 months ago, which may help to explain why many people still feel lonely and isolated. The April 2021 Stats Canada Labour Force Survey found that 3.1 million people who usually work at a location other than their house are still at home because of public health measures. This is only 200,000 less than April 2020. While the number of people working remotely has fluctuated since the start of the pandemic depending on the easing or tightening of restrictions, 15 months later people are still not back to their pre-COVID business routines and locations.
So, what does this all mean? For millions of remote workers across the country, managing the mental health challenges of working from home has not let up. Here are four key realities that Canada’s work-from-home population is still up against.
Video calls, online collaboration and instant messaging have been a lifeline and essential part of everyday work life for many since March 2020. However, being continuously online one way or the other has its drawbacks. Video conferencing is particularly draining even when the meetings are with people you know and typically had meetings with in person pre-pandemic. “Zoom fatigue”, named after the popular Zoom video conferencing platform, is now recognized as a real problem.
Researchers have found that video calls require “a different kind of focus and attention,” Psychologist Janine Hubbard told CBC Newfoundland Morning during an interview in 2020. Unlike an in-person meeting, a video call causes you to stare intently at the person on your screen, sometimes for long uninterrupted periods of time. In addition, seeing your mirror image throughout the meeting can also be distracting and stressful. People not used to being on camera may have a tendency to watch themselves and may be self-conscious of how they appear, talk and react. This heightened sense of awareness can cause extra anxiety as people worry about others judging their home environment, decor, or what they are wearing. It’s a different dynamic from the typical face-to-face meetings at a workplace. On top of that, “Zooming” from home also means managing distractions, background noise, and multitasking, all of which also contribute to Zoom fatigue and overall mental health.
Blurred Work & Home Boundaries
While many people enjoy and thrive in a work-from-home environment, merging your personal life and work life under the same roof brings challenges – and they can have a significant impact on your mental health. Working from home blurs the clear, physical boundaries that previously separated your work life from your personal life. The temptation to do “just one more thing” before dinner or before bed, for example, is strong because work is suddenly very accessible and very present. Technology can make it difficult to resist answering emails, texts and calls outside of regular work hours. And, some employers assume that employees should and will be responsive all the time because it is technologically possible. This all contributes to elongated work days and the potential for burnout.
“There’s a growing expectation by employers that you will be available, given all this technology available to stay connected,” Lior Samfiru, founder of the labour and employment law practice at Samfiru Tumarkin LLP, told Global News in a story about the need for workers to disconnect. “There’s less distinction between work time and personal time.”
Lost Benefits of the Daily Commute
Working from home also means losing your regular commute to and from work. “Routines and rituals are very beneficial to us, because they’re things that we understand and know what to expect from them,” Lynn Bufka of the American Psychological Association told CNN Business in a January 2021 article. Many embraced their new short commute to the home office at the start of the pandemic – no more sitting in traffic, fighting for parking, paying for parking, waiting for the bus or train, or dealing with inclement weather – what’s not to love? Further into the pandemic, however, people began to realize that their commute had benefits they were starting to miss. For example, the daily commute provides time for quiet thought, reflection, problem-solving, or general “down time” that is hard to capture otherwise. If you typically bike or walk to work, you’re also losing that extra exercise and physical activity from your day.
A work commute also gives you time to transition from your home/personal identity to your work identity. It allows you to physically leave the stress, challenges or problems in that “world” behind. By the time you arrive at your destination, you are more focused and ready to be present for your other world. However, working from home without that clear transition makes it harder to separate those identities. At home, you may be required to shift back and forth throughout the day between two (or more) worlds, which can be mentally exhausting. You need a break from the stresses and worries of work (or home), which is difficult when there is no physical separation between the two. To combat this, many people have adopted “fake commutes” to create the sense of division between home and work, and to recharge and recapture some of the “me time” lost from giving up their real commutes.
Lack of Social Interaction
Connections and interactions with those we work with are incredibly important to our well-being. While many people might discount the importance of workplace social interaction and friendships, studies have shown that strong positive connections at work help reduce stress levels, increase productivity and contribute to overall happiness. A pre-pandemic Forbes article from 2018 noted that “Quality relationships provide support and help build self-worth – which both lead to feelings of happiness.”
Unfortunately, video calls can only take us so far. Working from home, physically apart from coworkers, is going to have a noticeable impact on mental health. We no longer have the opportunity for spontaneous interactions (think water cooler), grabbing a coffee or lunch with a workmate, or the casual chit-chat that goes on before a meeting. Leaning into a colleague’s office for a quick, unscheduled check-in is just not possible. And, think about new employees starting their job mid-pandemic. Trying to meet new coworkers, connect with leaders, and simply find your way around the company from your home office can be confusing, frustrating, stressful and downright lonely.
Be Mindful of Your Own Well-Being
While working from home has its advantages, and for many may be the preferred way to work in the post-pandemic world, we need to be mindful of aspects that can impact our mental health. Corridor’s free Mental Health Awareness & COVID-19: Workplace Strategies course includes a module with insights and tips for supporting your mental health while working from home. If you’re not in the habit of taking time out for yourself in the midst of juggling work and home responsibilities, make this the day you start to carve time out of your workday for your own mental health and well-being.