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Working from home during the Coronavirus — good or bad for our mental health?

For years, many people have advocated that the majority of office work can be done from the comfort of one’s own home. If you are going into an office to spend the day sitting at a desk, with no meetings planned and access to all files on a laptop, why not do this from home? The emergence of covid-19 has put this proposal to the test.

As a medical student interested in mental health, I have been wondering how these changes are affecting us.

Image source: Happy Earth People

At the beginning of lockdown in March, thousands of people across the UK had to pack up their office equipment and adapt to a new work environment: their own homes. Working from home full-time has shifted major aspects of what was deemed as normal.

According to a survey carried out by the Independent, many have seen this as a positive change and expressed hope for some form of flexible working in the future. For example, no longer having to commute has provided people with time they didn’t previously have. This time can now be spent on self-care, which is often overlooked in today’s working environment.

Rather than spending those 30 minutes catching an 8am train, employees can spend 30 minutes meditating, reading a book, or going for a morning run, and generally improving work-life balance.

Moreover, in the future, if there is less of an expectation to come into an office, it could also give ‘stay at home’ mothers or fathers the opportunity to work, which previously may not have been possible.

However, what we also have to acknowledge is that many of us are not ‘flexible working’ (i.e., partly working from home). Instead, many are working from home full-time with uncertainty as to when we will be allowed to go back into the office.

Additionally, there are considerable discrepancies in people’s home environments. Not everyone has access to Wi-Fi, a personal laptop, or private study space.

Over the last few months, I have spoken to friends who have spoken out about feeling isolated and unmotivated, particularly when beginning new jobs and entering a new virtual ‘workplace’. They have struggled with not having a quiet space to work in, or the ability to talk to colleagues easily.

In a recent survey of 500 home workers, 64% reported increased anxiety whilst a third felt isolated. Therefore, whilst there are many positive aspects to working from home, it is also important to consider the psychological impact of being in your own home five days a week, with limited direct social interaction.

As we continue to work remotely and social distance, the number of relationships we have with people decreases. The spontaneity of having dinner with friends or colleagues is gone.

This decrease in contact with people, which makes forming and maintaining relationships with others more difficult, may have implications on our mental health. For example, I recently listened to a podcast interviewing Tal Ben-Shahar, a Harvard psychology professor who studies the science of human happiness. He quoted a 75-year-long Harvard study, which showed the number one predictor of both human happiness, and physical health over our lifetime is our relationships. That is, time spent with people we care about whether it be romantic, friendly, or professional.

This encouraged me to think further about the consequences of working from home, during a pandemic, on our psychological health.

Working from home 24/7 means our old patterns of picking up a morning coffee, catching public transport, and saying hello to our colleagues before a day’s work have also been disrupted. That quick smile or hello when going to collect your lunch no longer happens.

While these may seem like small, possibly inconsequential parts of the day, these little human interactions with ‘weak ties’ (peripheral members of our social network, like one’s work colleague, or coffee barista) have also been shown to play a role in determining our happiness.

A study done at the University of British Columbia showed daily interaction with ‘weak ties’ significantly increased feelings of happiness and belonging. In fact, these ‘weak ties’ were shown to be as crucial to our happiness as ‘strong ties’. Therefore, while we can stay in contact with close friends over WhatsApp or Zoom, this doesn’t fully replace physical social interaction or connectivity with our community as a whole.

In a recent New York Times interview, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella commented ‘what I miss is when you walk into a physical meeting, you are talking to the person next to you, you’re able to connect with them for the two minutes before or after’, which is challenging to replicate virtually.

Furthermore, an interesting meta-analysis (basically, a study putting together different studies) found that the absence of social connections is as large a health risk as obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure. This further highlights that social connection needs to be recognized as an important factor for wellbeing, which is missing during lockdowns and times of isolation.

Another criticism frequently made in the past few months, is that there is no defined time to ‘switch off’ or stop working.

With no commute, meetings are starting earlier and ending later, meaning the lines between work and home become blurred. A study carried out in 2013 reinforced the impact of this. Researchers looked into the effects of remote e-working and showed it had adverse implications on well-being due to over-working and a lack of time for recuperation.

Therefore, while working from home in itself is not necessarily a bad thing, the presence of coronavirus, and thus working at home full-time with no choice, has created working conditions that may have an impact on our mental health. What one can hope going forward is that companies take this mental health impact into consideration, and create systems that support this change.

According to a Financial Times article, Goldman Sachs has already taken this into account, and have been offering cooking classes, virtual prayer sessions, and virtual storytime for children via Zoom. Similarly, Linklaters has launched virtual choir workshops and virtualised many of its mental health resources such as on-site psychologists.

Alongside companies provisions, there are strategies each of us can do to help keep our mental health strong while working from home. Recent blogs by Lokesh Agrawal and Paola Dazzan have covered these topics more in-depth, and include:

  • Taking part in some form of physical activity each day

  • Practicing mindfulness and gratitude

  • Making social connections a priority

  • Reducing screen time when not working

  • Having a routine (as much as possible) and focusing on the things we can control.

We have seen both positive and negative aspects of working from home during a pandemic. Looking forward, it could be beneficial for companies to change their perspective on flexible working. Rather than having one extreme or the other (work at home versus work at the office), a more flexible approach could be taken to create a more balanced work environment. This would allow the benefits of going into the office to be obtained, together with the benefits of occasionally working from home.

Hopefully, the pandemic has placed more of an emphasis on work-life balance which we can all learn from, and take forward with us when it is over.


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