Opinion: Work from Home during the Lockdown, Associated Stress and the ways forward

By Dr. Debanjan Banerjee

Photo: Djurdjica Boskovic

Most companies have had a significant business disruption in various ways due to the rising pandemic of COVID-19 with numbers increasing by the day. Borders have been shut down, travel restricted and economies slashed. The novel coronavirus has hacked our daily life, not just public health. Need for social distancing in an effort to contain the virus has ended regular office work and travel giving rise to ‘work from home’.

As employees everywhere are working from home full-time, or at least much more than usual, a lot of people are experiencing high levels of anxiety and stress, with noticeable impact on their ability to focus on work. This is something sudden and new that we all are facing. As the lockdown was necessary, but sudden: we did not seem to prepare for it. Along with this, for many it is “Work from home, and even Work for home”!

In a study of 20 countries including India, it was noted by Sharma and colleagues in 2019 that 51 percent of “highly mobile” employees (those who more often worked from home) considered themselves significantly stressed compared to only 18 percent of those who worked only on-site. Balancing work from home and personal chores requires extra effort and focus, though apparently appears as a simple deal.

This can seem absurd to those who consider work from home to be less stressful considering some personal freedom. It is true that most people love the flexibility with this work culture: getting up and going to sleep at times they wish. Home and especially your own room are considered to be your ‘safe haven’ where you can work at your own pace, mood and will. However, it could be more stressful being away from the daily schedule, that often before seemed constricting. Getting ready at a particular time, travelling, being vigilant and responsible at your workplace and need to return back to home all form a basic ‘structure’ that human living really needs. We feel incomplete and ‘lost’ without this daily structure.

What is SO stressful about working from home?

Working from home or remotely can be very challenging, isolating and at times tough to coordinate. Sometimes our attention wanders off, or we miss people. Most people are surprised by the stress they feel once the novelty of working from home wears off, as any continued behavior becomes an acceptable habit. The distinction of the workplace from home is a traditionally ingrained concept in our minds and when the ‘working place and resources’ get distorted, we have difficult times getting back at things.

Here are some of the common sources of stress when one works from home:

  • LACK OF STRUCTURE

For many employees, the regular working structure that once felt comfortable, can feel like a boxed environment. It becomes very difficult and challenging to self-impose the new work structure. Initially it will feel like a true liberation with freedom to start and end work as well as have personal life choices. But soon it becomes hard to balance and either get neglected. Procrastination starts and work starts getting postponed to later.

Gradually it spirals out of control and the ‘work from home’ deadlines are difficult to meet.

  • DISRUPTION OF ATTENTION

The problem is that there can be interruptions all day, and work hours need to be hours and not a succession of interrupted clusters of a few minutes at a time as few of us work as efficiently this way. Family, friends, neighbours and like all can provide distractions throughout the day, but that doesn’t end the list of potential distractions.

  • BOUNDARY SETTING

The most challenging for people is to deal with setting the boundaries. It becomes challenging while trying not blurring the line between productivity and leisure time, between socializing time and working time. THIS BALANCE IS CRUCIAL TO MAINTAIN! We tend to easily indulge in personal chit-chats and the schedule for work goes neglected. Many a time in joint families people might feel difficulty understanding your nature of work as ‘domestic work’ is also imposed on you: more so, at times of lockdown when the home-help is mostly unavailable.

  • LACK OF FOCUS

Even though the home environment might be work-friendly, the place of work is better designed to psychologically keep you in focus using regular checks, breaks and meetings. Everything mostly happening online now, things might tend to get monotonous and frustrating as the same routine follows every day. Work time might encroach into night with difficulties sleeping. Various such reasons might decrease efficiency, planning and focus in work from home leading to easy fatigue.

  • STRESS ASSOCIATED WITH ‘DIGITAL TIME’

Studies in occupational health report significant ‘digital screen time’ exposure for employees who work from home. As they might need to stay online for hours together, other web-based activities might replace human conversation for boredom that can lead to technology overuse, chronic stress, fatigue of eyes, neck pain and headache as well as insomnia. Increased media exposure might increase the consumption of misinformation, that can be harmful at times such as this. People have also reported online gaming addiction and gambling when continuously asked to work online. It might get unchecked and prolonged, when at home.

WAY FORWARD: HOW TO DEAL WITH IT

NONE OF US ARE ALONE. Understanding the stressors, even at trying times like this, we can work alone. Working from home is a necessity and we have to live through it, by using few essential but practical tips.

“Stress is but natural during a pandemic and crisis. Accepting it is the best that we can do. As we face new occupational and social challenges, let us prepare for them, rather than panicking. This preparedness helps us to deal with the stress”

  • SET A STRUCTURE TO YOUR DAY

Setting up a schedule and sticking to it is very important for those who work from home. Here are some factors that can help you set up your schedule:

CHOOSE YOUR TIME – Many people can give more productivity when they feel rested. Like some say early in the morning or late night. Choose what is best for you.

PRIORITIZE– Push yourself to do the most difficult job first. This will help you complete your more interesting job at the end of your work schedule. Sometimes you just need to ‘start doing it, rather than waiting for the appropriate plan’. Postponing work is the most harmful thing, it only accumulates.

APT USE OF TECHNOLOGY – Use some apps that help you or warn you if you get distracted from the work for a longer period. Planning and organizing work can be aided by technology. Avoid using online gaming or social media as much as possible.

  • STAY CONNECTED

When you feel isolated, it can be difficult to have as much energy to be productive. If you work from home and feel a bit too alone, it’s important that you take responsibility for your own social life. You can create your own supportive network of colleagues, fellow work-at-home friends, or even use social media to a limited extent. Avoid senseless forwards and texts related to the pandemic news and distance yourself from the excessive ongoing statistics. They will stress you more and distort your focus. Use this time to nurture the much-needed emotional bonds in proximity with your loved ones

  • PAT YOUR BACK

You can do this by breaking down your tasks into smaller goals and then rewarding yourself for taking each step. This keeps people motivated. This can be just as incentives given regularly in the office. If finding it difficult alone, you can even tell your family members to do it for you. It can be a movie time, or a favourite food that you like or an activity that you wanted to do for long. Based on ‘behavioural principle’, this might sound simple but works for everyone.

  • BE ASSERTIVE

You will face too many requests of work and tasks while you work at home. It makes you stressful even more thinking of how to answer that requests. Most of us think saying “yes” is a perfectly reasonable answer to avoid any further issues. But think of your mental health at the same time. There are many times that you have to politely utter a ‘NO’.

COMMUNICATION IS THE KEY! Rather than simply telling you are busy, you can always inform people about the nature and importance of your official work, even though it is from home. This easy communication helps your expression, decreases misunderstandings and provides you more autonomy in your schedule. Balancing two different domains surely requires firm assertiveness.

  • TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF AND YOUR HEALTH

Maintaining your sleep, food intake and overall health is the key for any work schedule. Keep your eating habits healthy, observe the precautionary measures suggested for the pandemic, have a sound sleep of at least 6-7 hours at night (any technology use late at night that can impair sleep is BEST AVOIDED) and exercise regularly. As the nation is also in lockdown and people are isolated, the sedentary lifestyle leads to the vicious cycle of physical inactivity and obesity. This might be a good time for free-hand exercise, Yoga, and regular walk in your immediate vicinity (if places are available). The structure of the day will further help this. ‘Living healthy’ needs to be a ‘lifestyle’ rather than perceived work.

Work from home can actually be a novel stress-reliever in itself for many, should the work-life balance be dealt with in an efficient manner. Let us use this pandemic and consequent lockdown to evolve ourselves into individuals who can be flexible, resilient and ready for critical situations, together. This will help our preparedness for any such futuristic crises and also help us get the better out of ourselves.

Author Dr. Debanjan Banerjee is associated with NIMHANS, Bangalore as Geriatric Psychiatrist.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinion of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of News Sense and News Sense does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.

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