While 2021 may have given us a fresh start when it comes to our calendar, the new year also marks what will be the ninth month of working from home for many Aussies.
Although some of us are moving to blended work scenarios, our home offices aren’t going anywhere yet.
And while the word “unprecedented” may be one we’re all sick of hearing, the many twists and turns of 2020 (a global pandemic, an abrupt switch to working from home and financial uncertainty) has left us all a little bit more fragile.
According to research from SEEK, two in three Australians agree that COVID-19 has made them more aware of their mental health, while three in 10 Aussies surveyed state their workplace does not offer any type of wellbeing support.
So if you’re feeling a ‘bit off’ while confined to your DIY desk or kitchen table set up, rest assured you’re not alone. We spoke to Sydney-based psychologist Martha Tsakalos on all the ways working from home is affecting our mental health, from the obvious to the subtle.
1. Chronic stress
Whether we’re aware of it or not, most of us are suffering from chronic stress brought on by the emotional, professional, financial and health-related ramifications of the pandemic.
“Chronic stress is what leads to burn out and right now we’re experiencing prolonged chronic stress during this pandemic,” she says. “We have to monitor what’s going on in the world and work-from-home culture has blurred so many boundaries within the home space.”
2. Blurred boundaries
As many can attest, a lack of differentiation between work and home has also elevated our stress levels. Ms Tsakalos describes this as “the creep”.
“We’ve got far more interruptions and it’s the creep of all of these factors that are compounding the stress we’re experiencing and the stimulation our brain is taking on,” she says.
Working from home also puts us closer to our stresses, both professional and personal. Whether that’s co-working alongside your partner or children, or tense team dynamics, “we’re not getting that separation,” she says.
“If we’re feeling like there is a sense we’re being micromanaged, or if we have pre-existing doubts in our performance or if there’s a threat to our financial stability, these are exacerbated.”
3. (No) change of scenery
It’s not just you, the fact that we’ve largely been confined to our homes is an added stresser for our brains. This is especially pertinent for our fellow Victorians who are only just coming out one of the world’s strictest lockdowns.
As Ms Tsakalos puts it, “our brains are also just not evolved to be indoors or be within the same space for an extended duration of time”.
“Our brains require a variation of views and different spaces and that helps us clock time and compartmentalise our lives better.
“So just by being in the same environment – living, resting and working from home – we’re not getting that reprieve from stress.”
Although working-from-home can bring extra flexibility, Ms Tsakalos notes people on the whole are working longer hours and finding it more difficult to switch off. She’s also seeing clients who feel the need to add more commitments to their schedule, giving themselves added pressure to perform.
“While working from home pre-pandemic used to mean increased flexibility and was even seen as a benefit, it’s now taken on a much different meaning,” she says.
“People who are working from home are working longer due to the repeated interruptions and the lack of boundaries like set working times.”
5. Social isolation and loneliness
While increased loneliness and feeling more isolated from your colleagues may seem like an obvious effect of working from home, the lack of social connectedness can also impact how you value your abilities. Even if you’re not a fan of small talk, Ms Tsakalos says those “water cooler chats” serve to validate your position and performance. Without them, you may feel like you have professional “tunnel vision,” in which you can’t contextualise your impact and value at work.
“It’s like we’re all in our own cubicles and we’re just kind of staring at the screen and on the achievement treadmill,” she says. “It may feel like you’re just ticking boxes and it can feel really unrelenting without the perspective and context of being in a workplace.”
HOW WORKPLACES CAN HELP
According to SEEK data, a small but helpful change businesses can make is introducing flexible working hours. New research showed that nearly one third (31 per cent) of Australians think flexible working hours have a significantly positive impact on their mental health and wellbeing.
When it comes to negotiating flexible working hours SEEK’s Human Resources Director ANZ, Rebecca Supierz says employees should be as detailed as possible and put their request in writing.
“The request should ideally be made in writing so that the details are very clear, this will also help the employee think logically through how the change can be successful with the needs of the wider team and the work itself. It will also give the manager time to work out if it’s possible, and if so, how resourcing requirements will be met,” she says.
“Remember, both manager and employee should approach the discussion with an open mind, and an approach of ‘if not, why not,’ rather than assuming it won’t work because it hasn’t been done before.”
Research also shows employers need to be more adaptable with three in 10 candidates surveyed stating their workplace does not offer any type of wellbeing support, despite the obvious challenges COVID-19 has bought.
Looking at this divide Ms Tsakalos says employers need to be able to normalise employees speaking out about stress, mental health and burnout while having a company culture that “acknowledges the impact of this working environment”.
“If staff are reaching out there needs to be services that will support them taking time off. A reassuring and collaborative nature is also really important so people know it’s safe to speak up and look after themselves.
“Otherwise people will continue to sacrifice themselves, usually out of guilt or job stability.”
This article was created in partnership with SEEK