Isolated and Unproductive — The Dark Side of WFH (Work From Home)
by Catherine Morris | April 8, 2021, updated 6 months ago
In early 2020 the world of work underwent an immense shift. As pandemic restrictions took hold, businesses shuttered, offices closed, and workplaces went to the web.
Stats Canada figures show that 40 percent of us were working from home in the first half of 2020, compared to less than 10 percent in 2018.
For some it marked the beginning of a new era, highlighting the huge opportunity for technology to make us more connected, more informed, and more accessible than ever. We could say goodbye to the daily commute, spend more time with our families, cultivate new skills, and step back from stress.
A year later and it's increasingly obvious that the new work-from-home routine has its dark side. Isolation, depression, anxiety and stress are soaring as many struggle to set boundaries and hit that coveted work-life balance—all against the backdrop of one of the most uncertain times of our age.
With both employees and employers navigating new waters, everyone is still learning how to adapt to, and cope in, the pandemic landscape.
There are no guidelines or instructional pamphlets, and no best practices to follow. This is new territory and many companies are still figuring out how best to support their workers, protect their health and provide for their future—all while keeping an eye on their bottom line.
The Cost of Covid
While the health of their workers is obviously paramount, employers run businesses and businesses can only stay open if they consistently make a profit. The productivity and profitability of a company is crucial to everyone within that company—from the entry-level worker to the CEO.
Keeping workers at home reduces the need for physical infrastructure so, from an employers point of view, that's a tidy saving on rent, utilities, office supplies and all the other incidentals that it takes to equip a thriving and busy workspace.
But what they gain in cut costs, some businesses are losing in staff well-being, and therefore reduced productivity.
Around 25 percent of remote employees say their productivity declined during the pandemic, according to a recent survey by PwC. Respondents said maintaining a good work-life balance was the biggest challenge, along with communication and connectivity. For employers, the biggest obstacle was maintaining morale and company culture.
Productivity waned for a number of reasons. Firstly, some tasks are not as conducive to a remote set-up. Activities that require close collaboration with other team members, brainstorming sessions, time-sensitive duties and large networking events are all more difficult virtually. Taking those tasks online may be doable, but won't produce optimal results.
Secondly, our collective mental health was at an all-time low last year. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), 38 percent of Canadians said their mental health had worsened since the start of the pandemic, and 46 percent are feeling anxious and worried.
This disturbing trend can't help but have an impact in the workplace. CEO and lead trainer of coaching firm Balance Leadership, Brian Knowler says a healthy company needs healthy employees and believes that mental health, productivity and profitability are strongly, and inescapably, linked—
“The health and wellness of your team, mental or otherwise, is your bottom line. It's not your stock price, or your shares or your black or red numbers. It's what kind of shape your team is in. If your team is healthy that is your foundation for those numbers. Leaders have a tremendous responsibility to make sure their employees' mental health is taken care of. You have an obligation to have a plan in place.”
That obligation is often felt even more strongly in smaller businesses where staff are like family.
Leadership coach Lindsay White, of High Voltage Leadership, works with small businesses and entrepreneurs and says that, even with all their financial woes, her clients are still trying to put staff first—
“It’s been such a rollercoaster for businesses and they are desperately worried about their teams. Business owners are very conscious of [mental health issues among staff] and they are trying very diligently to stay that way.”
Burnout and the Bottom Line
By April 2020 most of us were in some form of quarantine, and it didn't take long for the novelty of mixing work with home life to wear off.
Knowler, who coaches in a variety of workplaces from non-profit organizations to large corporations, says a lot of his clients were taken by surprise when Covid hit and the professional world scrambled to adjust.
“In some cases, there was very little direction on what working from home actually means. I was shocked at how many businesses had no plan in place for ensuring continuity. There was mass confusion and a lot of flying by the seat of their pants."
Deadlines and domesticity were never going to be an ideal fit. Some of us agonized over the basics—where to put our laptops, how to keep the kids quiet while we’re on a call, why our microphones kept muting during Zoom meetings.
Others had more serious concerns—how to switch off and escape work-related stress, how to feel connected to a very disconnected team, how to balance our workload with responsibilities like parenting or caring for our elderly.
“The lines between home and office are now really blurred. The stressors are coming from so many directions. You go from employee to mum, dad or teacher in the blink of an eye,” says Knowler who adds that in these types of situations it's easy for employees to feel isolated and alone.
“When you're working from home you don't have the luxury of your regular meetings where everyone sits in a room, plans out the week and brainstorms. You can feel like you're on your own. Humans are very sociable creatures. When you don't have those social ties at work and you are not getting regular communication from the office, you can start drifting.”
Tragically, for those with existing mental health issues, it has been a triggering time. Heightening anxiety, reigniting old traumas, addiction relapses... CMHA figures show that people already prone to poor mental health are twice as likely to say their mental health has declined, and three times more likely to report trouble coping.
For employers, especially those in close-knit companies, it's hard to see. Of course, senior staff are dealing with their own battles. Faced with the ultimate responsibility of a company's very survival, CEOs and executives are experiencing their own burnouts and skyrocketing stress.
Executive/leadership coach Jeanie Paterson has seen this play out among her clients, noting that many in senior positions are so used to putting staff first that they neglect their own self-care.
“Leaders are not getting the breathing space they need. There is this unwritten mindset from many dedicated leaders that they need to focus just on staff, but if the leader crashes and burns the staff will be at a loss. They need their leaders to sustain themselves.”
So how to safeguard the mental health of the entire team? It's a complicated question with no easy answer.
Every group contains individuals. Individual personalities, individual needs, individual goals. We may be dealing with more chaos than usual at the moment, but we all handle chaos differently. Depending on your personality type, you may thrive in chaos or you may need more structure to do your best work.
Good managers understand that mental health isn't a tidy concept with a single solution. Knowler advises leaders to get to know their team, and ask each member how they'd like to keep in touch—setting up regular check-ins via email, phone, or Zoom calls.
He also tells his CEO clients to clear some space in their schedule for 'office hours' where employees can come to them with concerns. That way, each person has a direct link if they need to talk and they know there will be a listening ear—“Showing that you are taking time out specifically for them is huge. Availability is an integral part of reassuring your team.”
It's also important to lead with empathy. It can be extremely helpful for an employer to be honest and open about their own vulnerabilities. 'We're all in this together' has become something of a slogan during Covid, but all those memes and social media posts convey a hard-earned truth—we are all facing similar challenges and similar fears. We're all standing on the precipice of a very uncertain future.
Having these types of honest discussions among staff helps remove the stigma attached to mental health concerns and encourages employees to come forward and ask for help.
“Make mental health something that is discussed, talk about it. Share your story, that can be a tremendous trust builder. Your work family plays a huge role in maintaining your mental health. If you want the best from your people, you want to give them the best of yourself.”
Peer support therapy can be a particularly good outlet for anyone who feels particularly isolated and alone thanks to its emphasis on group support, and sharing painful thoughts or experiences in a safe environment.
“Leaders have to make it safe for people to discuss their experiences,” says Paterson. “Don't view it as a weakness but as a courageous thing to come forward. Invite people to share. Spend time checking in and creating the culture where people can candidly voice what they are experiencing.”
Paterson, who is currently putting together a webinar on 'strengthening personal resilience', also recommends that employees practice their own self-care, even if it feels awkward or uncomfortable. She advises starting small, with do-able changes that have a big impact—
“Create new habits. Get up from your chair, rest your eyes, take a stretch, go for a walk, find a way to take a break and renew yourself. We are telling ourselves that we cannot stop when there is actually great value in stopping because then you can bring fresh eyes back to the situation. Block out time to create space to think, to gain perspective, to employ a strategy for resilience. Block it out, protect it and don't feel guilty about it.”
Worries over losing their job, letting down colleagues, feeling ashamed or embarrassed, not wanting to be seen as a burden or the weak link in the chain—these are powerful silencers, motivating staff to simply put up and shut up.
Senior staff should be alert to non-verbal cues that something's amiss. These can include—
- Disengagement – When an employee becomes withdrawn, doesn't contribute in meetings or initiate conversation
- Erratic behaviour – It's normal for employees to act a little differently in their home setting, but if someone is consistently acting out of character or behaving oddly that could be a sign of distress
- Poor performance – Likewise, if someone starts to regularly miss deadlines or skip meetings they might be having trouble focusing or concentrating
White says another giveaway is employees who brush aside concern with “I'm fine”, adding—
“No-one's fine at the moment! When people say that it's quite likely there's something going on underneath. Ask yourself, are they contributing in any way? Are they missing deadlines? Can people get hold of them? Are they withdrawing to the point where they are not participating any more?”
She says it's important to watch out for younger members of the team in particular. That generation may be more tech-savvy, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are coping—
“Younger staff need a team around them to get them inculcated to the business. That water cooler chat is important to them in terms of bringing them into the work culture. They need to be in meetings, talking to the team—they are missing those pieces, and they feel completely disconnected and adrift.”
She says a good solution is to institute some sort of mentorship program where more senior staff can take on the responsibility of making sure their younger colleagues are okay, and keeping up with their workload.
This is also a good option for anyone who might be shy about talking to senior staff directly—“Some people are not comfortable talking to the boss but you can partner them up, get them a buddy.”
Support can't be short-term and doled out on a case by case basis. An effective support network is one that can be sustained over the long-term. Mental health issues don't tend to be tidy, and recovery is rarely a straight line from poorly to well.
There's also more serious issues at play. While we're all feeling anxiety, fear and stress at the moment, and those are definitely an important concern, others may be dealing with additional trauma.
They may have lost a loved one during lockdowns and feel trapped in what's known as 'complicated grief'. They may be battling long Covid (where symptoms linger for months after the initial diagnosis). They could even be experiencing PTSD from pandemic-related trauma.
For addicts and those with existing mental health concerns, the pandemic can be extremely triggering and lead to a relapse into past harmful behaviours.
“As this goes on and the mental health aspects are becoming more prevalent, people in authority are realizing this will be an ongoing thing,” says Knowler. “We are going into year two now and people have adapted but that doesn't mean the need for communication is now lessened because we are used to it.”
The Future of WFH
The longer people are required to work from home, the more it becomes the norm. The pandemic has been eye-opening in terms of showing just how many jobs can be done competently from the comfort of our own couch. Begging the question—if we don't need to return to offices, will we?
Perhaps not. Research firm Global Workplace Analytics estimates that 25-30 percent of the workforce will be working from home multiple days a week by the end of 2021. And according to Stats Canada, four out of every ten workers are doing jobs that can be performed from home—mostly in the educational, professional, finance, and insurance sectors.
Consensus seems to be growing for a hybrid model, one where employees are given flexibility to be able to work from home some days, but still have the option of meeting in an office when necessary.
Knowler suggests that a hybrid work model requires a hybrid leadership model. With some choosing to return to work, and others staying home, there needs to be a supportive structure for both, and steps must be taken to ensure the remote workers aren't at a disadvantage.
“There are concerns those people will be pushed aside because they have chosen to stay at home. You have to check in with them on a regular basis. Do not just let them drift. That is where communication and consistent messaging comes in.”
The hope is that as remote working becomes more established and we learn the resulting lessons along the way, new WFH-friendly policies will be developed to offer workers the support they need. Knowler says—
“This has given people in leadership roles a whole new set of tools. Companies and leaders who have their finger on the pulse have already started to pivot and plan. The lessons we've learned about the importance of communication and connection are going to lead to change. It’s a great opportunity for development.”
Paterson agrees, saying she's already seen a big shift in how we're talking about mental health— “Mental health is more on the radar than it was, Covid has brought this up. It was easy to ignore before, but now it's in our faces so it's an opportunity to do things differently. Mental health and wellness needs to be embedded into our culture, it needs to be invested in.”
Mental health and remote working don't have to be a bad fit, either. As White points out, the added flexibility of a more hybrid approach can actually give people breathing space and, done well, could be the future of employment—
“Working in a more flexible arrangement is the way we should be working, in my opinion, but there are a few critical pieces that should be in place first. What I hope is that organizations are anticipating and embracing this idea that we will not have everyone back in the office every day, and are seeing how they can shift.”
She says the key is “intentional leadership”, and defines this as—“leaders who set out to understand and appreciate where every single one of their team is at, and how to support them and remove any roadblocks.”
White adds—“We all have to stay kind and connected.”
We’re still figuring out what exactly a post-pandemic workplace looks like, but with a clearer understanding of the mental health challenges, savvy employers can develop roadmaps for where they want their company to go...while ensuring everyone can make that journey together.
If you're experiencing a crisis or simply need to talk, the Canadian Mental Health Association offers a variety of free and confidential mental health support services. If you'd like to reach out to Brian Knowler, Jeanie Paterson, Lindsay White, or any of our Which Doctor counsellors or therapists, get in touch via our online platform to schedule a consultation and assess your needs.
Catherine Morris is an award-winning journalist with a bad case of wanderlust and a passion for all things health and wellness. Originally from Northern Ireland, she worked as a news and feature writer for media outlets in the UK, South Africa, France and the Caribbean before settling in Canada. Catherine now lives in Alberta with her husband and rescue mutt and spends her time happily exploring the great outdoors with both.