work from home

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‘Lockdown burnout’? Some easy wins for work-from-home employees

Calls have increased for robust implementation of support programmes for employees who have been forced to work from home by the COVID-19 pandemic.

work from home

Image: Adobe Stock

The COVID-19 lockdown regulations in South Africa has engendered both opposing and hybrid views – some hail the move to working from home as an inevitable trend, some can’t wait for a return to what they see as normality and an end to the “work from home social experiment”, while others hope for a hybrid working model. 

Emotional impact of work-from-home culture

What has been less studied is the emotional impact that working from home has had on the workforce. 

In the US, large corporations known for their high-performance cultures, such as Goldman Sachs, Amazon and Apple, have returned their workforces to the office with collaboration and innovation prompting their decision-making.

Amazon’s VP for Workforce recently told the Wall Street Journal that the workplace offers the ability to “connect in an ad hoc fashion” that cannot be “spontaneous” when working from home, while Apple CEO Tim Cook emphasised the need to be together in order to “advance ideas”.

While collaboration and innovation are the number one reasons cited by these leaders for bringing the workforce back to the office, little has been said about how working from home has affected employees and businesses alike.

Cause for real concern in SA context

There is evidence in the South African context to indicate real concern for people working from home, and for organisations suffering the negative effects of employees no longer being in the office. These effects range from employees’ mental health taking a knock, or business performance no longer hitting the mark as it did pre-COVID.

Alexander Forbes Health works closely with large corporations in South Africa, assisting them in determining the impact on their employees and work performance, and putting forward workable, researched recommendations.

Alexander Forbes Health head of health management Myrna Sachs says that while working from home is sometimes preferred by employees, and employers are doing their best to adapt to this trend.

Increase in work hours and digital overload

In their research, they found that one of the biggest challenges being faced by employees is the new virtual ways of working have placed greater strain on them as they’ve clocked many more hours of work at home than they did at the office.

“Employees are experiencing digital overload. Back-to-back meetings with no time to pause and the perception that it’s fine to squeeze in another one simply because everything is now being done digitally have become prevalent,” says Sachs.

Blurring of line between work and home life

Instead of the holy grail of work/life balance, many are experiencing a blurring of the line between work and home life.

“There are no longer any boundaries being adhered to, and the expectation is for employees to be readily available all day. By way of example, many respondents in our research felt the constant urge to check their work emails after normal working hours”.   

Mental health burden

Working from home has also placed a heavy burden on the mental health of many individuals. Sachs says that their research found that many, particularly those living on their own, were reliant on the office for social interaction.

“Humans are at their essence social beings. Starving them of social interaction can have devastating consequences,” says Sachs.   

The lack of social cues and gestures in the virtual setting has also led to increased miscommunication among colleagues.

“Non-verbal cues and gestures are an important part of human interaction and communication. Where these are not recognisable, as in the virtual meeting setting, especially when video cameras are off, misunderstanding between people can easily occur where they can’t observe facial expressions and body language.”

Working from home: Here are some ‘easy wins’

There are some solutions for organisations and their employees when confronted with the challenges of working from home. Alexander Forbes Health recommends some easy wins:

  • Face-to-face check-ins are critical, including during performance appraisal discussions, and allowing employees access to the office with health and safety protocols in place.
  • Creating a ‘buddy’ system among colleagues.
  • Providing important support structure contact details e.g. the South Africa Depression and Anxiety Group, and gender-based violence helplines.
  • Regular check-ins with team members keeping videos on.
  • Introducing fun challenges to keep employees motivated.
  • Auditing home workspaces and circumstance to understand what employees need in their home office space to work optimally, as well as whether they have other responsibilities at home such as having to home school their children, or if their partner also works from home.
  • Allowing some flexibility with proper guidelines to guard against possible abuse.

“There are myriad support systems and tools that organisations can use to support their employees during this time. If you go the extra mile to ensure their wellbeing, it is bound to have a positive knock-on effect on the business.

“If vaccination rates speed up, this should allow us to return to the office more safely and more rapidly, and allow more normalised social interaction. This will have a direct bearing on mental health,” says Sachs.