Remote work and mental health
“My sister works from home,” a friend complained last week, “and now seems to be working longer hours while not being compensated because it doesn’t count as ‘overtime.’”
“Work from home now fills me with anxiety,” says a Twitter mutual. “The moment I wake up to before I sleep, all I think about is work.” She receives no pay for overtime work as well, and continues to receive urgent e-mails well into the evening.
My own partner has a similar story in adjusting to daily work from home. A nine-hour workday, sandwiched in between one-hour commutes, has now transformed to an 11- to 13-hour day. Lunch breaks have been obliterated, replaced by 15 minutes of wolfing down food in front of the computer. There is no such thing as on-call pay for this work.
As part of quarantine measures, allowing employees to work remotely was a necessary response to the COVID-19 situation. For the average Filipino employee, who struggles with the stress of traffic congestion and transport costs, the permission to work from home (WFH) must have been a relief, provided one has an adequate internet connection and a computer at home. It saves money and allows workers to see children or pets during the day. Many assumed that WFH would give them more time for personal pursuits.
Some companies have also seen a rise in productivity. One of the arguments against remote work was the fear that employees would be slacking off in an unsupervised environment; in reality, with employees spending less time socializing, commuting, or attending physical meetings, some companies have reported increases in productivity for some types of work, triggering discussions about whether the arrangement should become permanent.
However, this increased productivity may come at the expense of a reasonable work-life balance, and blur the boundaries between home and work. With the expectations that employees spend all their time at home, companies don’t hesitate to send emails, expect responses, and set up meetings at times far beyond the usual workday. Times to meet deadlines are shorter. “Long gone are the regretful formalities for calling or emailing at appropriate times,” an article on work-life balance stated last month in Bloomberg.
While the experience is not universal, burnout from remote work is real. This lack of structure has severe consequences for mental health, in a time when people are already suffering from myriad other stressors like health concerns, food security, and worrying about loved ones. Many long for the separation of home life and work. Many companies also don’t have systems in place to track overtime work and to adequately compensate it.
There also appears to be a disproportionate burden on women, many of whom are expected to multitask, balancing care for house-bound children and housework. Adi Gaskell, writing for Forbes, describes how the gender divide persists in WFH scenarios, with female partners taking up more domestic work compared to their male partners even though both are at home.
Some employees, thankful to be employed in a time when many industries are suffering, don’t dare to complain or to ask for the compensation they would have been due otherwise. Many feel the need to prove that they are both productive and available. The threat of workforce reduction looms overhead.
There is a lot of talk about the “new normal,” and how, even with lockdown measures lifted, many industries will continue to allow remote work. But if boundaries aren’t respected and expectations of productivity aren’t adjusted, the arrangement will continue to take its toll on mental health and home life. Some companies have placed strict window periods for meetings and work emails; hopefully this will become more the rule than the exception. In places where WFH will continue into the long haul, companies need to equip its managers and superiors with the tools to recognize work and home boundaries, and with the compassion to recognize the difficult and highly individual experiences of employees at home during the pandemic.
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