Work at home in times of Covid19

Initially, when the lockdown began, many had pictured this work from home as a temporary work change that would offer lots of free time away from the watchful eyes of the boss, coupled with flexibility in work schedule. Within a month of this voluntary lockdown, the humorous memes, the positive fantasies associated with work from home, unfortunately, started getting transformed to work at home exhaustion for many. As the pandemic data turns scarier each day and news of forced salary cuts, layoffs are increasing so are the uncertainties. The initial phase of work at home was akin to the honeymoon stage of burnout. Learning to work at home employees were eager to please and meet all work requests with enthusiasm. Very soon this started to get replaced by lassitude, a state of mental and physical weariness, discomfort, fatigue and burnout. If ones’ job is relatively secure and one is performing the same work from home, then why is it leading to increased stress when working from home. Some of the possible causes have been explored in this article. 

The phone rang, and the boss enquired why the file had not yet been mailed. The poor employee did not know what to say. He did not know whether to wipe the tears oozing out from the corner of his eyes because of chopping onions or to switch off the gas lest the pressure cooker acts as a whistleblower. Like many of us initially, when the lockdown began, he was happily circulating memes on work at home. The ignorant and inexperienced mind had initially pictured this work from home as a temporary work change that would offer lots of free time away from the watchful eyes of the boss, coupled with flexibility in work schedule. Within a month of this voluntary lockdown, the humorous memes, the positive fantasies associated with work from home, unfortunately, started getting transformed to work at home exhaustion for many. As the pandemic data turns scarier each day and news of forced salary cuts, layoffs are increasing so are the uncertainties. The initial phase of work at home was akin to the honeymoon stage of burnout. Learning to work at home employees were eager to please and meet all work requests with enthusiasm. Very soon this started to get replaced by lassitude, a state of mental and physical weariness, discomfort, fatigue and burnout. 

If ones’ job is relatively secure and one is performing the same work from home, then why is it leading to increased stress when working from home. Some of the possible causes have been explored below.

Directed Attention Fatigue and inability to positively disengage from distractions: To perform our work effectively on a job requires us to draw on our executive functions especially inhibitory control; so that we can temporarily dissociate ourselves from other cognitive and emotional distractions and focus on the task itself. Working in an office environment enables employees to distance themselves temporarily from home and social distractions effectively psychologically. Getting dressed, travelling to work and working in a space designated specifically for work with proper infrastructural and systemic facilities assist in concentrating better, enhancing productivity. This is the reason companies are motivated to invest heavily in employee wellbeing and workspace. With the disappearing boundaries between work and home coupled with lack of training, remote working has increased the pressure on many employees. The cause of this increased stress and fatigue can be attributed to  directed attention fatigue (DAF), a neuropsychological phenomenon resulting from the overuse of brain inhibitory attention mechanisms. The nature of commute has been totally reversed by this lockdown. From commuting from home to work to office cafeteria, to formal and informal meetings; it is now about commuting from work desk at home to living room, kitchen, fridge, balcony, window, bathroom, children play area etc. Working from home struggling to maintain focus on a thought by inhibiting all potential distractions rather than strengthening ones’ focus on the central mental activity associated with work can cause directed attention fatigue leading to irritability, impatience and forgetfulness. 

The pandemic situation that has brought work to home has caused unique unrest, especially in employees who functioned on the principle that when at home, leave work and office thoughts behind. Such employees who had been naturally programmed to separate their work and personal lives are now caught in a circumstance that is not allowing them to do so. Understanding from the perspective of self-complexity theory as individuals we have multiple aspects- context-dependent social roles, relationships, activities and goals, and we find the variety healthy. When these aspects are compromised, we become more vulnerable to negative feelings. We can safely add here that while previously, the struggle was about work-life balance now it is about balancing self when multiple things are happening simultaneously at the same time and place. 

The changed nature of intermittent breaks when working at the office whilst home: The importance of building regular break times into the workday for making work less stressful and more engaging for employees has been emphasized time and again. More than 50 years ago, the pioneering sleep researcher Nathaniel Kleitman discovered something he named the ‘basic rest-activity cycle’. Kleitman also observed that our bodies operate by the same 90 minute rhythm during the day. When we are awake, we move from higher to lower alertness every 90 minutes. Other researchers have called this our ‘ultradian rhythm.’ Our bodies send us clear signals when we need a break. Possible awareness of this fact had led to companies designing modern workplace creatively with flexible layouts incorporating nature and ample facilities. A place where employees could take a quality break to unwind, let their minds rest while they move for a short walk, for coffee or an indoor game.

Research has shown that the average employee performs only 2.8 hours of productive work each day. Another research study revealed that an average UK office worker is only productive for 2 hours and 53 minutes out of the working day. The employees were then questioned about other activities they were guilty of spending time during the working day instead of working productively? From a list of potential options presented to them, respondents identified top distractions like checking social media, reading news, discussing out of work activities with colleagues, making hot drinks, smoking breaks, eating snacks etc. Sixty-five percent of respondents believed that they could not get through the working day without partaking in any distractions for it made the day bearable. Owing to complete shift to remote working because of covid19, the existence of such relieving intermittent breaks has become questionable. Also, where employees do get up from their work desk, the nature of these intermittent breaks while working from home is significantly different. The activities that now constitute the break range from taking a shower, cooking a quick meal, feeding the baby, laundry, cleaning, giving attention to family, pets, making a drink etc. This has the risk of further increasing work fatigue and listlessness.

Virtual work fatigue: Much before covid19 organizations have been using information tools extensively to take advantage of a globally dispersed workforce. However, post covid19 imposed lockdown the social interactions have got extremely limited, leading to a feeling of being consumed by screens like never. Be it ordering groceries, children studying online or fulfilling our job responsibilities remotely or connecting with friends and family over facetime. Though virtual work collapses the boundaries of time and place, total reliance on the same affects us at a psychological level. The knowledge that you are working online because of an extraneous stressor covid19, and the added pressure of being watched creates unique noise in mind. Often, we get conscious and caught in seeing ourself on the screen and thinking about how we appear to others. According to Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, such platforms naturally put us in a position that is unnatural. For instance, a professor teaching in a virtual classroom where most students are logged in an audio mode misses out on the natural cues and responses to his words.In some cases, it becomes like a one-sided communication and the teaching experience monotonous for the professor. There is a high probability of experiencing increased negative emotions like irritability, worry, loneliness and dissatisfaction in employees in a teleworking scenario. Flaws like slow internet connection of a team member, interruptions, repetitions or silence induced by technological lags can further accentuate the need to engage in surface acting in otherwise regular transactions causing stress and fatigue.

Covid19 itself: Another cause of increased feelings of lassitude is the pandemic itself. Previously when work at home was exercised partially in certain jobs as per the company policies or employee discretion, it came like a positive perk of the job. In the current situation, however, screens act as a reminder of the information in the subconscious mind that this work from home is not an opportunity or choice but rather an imposed decision as a disease prevention measure. With such thoughts, employees can find themselves unwillingly trapped in feelings of stress, isolation, boredom, low mood, anger, irritability, insomnia and other physical and mental health problems. Covid19 has been aptly termed as one of the biggest psychological experiment for which we may have to pay a heavy price by WEF. In China, these expected mental health effects are already being reported in the first research papers about the lockdown. In order to reduce the risk of negative psychological outcomes caused by the covid19 and to promote social stability and wellbeing, the National Health Commission of China (NHC) was forced to integrate psychological crisis intervention into the general deployment of disease prevention. The large no of Whatsapp forwards and conflicting theories on corona is further playing havoc with people’s mind with an experience quite similar to a hypochondriac person. The same gets reflected in people hoarding sanitizers, masks and paper rolls or being unduly alarmed for minor psychological or physiological symptoms.

Acknowledging the above factors causing work lassitude is important but reflecting on our thought process and how we respond to it is even more critical. If you start your day on a negative tone thinking, ‘I can’t function in this environment’ or ‘I just have no time to breathe’; you will soon find yourself a victim of circumstances. Human mind has the tendency to seek, interpret and remember information that matches our beliefs, which is also termed as confirmation bias. So if we water the pessimistic thoughts in our minds, the confirmation bias can create more distress by making our sight biased, such that we notice only those things that match our negative beliefs. Hence it’s advisable to set a schedule for yourself in collaboration with your family and say, ‘I will finish these chores by this time, then spend some time in self-care, then try to work without distraction and maybe spend some hours in reading, music or doing activities I love.’

Seeing from the realm of narrative psychology, our life is not merely a calendar of events; instead, it is about how we interpret and derive meaning from these experiences and events. Covid19 has come like an unprecedented event that not only changed our way of life but has left us lurking in uncertainty. Unlike in reel life, in our real-life story, the drama, the conflicts, the climax and conclusion may not happen in a sequenced, engaging and winning style. However, when we experience each of these elements happening in life, it is up to us, how we choose to connect the dots and construct a narrative structure that builds our personality, identity and life story positively. The best way to challenge this pandemic situation is to attempt to write a positive script of your life each day. By constructing and sharing positive and hopeful narratives, we can help self and others, in coping with this pandemic with resilience. If the adverse scenario doesn’t let you do so, remember the latin phrase ‘Dum spiro spero’ which means ‘while I breathe, I hope.’

Another way of dealing with the stress, anxiety and uncertainty is to strive to achieve a state of ‘mushin.’ The literal meaning of this Zen principle Mushin is an empty mind. It is a state of mind where the mind is not subjugated by any thought or emotion and disruptions. It refers to evacuating the mind from all distractions, preoccupations, and all other chains of thoughts. In neurological terms in the mental state of mushin, the pre-frontal cortex is reported to have decreased blood flow, which permits decisions to be formed more by the person’s instinctual subconsciousness. This phenomenon is elucidated by science as transient hypofrontality and a typical example could be of a musician so lost in music that he switches the notes perfectly and spontaneously. Many of us in life can recall moments when we got so lost in doing something or maybe in the company of someone that time just flew away blissfully. In times of pandemic outbreak, our mind is driven to attach itself to the past or be anxious about the future. Undoubtedly, we need to keep ourselves aware of the reality, but overthinking about the future can also lead to mental agony. Creating time for pleasing activities that we love, and we can do within the existing limitations be it gardening, playing an instrument, reading or spiritual pursuits, maybe can lead us to experience our ‘mushin’ moments and fuel us with much needed positive energy.

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harpreet kaur
harpreet kaur
3 months ago

Well written, u have touched all points. I am a teacher and u just wrote what i feel. I feel dissatisfied as i am unable to communicate like i do in classroom. I have a performance stress. I dont get to see faces of my pupils to know whether they understand or not. I miss the tea break with colleagues. Its niw work and work everywhere with no boundaries. Unconscious stress is dere. I feel frustrated. I havr no social life. The whatsspp groups are bothering now. Every phone call about a deadline bothers. U explained very well. Proud if… Read more »

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