Moving back into the office can positively affect mental and physical health.
South Africans working from home since the implementation of lockdown restrictions in early 2020 are putting in longer office hours than before; are affected by household disturbances during work hours; and experience increased and unnecessary conflict in the home as well as social isolation. This is according to Dr Colinda Linde, clinical psychologist and chairperson of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG).
"The move by a large number of organisations in South Africa to work from home has resulted in detrimental effects on mental health for a large number of employees," says Dr Linde, who reports that calls to SADAG helpline from the public seeking help have more than doubled since the start of lockdown in 2020.
"The lines between work life and personal life have become blurred, elevating levels of stress, anxiety and depression (especially if these were present already). In some cases, and families are experiencing increased conflict from being in each other’s space and company far more than usual, without the buffer of separate social connection at work or outside of it. Compounding this is the reality that many don’t have an adequate office set-up at home and this can impact on work performance," says Dr Linde.
Longer work hours
A recent study reported that employees are working an average of two additional hours per day since working from home.
Dr Linde says that there is an increasing perception among some employers that when one works from home you have more time available that can be used for work purposes. If you aren’t doing the commute, that does not mean meetings at 5pm can replace this time!
"Boundaries have become quite an issue for many people, with managers tending to message their employees and expecting replies or work completed after hours and a lack of respect for personal and family time," says Dr Linde.
Social isolation and workplace solutions
Dr Linde notes that during periods of lockdown when there is no possibility of social interaction, there are significant detrimental effects on mental wellness. "The office space provides for social connection and support, and a space to be separate from who you are at home – someone’s mother, partner, cook or cleaner. And for some people, the work space is the only social contact or friendship that they have."
Being unable to access this type of contact can be particularly daunting for people who live alone without a partner, family, housemates or even pets, says Linde.
"The so-called 'water-cooler' chats where ideas often originate, or chatting in the kitchen over a cup of coffee, was an important opportunity for social interaction. Until we get back into the office, it’s important to schedule time to interact with others even if it’s an online social chat or dinner, and when possible, in person as we return to a hybrid workplace (of course while taking into consideration Covid-19 safety protocols such as wearing a mask and socialising in a well-ventilated area).”
"Impromptu catchups in workplace corridors is often the place where ideas spring and can be fertile ground for innovation and creative solutions."
Household conflict and disturbances
It can be equally challenging for individuals who do live with family and cannot separate work and home life. Many of these employees grab the opportunity when restrictions are lowered to go into the office even if there are only a few co-workers there and even if there is still a level of social distancing.
According to Dr Linde, working from home can also become a case of ‘too much of a good thing’ with significantly more time spent with others, such as family members, over a prolonged period of time, which can cause conflict. "In the office you can be alone when you need to, but at home you are sharing space with many others such as children who are competing for your attention, and adults competing for space."
Children and even pets are wonderful to be able to spend quality time with, but they’re also a potential source of disruption during work hours."Trying to work while you can hear children and pets is distracting, and children often don’t understand that they cannot interrupt."
"Work and personal life is taking place in the same place, and it’s not a sustainable situation."
Inadequate home office
Employers and employees alike have underestimated the importance of a proper office set-up required for working effectively from home. Ergonomics – the combination of psychological and physiological aspects of work life, including the engineering and design of products such as chairs, laptop and desk position and height - is an essential part enacting one’s job each day. However, when working from home, these advanced process and systems are not in place and can have a negative impact on mental and physical well-being.
"Many employees’ homes are not sufficiently set-up for working from home – a place separate from the living and sleeping areas, with a good chair, Wi-Fi and lighting, and even a view."
"The solution is going to be bespoke for each company, and could start with a pilot project for a few months to see what works best for each role as well as the company, and the individual. A pilot does need an end date though, followed by a clear policy on what the hybrid workplace is going to look like for the organisation and the different departments within it.