Why Working from Home During the COVID-19 Outbreak Is No Vacation: Top 5 Issues… and Workable Solutions
By Scott Wilson
It didn’t take long for the memes to hit the web as companies started complying with mandatory quarantine policies by shifting all employees who could do their jobs remotely to work-from-home status: a stream of posts about “new coworkers” that feature pet photos… the obligatory no-pants teleconferencing selfies… tweets about the joys of all-day pajama wearing.
Many workers fantasize about regularly enjoying the freedom to work from home, so you would think this scenario would be a dream come true.
Instead, it turns out that working from home during a pandemic can be a lot more stressful than it sounds.
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The excitement tends to wear off right after that first win at conference call bingo (winning match: “Sorry, I was on mute”).
Of course, psychology professionals are already plenty familiar with the traditional challenges that remote working can bring. Clients new to working from home complain of everything from feelings of isolation and disconnection to an inability to maintain a healthy work/life balance to worries about job stability. Interestingly, one of the biggest concerns people have is about their own job performance.
These often lead to symptoms of anxiety and depression at a higher rate than people with more traditional on-site jobs. And all of that compounds to create the perfect storm for everything from insomnia and fatigue, which can lead to more severe health problems, to the kind of melancholy and irritability that can stress relationships.
And all of this can create a kind of feedback loop that can rob us of our ability to concentrate on our work, which then only fuels further insecurity about job performance and drives anxiety higher.
Over time, remote workers tend to adapt, as people usually do with any novel situation.
But now it’s not just the typical stress and anxiety that is coming with the transition to working from home. When you drop a pandemic on top of a situation that is already ripe for psychological stressors, there are bound to be unexpected difficulties… difficulties that psychologists, counselors, and social workers will be asked to address in the coming weeks and months.
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Even long-term remote workers are finding that operating from home during COVID-19 offers a whole new set of psychological challenges, while at the same time many of the traditional ways of blowing off steam after the work day is done are now completely forbotten… whether your thing is a pick-up game of hoops at the gym or meeting up for happy hour to grab a drink with friends.
Psychologists have identified five big reasons why COVID-19 is psychologically tough for both new and experienced remote workers:
1 – ‘Meet for a drink at 5:30?’ – forget it… Many traditional coping mechanisms are now strictly forbidden
The traditional advice for work-from-home clients who are feeling isolated and disconnected has been to get out of the house. Psychologists recommend small breaks throughout the day to go out and connect with other people, or working from a coffee shop or co-working space on some days.
But those outlets are not available during a period of social distancing. Coworking spaces are being shut down; coffee shops are removing tables and chairs and offering take-out services only.
Simply taking a break from the normal isolation that occurs when working from home is not only an option that’s totally off the table, it’s in direct violation of the stay-at-home orders already handed down from several state and municipal governments. A heavy-handed mandate like this, as necessary as it might be, only adds to the sense of dread many people are feeling.
2 – As annoying as coworkers might be, you could find yourself really missing the sense of camaraderie
Even for long-term remote workers, life during off hours once offered a respite to the inherent isolation and other psychological challenges of working from home. Getting together with friends, going out to see a movie or getting a bite to eat… all the fun little routines of regular life.
With those options off the table during lockdowns, though, it’s not just working life that has moved online—social lives are now equally virtual. But most people agree that doesn’t really fully scratch the social itch.
For many, little interactions with coworkers are the only social interactions we really have during the workweek. You might be surprised how much you take for granted the simple camaraderie you experience with these folks, even if half the time it’s all coffee breath and bragging about their kids.
Being truly and completely alone for hours and hours at a time can take a real toll, and people shifting to a work-from-home model very often complain of missing the connection, interaction, and companionship they have with coworkers.
3 - Many corporations have no experience or systems in place to manage and support remote workers
Any long-term remote worker will tell you it takes some time to adapt to working from home, for both employees and the corporations they work for.
But as many companies are now suddenly faced with having to transition their workforces online en masse, they find themselves scrambling frantically and trying to figure out how to manage it all. Many employees have never worked from home and the companies themselves have no experience managing a remote workforce.
That means many remote workers are now having to deal with managers with unrealistic expectations and inadequate supervision… technology and communication tools that are inadequate to the demands of a large-scale remote workforce… HR processes that may be unavailable or unmanageable remotely… corporate software and IT systems that don’t adequately support remote workers.
4 – Not being able to get away from the negative news of the day can be maddening
One of the major recommendations coming from psychologists and counselors for anybody feeling overwhelmed by the news of the day is to detach from the sources of that distressing information… unplug, turn off the devices, disconnect from the network for a while and get out of the stream of bad news.
But for anyone working from home, you literally can’t unplug.
Even work itself may involve constant reminders of the crisis, which has evolved into an all-hands-on-deck approach for many companies as they deal with major disruptions.
The electronic lifeline that allows people to work remotely is the same line that is delivering a constant stream of some pretty scary and depressing news… and anybody who has ever worked from home will tell you that makes it all the more difficult to take a break and tune out.
5 - Outside stressors related to the COVID-19 outbreak pile on top of work-related stress
Anyone dealing with any kind of work-related stress is bound to find that it is magnified by the real-life consequences of the pandemic.
When people are already overwhelmed with worry about their own health – not to mention their parents, kids, and friends’ health – it just compounds and makes job related stressors that used to be all in a day’s work far more intense and more difficult to deal with.
Add to that all the trickiness of transitioning to the work-from-home model, questions about job security as the economy falters, and the insecurities that come as a result of not getting the kind of real-time feedback that is normal when working in close contact with colleagues and bosses, and it’s a perfect storm for some pretty serious psychological stress.
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Now that a large proportion of the workforce has been thrown into this state, the demand for psychological help is bound to spike… and psychology professionals aren’t necessarily immune.
Social distancing has significant consequences for how counselors, social workers, and psychologists practice, and they are all dealing with the same issues of displacement and disorientation. Add to that the fact that many of the core issues clients are bringing up are not even psychological in nature… a mental health counselor can’t do anything about the micromanaging boss who is demanding the impossible, and they can’t rewrite that antiquated software that was designed strictly for company intranet.
Many counselors are doubling down on the standard suggestions for remote workers in this time of crisis. Although some of the options have been taken off the table by the virus, in other cases, a little creativity or reinterpretation is all that is necessary to help clients get back on their feet when dumped suddenly into a work-from-home situation.
Go all-in on communication
Although the internet is a double-edged sword these days, it’s a powerful tool for connecting with other people. That means suggesting that clients keep their lines of communication open with coworkers and friends.
The good news is that a lot more people are going to be available when you reach out to them. Zoom, Skype and FaceTime all offer a window into the lives of friends and family. It’s important to be able to see as well as talk to people, and there are plenty of ways to do it while keeping everyone safe.
Personal standards are more important than professional standards
Treating work as a professional effort can slide when people aren’t surrounded by coworkers, and the traditional expectations for performance and behavior aren’t being reinforced the same way they would be in the office.
Encourage your clients to embrace personal standards as a way to bring back that sense of regularity and boost self-worth. Insist that they keep a schedule even while working from home… that they get up on time, workout, shower, and get dressed. Even these little gestures of maintaining a personal standard when the office standards for dress codes and the like aren’t there can help create a sense of normalcy even in very abnormal times.
Recognize that it’s not forever
In the end, psychologists know that there are really no good alternatives to feelings of isolation when that isolation is legally and ethically mandated like we’re seeing in this current situation… but it can be helpful to point out that it’s a situation that will eventually run its course.
Clients who are living through it now may feel lost and overwhelmed. It is helpful to point out to them that COVID-19 will not circulate forever, that there are countries who are already moving past the crisis, and that their time working from home will also be limited. In fact, it won’t be long before a pointless meeting or annoying remark from Stu in accounting has them wishing for another chance to work from home.
Scott Wilson is an author and information technology consultant based in the Pacific Northwest. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Washington and has worked in the information technology industry for more than 20 years as a system administrator, IT manager, and consultant.