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Working From Home Indefinitely May Have Hidden Consequences, Study Suggests

Man using phone, working from home at dining table while child uses tablet next to him

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Key Takeaways

  • While working from home provides increased flexibility, many individuals experience decreased efficiency and motivation while feeling lonelier in isolation.
  • Burnout is a major part of the problem.
  • Devising new strategies to cope and stay motivated can greatly benefit daily life, as well as long-term mental health.

Approaching eight months into the coronavirus pandemic with no end in sight, some companies are letting their employees work from home indefinitely. But do we fully understand the impact this could have on mental health or productivity?

A recent study published in the Journal of Praxis in Higher Education examined the effects of the rapid transition to a prolonged work-from-home lifestyle. Researchers focused on the experience of academics in Sweden, Finland, and Australia to better understand how working from home affects collaboration and quality of work.

The findings show that while working from home provides increased flexibility, many individuals experience decreased efficiency and motivation while feeling lonelier in isolation.

Preventing Burnout

Lacking motivation and feeling disconnected from work are clear symptoms of burnout.

“We toss the term around pretty casually in our society," says psychologist Jolie Weingeroff, PhD. "But burnout can be really devastating and lead to severe symptoms of depression.”

The pandemic conditions have not only exacerbated the causes of burnout but have also added new stressors while stripping away any sense of normalcy. “It creates the perfect recipe for disaster in terms of this transition to working from home, being isolated, and not having access to the ways in which we have learned to adapt and cope,” says Weingeroff.

In this environment, it's important to develop new strategies for prioritizing mental health.

Jolie Weingeroff, PhD

We toss the term around pretty casually in our society, but burnout can be really devastating and lead to severe symptoms of depression.

— Jolie Weingeroff, PhD

The study found that time previously dedicated to a morning and evening commute is now used to increase productivity. However, while it's easy to reallocate this time toward getting more work done, Weingeroff warns against jumping into work the moment you wake up. This can be a fast-track to burnout.

To avoid this, it's crucial to take time for yourself when you can. It might be tempting to roll out of bed and right into your email, but physically cueing yourself instead that it's time for work can make a difference in how you process your day. Get up, get dressed, and wait until you're in your designated workspace to get to work.

The same goes for the day's end. Take time to wrap up the workday before partaking in non-work activities. Weingeroff recommends taking a shower or a walk to give yourself time to process the day.

Throughout your day, it's important to schedule breaks throughout the day and stick to them. This benefits not only your mind but also your eyes, which are more prone to strain right now. Virtual meetings and hangouts have increased screen time, and Zoom fatigue is a common occurrence.

To combat this, schedule breaks between calls, invest in a pair of blue light glasses or screen protector, and if you're just feeling bored of Zoom calls in general, try taking notes to keep yourself engaged.

Setting Boundaries

Boundaries are an important aspect of efficiency and burnout prevention.

Kolleen Shallcross has been navigating work-from-home life for 23 years as a web designer and marketing specialist. Looking back on her career beginnings, she remembers being a people-pleaser who too often said "yes" to both work and personal requests. But setting sustainable boundaries came with practice.

"You want to do well, you’re a little nervous about your future," Shallcross says. "So you tend to please a little more. At the same time it can work against you. If you start slowly working on your boundaries, even with your own boss or people in your house, it will help. It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’ll start learning phrases like ‘I cannot address this right now, but I promise I’ll address it later.’” 

Kolleen Shallcross, Web Designer

If you start slowly working on your boundaries, even with your own boss or people in your house, it will help. It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’ll start learning phrases like ‘I cannot address this right now, but I promise I’ll address it later.

— Kolleen Shallcross, Web Designer

If you have other adults or children occupying your home-work environment, it can be difficult to implement boundaries that work for everyone. Shallcross, who homeschooled her son pre-COVID while working from home, says both communication and negotiation are key.

"Everyone will step up as long as you keep that communication going and tell them your needs," Shallcross says. "Ask them their needs and work together."

Let your roommates or family know when you have important meetings or deadlines coming up. Hang a scarf on your door or tape a sticky note to the back of your computer to indicate you need this time for uninterrupted focus.

The Toll of Self-Control

In the context of working from home, we're more often required to exhibit considerable self-control in staying on task and overcoming the myriad distractions around us—children, pets, household chores, social media. This can consume valuable mental energy.

Research shows exercising self-control more frequently can have negative effects on mental health. The more often we need to practice self-control, the more likely we are to become mentally exhausted.

"Working from home poses the challenge of being in a reactive, 'go, go, go' mentality, especially as multiple areas of your life may be converging in difficult ways," Weingeroff says. "It can be easy to just establish a frenetic pace of trying to multitask a lot and one thing we know about multitasking from research is that it is definitely not effective."

Weingeroff recommends breaking down tasks into small, measurable goals. By compartmentalizing the areas that need attention in your daily life, you can more easily establish a structure that works for you and manage the boundaries you've set between work and non-work time.

Part of this may include identifying your most productive time of day and aligning that with your work schedule. Are you more motivated at night? Speak with your supervisor—you might discover wiggle room when it comes to working hours.

"You want to look at your options," Shallcross says. "Ask, when do I work best? When does my company expect me to work? Where’s the flexibility?"

Creativity Through Connection

Spending the majority of our time at home can leave us feeling uninspired, which in turn can lead to a lack of motivation.

"Many individuals have experienced apathy and demotivation due to prolonged remote work," says psychiatrist Leela R. Magavi, MD. "There is a sense of monotony that decreases the yearning to try innovative things or learn new material."

It's important to find ways to stoke your creative energy. Shallcross prioritizes getting out into nature or doing a quick meditation to clear her head of mental chatter that accumulates throughout the day.

Indulging in hobbies that have nothing to do with work, like painting, baking or some aspect of fitness, can boost creativity. And an additional benefit to this is the opportunity to connect with other people.

The loss of daily interaction with coworkers, friends, family, and strangers has left us feeling disconnected. Humans are social creatures, and connecting with others through shared interests can be extremely beneficial to motivation and creativity.

It's equally as important to stay in touch with loved ones right now. Plan socially distant meetups with friends, take long walks while on the phone with family. It's important to schedule time to get out and interact with other people.

"If you stay in the house too long, your perception of reality changes," Shallcross says. "And it's not for the better."

What This Means For You

Working from home can take a toll on your mental health. But staying mindful of burnout by implementing a routine, setting boundaries and taking time for human connection can help keep you in a creative and motivated mindset.

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Article Sources
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  1. Sjølie E, Francisco S, Mahon K, Kaukko M, Kemmis S. Learning of academics in the time of the Coronavirus pandemicJournal of Praxis in Higher Education. 2020;2(1):85-107.

  2. Rivkin W, Diestel S, Schmidt KH. Which daily experiences can foster well-being at work? A diary study on the interplay between flow experiences, affective commitment, and self-control demandsJ Occup Health Psychol. 2018;23(1):99-111. doi:10.1037/ocp0000039