Working From Home Might Be Messing With Our Mental Health

Social Commentary

Working From Home Might Be Messing With Our Mental Health

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

When the lockdown first came about, to work from home seemed like a great idea. We had these dream scenarios of waking up late, roaming around in ghar ke kapde, no commute, and chilling during work hours. Now more than six months into execution and much like “kal se pakka gym jaunga”, things have not quite turned out as we had hoped and planned.

Do you feel you’re working more from home than you actually were in office? You are probably right. When we’re at work, we reach the office and have a snack. We work for a couple of hours and have a lunch break. We have another snack break in the evening and squeezed between all these breaks are multiple chai and sutta breaks. To quote a Hindi phrase, “din nikal jata hai”.

But as I have found in the last couple of months, at home there are no breaks and it’s relentless. We are burdened with more work than possible and we can’t refuse or question it. If we’re saving travel time and not taking all the pointless breaks, why can’t we get it done? As employees, we even feel guilty making certain excuses because they might sound too silly. What if I can’t log in on time because I have to do jhadu-pocha, solve leakage issues, or buy groceries? “I bet no one else makes these excuses,” we feel.

So out of guilt, we now get back to work by taking a ten-minute lunch instead of the leisurely hour. We don’t browse shopping websites to kill some time in the afternoon, or go downstairs for a post-lunch walk like we did in office. Many of us have internalised the idea that “wasting time” at home is unethical or unprofessional. We are sitting in one location, staring at a screen and burning ourselves out working crazy long hours. How can we be at home all day and still feel so tired, we wonder? Because our minds are not getting rest and it is showing in the stress we feel.

How can we be at home all day and still feel so tired, we wonder? Because our minds are not getting rest.

I am not the only one feeling the heat. An article titled, “Working From Home Might Take A Toll On Your Mental Health”, opines that it’s important “to consider your mental health history when making the decision [to work from home]. If you struggle with depression, for example, working from home has the potential to exacerbate feelings of isolation and perpetuate inactivity.” Even if you enjoy it, Jane Scudder, a certified personal development coach cited in the piece, says, “working remotely creates a unique pressure to appear busy.” Minus the structure of an office environment, people feel the need to be “constantly available or otherwise prove you’re spending your time in a productive way”.

Aside from the pressure, there are serious wellness-related questions to consider. In a 2019 article titled, “Are Home Offices Fueling A Mental Health Crisis?”, Dr Amy Cirbus says that among remote workers, “insomnia and sleep disturbance are common, along with increased fatigue, irritation, sadness and feelings of disconnection. Remote workers report a lack of concentration and focus that can compound and exacerbate these mental health challenges. It can lead to a loss of self-worth and a questioning of one’s abilities.”

A lot of these issues could be resolved by just being in an office environment.

In office, we chat with multiple people, joke around, engage in conversations other than work, celebrate birthdays, get scolded, embarrass ourselves at meetings, and occasionally, have a stroke of brilliance. It’s a whole gamut of emotions and experiences. At home, we’re just in one location for months, possibly in a bleak cycle of horrid news on TV and social media, alone with our thoughts. If you’re bothered by something, you can keep thinking about it for hours without anyone to help you out or take your mind off it, or even to discuss it out loud with someone.

In office, we chat with multiple people, joke around, engage in conversations other than work.

Because the thing is, the boundaries between home and work have been permanently blurred by work from home. There is no longer any concept of “working hours” since your work is at home. And so employees are expected to pick up a call any time of the day, even on a Sunday evening. Combined with the lockdown, it isn’t as if you could have been at a party, or on a trek, or just be in an unavailable network zone, so what important thing could you possibly be doing? Concepts like mental peace or wanting to tune out from work for a couple of days have now become alien.

What’s worse is, that work from home has also eroded the idea of home. With the boundaries between the two places dissolved, home is also where you cook, clean, answer your emails, and be on long calls while feeding the kids. If you’re single and living alone, you have to do almost all of the above along with finishing that project on time. Just because we don’t get paid for it doesn’t mean it isn’t a constant and hectic part of schedule. No one accounts for the work and stress that goes into getting the home in order.

Work from home is a combination of the worst of both worlds. We don’t have access to the office environment beyond work, nor can we avoid all the work that is to be done at home. In that sense, work from home is like a family trip to Goa. You’re in Goa but you can’t do fun things, nor can you avoid the family bickering, and visiting pointless relatives. It was fine as a two-day exercise once in a while, but push your luck too much, and it has begun to seem like a really terrible idea.