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The Other Side of Working from Home

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In March, the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOME) published a study about impact of working from home during COVID-19 pandemic with specific attention to the physical and mental well-being for those currently working from home.

And while the study noted “direct benefits” to employees, such as specifically reducing commute times, it also identified “numerous negative aspects” of full-time work from home, such as not having the opportunity to socialize with colleagues, decreased physical movements, extended hours of screen exposure. In addition, full-time computer work can lead to fatigue, tiredness, headaches, and eye-related symptoms.

For individuals who live alone, the study said that “without face-to-face interactions and social support everyday, working from home could contribute to mental issues such as social isolation and depression. For others, blurred work-life boundaries can make it difficult to detach mentally from work which can increase stress and anxiety.”

Leah Eustace, ACFRE, is president of Blue Canoe Philanthropy. She has been speaking on the topic of mental health for many years. 

“Based on what I’m hearing, there has been a real change. Initially, when the pandemic started, we talked about self-care, deep breathes and yoga. Now, we are at the stage where trauma has set in. I’m hearing a fight or flight response. People are beyond being tired and have moved to absolute exhaustion. I know I’m sleeping about 12 to 14 hours a day.”

The study published by JOME points out that a common area of concern is balancing work schedules around other family members. For some parents, worktime becomes ‘‘porous’’ as they might need to take care of house chores and run errands in between their work meetings. In some cases, parents might choose to sacrifice their sleep hours and work at night or early mornings since these are the only quiet hours where they could concentrate on work and avoid frequent interruptions. Ongoing work-family conflict can lead to emotional exhaustion.

“I’m hearing a lot from fundraisers with children,” says Eustace. “A lot of the issues are related to working from home. Some employers are still expecting an eight-hour, nine-to-five day, just like things are normal. But they aren’t. Some people just don’t have the space to work at home. They don’t have the proper desk and chair, and they don’t have the room for it.”

Aaron Sanderson, ACFRE, is senior vice president, advancement and chief development officer for Kids Help Phone and serves on the AFP Canada board of directors.

“The dining room table is now my office, and my fiancé works from another area in our home.  We have had to make adjustments and work it out daily,” he says. “We belong to an association like AFP for a reason. Our profession is based so much on human relationships. It’s important for us to acknowledge that some days are great, and some days are harder to get through. We should try to be as supportive, caring and connected to our colleagues as possible.”

Current work-from-home scenarios pose an additional conundrum for Black workers, wrote Laura Morgan Roberts and Courtney L. McCluney for the Harvard Business Review.

“Rather than affording them the personal choice to weigh benefits and tradeoffs of racial identity expressions, they are now literally broadcasting more of their identities from their personal living spaces. Work from home arrangements often require people to (virtually) invite coworkers, clients, physicians, students and professors into their homes, which undermines their ability to exercise agency and control over how they present their identities. Videoconferencing has transformed formerly safe, private spaces for authentic cultural expression into focal points of the public gaze.”

Many believe the impact on the philanthropic sector will be felt for a long period of time.

“The mental health ramifications will go on well beyond when we get back to work,” says Sanderson. “This experience will have a long tail.”

There’s not been a lot of job movement during the pandemic because people are too worried to make those kinds of big decisions, says Eustace.

“But once we get back to some normality, we are going to see a lot of movement, and people will not be so focused on salary. Flexibility and leadership empathy will become deciding factors in where the fundraisers land,” she says. 

“But, for now, my biggest message is to try not to fight what you’re feeling. We are going through trauma, and people will come out with PTSD, with a great need for quiet time. Be a squeaky wheel. Reach out for help if you feel you’re not doing well,” says Eustace.

“You have to tend to your own needs before you tend to the need of others,” says Sanderson. “We’re at a point now where we can’t overemphasize that. It’s important to connect with a caring community and not to be too isolated.”

In January, CAMH, Toronto’s largest hospital produced a resource for leaders, Navigating the New Normal: A COVID-19 Supplement to CAMH's Mental Health Playbook for Business Leaders, which makes what it calls five “powerful” recommendations that were developed by CAMH researchers, clinicians and experts, and shaped by feedback from business leaders:

  • Creating a long-term organization-wide mental health strategy
  • Instituting mandatory mental health training for leadership
  • Developing tailored mental health supports
  • Prioritizing and optimizing your return-to-work process checklist
  • Tracking your progress

“Now more than ever, Canadian employers have an opportunity—and a responsibility—to lead with mental health in mind,” wrote Deborah Gillis, president & CEO of the CAMH Foundation, in her introduction to the resource. We are all doing the best we can, and some days will be better than others. That’s what I’m asking of business leaders, too. I urge you to do your best to take care of your employees’ mental health by communicating with transparency, acting with compassion, and leading by example. It won’t always be perfect, but I promise you, it will always be worth it.”

“Now, you have to invest in caring for your staff as much as you can,” concludes Sanderson. “This is a time that will test your mettle as a leader. It is time for all of us to find our leadership and stretch it as far as we can take it. Moving forward, it won’t be technical expertise that will make a good leader, it will be how we care.”

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