Blurred Lines

Although technology has made working from home a reality during the Covid-19 lockdown, it also means there is much less distinction between work and our personal lives.

It’s an all too familiar scene: you’ve sat down to dinner with the family when the phone pings, and it’s urgent.

What ‘bring your own device’ started has seemingly escalated into always working.

And this is affecting our mental health, because we’re always plugged in, always on, and always working.

Even Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, whose company stands to benefit from increased adoption of cloud and collaboration software, highlighted the dangers in an interview with the New York Times. He warned that moving to remote working comes with consequences, such as burnout, which cannot easily be spotted.

In addition, not being in an office means you miss physical connections and quick catchups. “What I miss is when I walk into a physical meeting, I’m talking to the person next to me, I’m able to connect with them for the two minutes before and after.”

In 2019, the World Health Organisation formally recognised the stress, depression and lack of feeling in control that comes with burnout as an official occupational phenomenon.

“Now, more than ever, human connection, employee engagement and leadership styles will determine whether the people in an organisation will thrive or burn out, as they navigate their personal change journey. Most people working from home share a similar story of extended working hours and risk of burnout,” notes Natalie Jantjies, digital transformation director at Heineken South Africa.

Although relatively little official research has been conducted around the effects of the pandemic on mental health, Lindiwe Miyambu, African Bank’s Group executive for Human Capital, says many of us are living with the emotional fallout of the crisis.

“The majority of South Africans are riding an emotional rollercoaster at present – and that’s before you factor in the considerable strain introduced by reduced income and concerns around how to manage one’s financial obligations during these highly volatile times.”

A major concern is how much more people are working, adds Shirley Ogden, head of marketing at RubiBlue. “There is no break, there is no ‘screen-free’ day or time and burnout is a very serious reality.”

Mental health as a workplace challenge is nothing new, says Dr Roze Phillips, Group executive for People and Culture at Absa.

“It has been steadily increasing for many years as employees struggle to cope with the rising cost of living and the threat of job losses brought on by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the machine age.”

Coping mechanisms

Phillips warns that, at this stressful and uncertain time, many of us may be coming close to burnout. “During the coronavirus lockdown, it’s become harder and harder to maintain a work-life balance or find time for relaxation while staying informed about what’s going on around us.”

Because of the rapid move to working and schooling from home, all the entrenched societal norms and coping mechanisms have become muddled, she says.

“We may also be experiencing ‘decision fatigue’ – brought about by having to make too many small decisions. Should you go shopping in the morning, when it’s busier, or in the afternoon, when the shelves are barer? Should you help your kid with his math homework, or rather answer that email from your boss?”

Remote teams were a reality before this public health crisis. However, for many employees, doing this suddenly and en masse is a stressful experiment, says Bryan Hattingh, founder of exponential leadership firm Cycan. “ The immediate concern despite the ostensible freedoms of remote working is that employees could quickly feel excluded from the company’s culture, be it Monday meet-ups or banter over Friday drinks.”

Euphoria Telecom CEO John Woollam believes the pandemic is challenging organisations and leaders to change the way they run their operations and manage their employees. “Where remote working initiatives would normally be planned, with set guidelines and parameters, the pace at which companies across the globe have had to send employees home has meant that, to a large extent, it’s been a scramble.”

This, Woollam says, puts both organisations and their teams in a position where they are operating in unfamiliar territory, with no clear ruleset. “And then there are the operational and financial consequences of the lockdown, which are placing enormous pressure on the entire economy and threatening livelihoods.”

Permanent solution?

There are advantages to working from home. Besides the benefits to the environment with less traffic, saving on petrol and travel costs, Ogden points out there is an obvious reduction in overheads for businesses, as well as increased productivity. “I believe people are more productive working from home with fewer distractions – as long as you aren’t having to home school, because then you don’t actually get anything done and your patience levels are non-existent.”

Despite this, working from home isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Phillips cautions against work-from-home strategies becoming a longer-term solution to our country’s corporate real estate cost woes.

“Working from home is essential now as a public health response to save lives.”

But, says Ogden, there needs to be a balance, such as working from home for part of the week, and working from the office for the rest to make sure you get human interaction, banter, and team spirit. “At the end of the day, people are craving human interaction, they’re craving a hug from a friend, they are desperate to meet at the local pub for a beer, desperate to run or cycle in a race.”

As Phillips puts it: “Always on – a term associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and our virtual lives – has been given roller skates and I believe the fall is going to leave us bruised.”

As seen on Brainstorm Mag

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