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View: Prolonged WFH can trigger mental fatigue, depression

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The Work from Home (WFH) structure, which became the global norm after the pandemic, has after a year and a half now, started showing signs of mental fatigue.

View: Prolonged WFH can trigger mental fatigue, depression
Moving on from the zoom meetings to making breakfast for children, feeding the pet dog, changing diapers, helping kids with online tutorials, meeting the official deadlines… all have now been intertwined to create a new recipe for working.
The Work from Home (WFH) structure, which became the global norm after the pandemic, has after a year and a half now, started showing signs of mental fatigue.
Experts admit that social isolation, long stretch of work hours and multitasking have had a precarious effect on mental health. Sleep disorders, mood swings, interpersonal conflicts and depression are some of the psychological and clinical manifestations of the WFH.  The initial advantage of the WFH like saving on the commuting time, flexibility in working, spending time with the family has gradually been dwarfed with mental distress, anxiety and depression.
Defeating a burnout
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is a condition that results from chronic workplace stress. The WFH has caused mental and physical burnout because of increased professional expectations, long stretching hours of work and absence of a proper workstation. In small households, balancing both home and work becomes even more difficult.
Debanjan Banerjee, Consultant Geriatric Psychiatrist at NIMHANS Bengaluru agrees that there has to be a fine balance between working from home and working from home. “Fatigue can be cumulative. This is largely triggered by not having a proper distinction between work and personal space. There is also a lot of conflict because of not being able to personalize responsibility.”
Banerjee maintains that excessive use of screen time and technology can cause chronic head and neck pain besides sleep problems. “The work hours get stretched over leading to sleep deprivation and many a time you can see people dozing off during the zoom meetings.”
Bangalore-based psychiatrist Vandana Shetty says that burnout is a well-recognized phenomenon that is characterized with emotional exhaustion. “The work from home structure increases the social isolation with all the opportunities for socialization being cut off. If this is not managed effectively, work stress and burnout can cause severe mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.”
In some extreme cases, Shetty feels that this can also filter a different kind of mental problem like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “Some people who have been consistently at home may develop a habit of extreme cleanliness. This becomes a kind of mental disorder if it is done excessively.  It can precipitate mental health issues in vulnerable people who engage excessively in such behaviour.”
Human beings work best when there is a formal structure. “We need to identify the time when your energy level is best. Multi-tasking should be minimized and small breaks should be taken for child care,” says Vindhya V Rai, another clinical psychologist.
Telus International, a leading global customer experience and digital solutions provider had last year commissioned a survey of 1,000 Americans who have been working for their employers from home and found that nearly 80 percent of respondents said they would consider quitting their current position for a job that focused more on employee mental health.
In another survey, it was found that in more than 50 percent of the respondents, the sleep pattern was impacted negatively with 40 percent saying they were not getting enough sleep and 13 percent maintaining that they did not get any sleep. Of the 1,000 survey participants, 39 percent reported feeling less healthy physically and 45 percent said they feel less healthy mentally since working from home due to Covid. As many as six of 10 respondents said that their employer had expressed genuine concern about their health during this time.
Digital Burnout
One of the major effects of the shift to remote and the reliance on tech-based communications has been digital burnout. And this has been a greater challenge for those who have most recently joined the workforce.
In its report The Next Great Disruption Is Hybrid Work – Are We Ready?, Microsoft found that around 54 percent of Generation Z workers, 41 percent of the entire global workforce could be considering handing in their resignation. The survey revealed that the majority were struggling or just surviving in the pandemic work conditions and a large percentage was considering leaving their employer.
Microsoft’s first-annual Work Trend Index, which surveyed 30,000 people from 31 countries revealed that 73 percent of workers want their employers to continue providing flexible remote work options after the world returns to some semblance of normalcy. Extreme flexibility and hybrid work will define the post-pandemic workplace.
However, the isolation caused by the pandemic and long-term work-from-home requirements has caused a lot of mental distress. The study found that 67 percent of workers want more in-person time with their co-workers. Microsoft’s survey shows that 66 percent of corporate decision-makers surveyed are thinking of redesigning their offices around a hybrid work-from-home model. Nearly 30 percent of workers had not been provided with the tech or protective equipment they need to effectively socially distance by their company.
While employees may want the option of working remotely, being forced to do so as a result of the pandemic has had a deleterious impact on many workers. Around 55 percent of the respondents said they feel overworked, while 39 percent said they felt exhausted.
After being tried and tested for so many months, the future work zone, even after the pandemic ends will be a hybrid blend of work from home and work out of the home.
—Dr Vanita Srivastava an alumnus of IIT Kanpur and has worked as a senior journalist covering science and health issues for over two decades. The views expressed are personal.