Working from Home – A Mental Health Battlefield

working from home woman stress

Working from home? You could be experiencing lower social support, lower feedback, role ambiguity and increased exhaustion!

 

It’s almost always an uncomfortable experience to be at the whim of something out of our control. It leaves us feeling vulnerable, hopeful, and stressed all at once. Like most others, I had anticipated this COVID-19 situation would last a few months, maybe more. As we approach the year-mark since the first few cases were revealed, it serves as yet another reminder that I, indeed, cannot predict the future. Something I enjoy pretending I can do on a regular basis.

 

Working from Home

My therapist brain asks me, “What have you learned from this experience? What do you think you can take away? What emotions does this bring up in you?” A million different answers and take-aways can follow from these inquiries. Today, I can’t stop thinking about the millions of people working from their homes. Searching for privacy, creating a pleasing background for video calls, and doing it all while still wearing their house slippers. 

 

At first, working from home was exciting. Not the good-exciting. More of an adrenaline rush that comes from a hard pivot in one of the most critical parts of our culture: working, working and working. Those of us in healthcare felt empowered to continue doing our very best to support the populations we serve. Friends of mine in business enjoyed the first few weeks of making coffee at home, before hopping on to their next meeting. Likewise, pets all over the world rejoiced that their humans finally understood that leaving the house makes them sad. It’s almost a year later, and the opinions of those who work from home have become more varied than in those first few weeks in March, 2020. 

 

The Impact on Certain Populations

To start, there has already been research on how working from home has impacted certain populations. Depending on environmental, organizational, physical, or psychosocial factors, individuals working at home may experience challenges with their mental health. Some trends that were established through a meta-analysis (Oakman, J., Kinsman, N., Stuckey, R. et al), connected lower levels of organizational support and higher psychological strain.

 

In addition, they reported that working from home was “…associated with lower social support, lower feedback, and greater role ambiguity which increased exhaustion” (Oakman, J., Kinsman, N., Stuckey, R. et al). Lastly, they identified that, “Those working more days at home experienced greater emotional exhaustion and cognitive stress associated with reduced support from their colleagues”. 

 

Inherent Negatives and Potential Solutions

However, an important theme throughout the research was that most individuals appreciated having the option to work from home a few days a week, and go into an office environment the other days. Thus, increasing social support and role understanding while still providing safety from infectious disease and flexibility. Notably, the study that Oakman, J., Kinsman, N., Stuckey, R. et al completed identified a few items that organizations can address to assist their employees working from home. On the list is technical support, boundary management support, organizational support, and addressing gender inequities. Already, we are seeing that there are inherent negatives to working from home, as well as potential solutions. 

 

So how do we implement information like the above into our current experiences? To start, I think we all take a deep breath and realize most people are doing the best they can. Including whoever is reading this.

 

A collective negative experience like COVID-19 can be classified as a collective trauma. With trauma comes lower functioning, because our bodies think, “Quick! Be ready to defend yourself!”. Other, more advanced brain processes take the back seat. Our mental health might be suffering, addictive disease can be getting more advanced, and our ability to cope can be decreasing as a result. Some weeks I feel like a pressure cooker – all this build-up of emotion and uncertainty. Except in this situation, I am trapped with no valve to release any of it!

 

Working from Home is a Battlefield

The title of this article identifies the “work from home” status as a war. A battlefield. Although this is rather dramatic, even for me, I stand by it. Some of us are starting to ask, “Am I depressed, or just working from home?” And we might need to start implementing some tactical thinking. We aren’t looking for a long, drawn out battle that depletes our resources. Rather, we are searching for small joys with big pay-offs. Instead of telling myself that I need to go all-out Hail-Mary on my coping skills, I ask myself a few questions each day. How am I feeling? What sounds good right now? And my personal favorite; Are you really hungry or just bored and near a fridge all the time? 

 

working from home Ali Kitchen on zoom

The author (with a few of her peers) getting up and getting ready as if she was going in to the office!

 

Other small joys with big pay-offs include zooming with my coworkers, so we can all be on mute and work “together”. Lighting a candle for no reason other than the aesthetic. Keeping my workspace clean at home. Putting my laptop out of view when I clock out for the day. Keeping water next to me at all times so I stay hydrated like I would at the office. Making sure to still meal-prep on the weekends so meals aren’t stressful to fit in.

 

Lastly, the most hated recommendation I will list – getting up and getting ready as if you are going into the office and seeing humans in person. I know, it’s a drag and sometimes you can stay in sweats if that is what you need. No judgement here. But the phrase “dress well, test well” has some merit in these times. Sometimes I need to feel like a professional to work like one. And that’s okay

 

There is a phrase in mindfulness practices that comes from John Kabat-Zinn, the founder of Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction. It applies well to the pursuit of small joys with big impact. It is the practice of Non-Striving. Non-Striving asks the practitioner to work on being with the experience as it is, instead of forcing a change or reacting out of emotion based on what we predict might happen. In this way, we cultivate a feeling of “being” instead of “doing”. Sounds cheesy, but helps immensely when practiced regularly.

 

How long will we be working from home?

We have a lot of unanswered questions about how long some of us might be working from home. We aren’t sure exactly what traditional offices will look like when we do return. We do know, however, that if we get up each day and do what we can to create a manageable and maintainable experience…. then we are accepting what is in our control. We are rejecting the idea of being a human pressure cooker. Like anything else, this way of thinking takes practice and commitment. 

 

Even as a mental health professional at Sanford Outpatient Center, I fully accept that I am not immune to the effects of such times. I need to practice non-striving and be tactical in my thinking. Only then, will this new situation work for me, not at me. It feels much more empowering to think, “What approach would help me make this manageable?” If we feel grief and loss, let’s feel it and acknowledge it in a healthy way. If we feel anxious, let’s allow that to be true. And use that information to decide our next move.

 

If we feel happy, we should encourage ourselves to not second-guess that feeling. Being empowered in this way does not negate any of the negatives that stem from a pandemic. Instead, it allows us to see them, acknowledge them, and still behave in a value-consistent manner. 

 

I often say, one of the hardest parts about coping and improving our quality of life is incorrectly attributed to knowing what actions we need to take. It’s not about labeling and understanding what small things we can do. Rather, it’s accepting and choosing to believe that we can have a positive impact on our experiences. For those of us who are still working at our dining room tables  – I urge you to consider this choice each day. 

 

Citation: Oakman, J., Kinsman, N., Stuckey, R. et al. A rapid review of mental and physical health effects of working at home: how do we optimise health?. BMC Public Health 20, 1825 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-09875-z

 

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Ali Kitchin grew up outside of San Francisco. But she spent two months every summer Up North in Traverse City, Michigan. And most of her extended family lives in Michigan, so she’s glad to call Grand Rapids home these days. Ali has a bachelor’s degree in Social Work from Baylor University. And a recent master’s degree from Baylor University. Ali's primary role is facilitating group therapy in the Sanford Outpatient Center. She is also researching and developing a new evidence-based mindfulness group for Sanford and brimming with article ideas for Excursions!