When I first started working with Carl, a project manager for a manufacturing firm, he wasn’t sure why he was feeling sad much of the time. Typically upbeat and optimistic, Carl reported that he began to feel disconnected not just from his work, but also from his friends and even his wife. As we dug further during his visits, we traced his feelings back to the start of a change in his work life.
At the beginning of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, his company shifted all employees to a work-from-home model. What was typically a day filled with lively meetings and one-on-one impromptu brainstorming encounters in the office with other team members on client projects, turned into rigidly structured online video conferencing calls and a drastic increase in emails. Gone was the office chit chat and hanging out with the gang after work.
Yet, there were also good things about his new work-from-home lifestyle, too, such as no longer tolerating a long commute. But the disappearance of the in-person office experiences and the corresponding social connections had thrust him into a feeling of deep isolation. For him, the good things that came out of a more flexible work-from-home workday didn’t outweigh the loss he was feeling.
The Challenge of Working from Home
Many individuals find their energy and strength from others in work or social settings, so no wonder that the drastic change from the structured 8-5 work lifestyle that was the norm for so long, has left a hole that has been not only difficult to fill but for some people, hard to understand! After all, working from home should mean tremendous freedom. Getting more sleep and taking midday walks with the family dog sure beats sitting in traffic. So, while those things are a bonus, there can be an overshadowing downside for many people who feel a loss that can descend into burnout and/or depressive disorder.
Like so many of the individuals I have worked with lately, Carl didn’t seek mental health treatment right away. He never felt compelled in the past, so the idea of getting help only became a necessity when he discovered that he was no longer enthusiastic about anything in his life. Not one thing. What once brought joy no longer did. He was falling into a deep depression.
Since the pandemic began, it’s not unusual for those who already had a propensity toward depressive disorder to fall further into a depressive state. They may have had some level of anxiety or depression before, but for many, things escalated during the worldwide health crisis. And, for those struggling with substance abuse – either with drugs or alcohol prior to the pandemic – they found themselves further at risk.
Isolation mixed with fear and stress also created substance use issues for people who previously didn’t have a disorder pre-pandemic. Working alone provided ample opportunity for individuals to slip into a pattern of alcohol and drug abuse. A 2020 survey found that one in three American employees admitted to being more likely to drink alcohol during working hours while quarantined.
While it seems like those who are outgoing and extroverted may have the most difficulty in adjusting to the new isolation of working from home, the loneliness problem isn’t limited to personality types. There is a school of thought that those who are more introverted work better from home – they truly enjoy hanging up from a Zoom call and having the freedom to process some of the thoughts or ideas that came up in the meeting free from office small talk. It allows them to be more productive and enhances their creativity. But just because they may have adjusted without issue to the new way of working doesn’t mean they are immune from feeling lonely or don’t have the potential for burnout and depression.
Working from home, it is easy to blur the lines between when it is time to work and when to let go. Sauntering over to the sofa to write a memo or answer emails instead of staying in a designated workspace within the house can create the feeling that work is wherever the laptop is. Soon that mentality can erode along with schedules, meaning what used to be an eight-hour workday creeps to 10, 11, 12, etc. That’s how burnout begins.
Beyond feelings of isolation, and the dangers of burnout, the extra burdens of being home with children add extra stress to professional obligations of being a good employee while successfully managing one’s personal life. Women, for example, have especially felt the burdens that have come with the new work-from-home culture. An IPSOS poll in 2020 found that while both women and men are now spending more time caring for children, which included the challenges of supervising their children’s remote learning during the pandemic shutdowns, women are doing a disproportionate share of the childcare. With those kinds of demands, it is easy to see how extreme fatigue follows.
Exhausted. Burned out. Isolated. Together they are a gloomy recipe that can create a downward spiral – not great for anyone’s mental health. For individuals prone to depression and for those with conditions like social anxiety disorder, the pandemic was extra problematic. Work at home mandates reinforced fears and exacerbated mood symptoms and kept people in that cycle. For individuals who didn’t have a support network it is even worse.
While those who suffer from social anxiety try to avoid social settings, having to show up at work every day is good exposure therapy, providing the opportunity to challenge thought patterns and experience positive progress.
So when should someone be concerned and what are the signs that what you are experiencing is more than just a temporary sad mood? Consider that you may need to seek help when you:
Feel sad or angry most of the time
Pull away from opportunities to engage with others
Lose interest in your hobbies or other things that you once enjoyed
Have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
Feel fatigued and lack energy throughout the day
Lack the ability to carry out workplace and/or home obligations such as parenting
Have problems in your relationships
While lots of people can feel some of these things to a degree, many don’t feel the need to get formalized treatment. For those individuals, here are a few tips to consider:
Summon a support system. Sometimes just talking about your feelings with someone who cares about you, can alleviate and help to lessen the mental burden. Being open to support and being accountable to someone can help.
Establish healthy boundaries that help to differentiate between home and work. Having a dedicated workspace in the house can be a challenge for people who have been forced into working from home, but it is important to establish where you work so that your whole house doesn’t turn into a working space. Being able to physically walk away from that workspace at quitting time can help in transitioning to personal time.
Establish structure and routine. Develop a schedule to follow of hours when you are working, the time when you are taking breaks, and when you are done for the day.
Find activities that align with your values and sense of purpose. Find organizations to join or if you are spiritual, get involved in a faith community. Consider getting involved in an activity that you enjoy that also includes socializing with others. For example, rather than working out at home on your home exercise bike, join a health club.
Be open to new experiences. When things begin to feel stagnant, consciously find ways to shake them up by finding new and different activities and ways to engage with others. Consider a class you have been wanting to take for example.
Employers Supporting the New Way to Work
Human Resources experts believe that a hybrid model of work that supports some in-office work requirements with remote work is going to be the new way of the world. That means employers will need to be even more conscious of how to support the mental health of their employees. They need to be aware that while hybrid work helps some thrive, it isn’t the case for everybody. Employers wanting to support their teams should consider:
Destigmatizing mental healthcare by encouraging open conversations. Not long ago, discussing mental health in the workplace was considered taboo. Yet while the stigma is fading, there are employees who are still worried about opening up to their supervisors for fear of retribution or having their honesty impact their career future. Organization leaders can help quell that fear and gain the trust and respect of their teams when they are genuine and vulnerable and share their own mental health journeys.
Establishing mental health benefits. Just as employers support physical health, the same approach should be taken toward mental health. Employers who build mental health into their benefits programs are sending a message that physical and mental health are equally important and that employees should be taking care of all aspects of their health. With more telehealth options available, employers can consider supporting in-person as well as remote therapy options, giving employees more choice on how to engage with a therapist. Businesses are waking up to the need to expand their benefits programs to support mental health. A recent Business Group on Health survey found that for 2023, 47% of large employers are considering expanding their mental health services.
Providing education on positive health habits. Employers who realize that each employee is unique with different challenges can support employees by providing information through webinars, lectures, newsletters, and other communications methods to remind employees about mental health self-care. Offering a discount for a meditation or mindfulness app is another way to provide support.
Understanding that burnout is a problem. While burnout can occur when there is an excessive workload, employers need to consider the other factors that can contribute. When employees feel that their work is not recognized or appreciated by their supervisors that can lead to burnout and working in isolation from home can increase these feelings. Since employers may not have the visibility that they once had working in-office with employees, opportunities to recognize burnout in team members are diminished. Being extra aware of the signs and having conversations to find out from employees about their specific concerns when they express burnout can help. Then do part two and back up care and concern with a commitment to work with them to alleviate the stress.
Feeling burned out, isolated, depressed, as if you can’t move forward? We work with individuals who find that their mental health has plummeted, as they face feelings that are keeping them from living their best life. We can be your advocate to support you and guide you to get things back on track. The first step is to reach out. Life is full of hope. Find yours.