One of the side-effects of Covid-19 is that businesses are allowing people to work from home and there are numerous articles on the web on how to look after yourself as well as the hidden dangers of working from home. For example, articles that talk about distractions and loss of motivation as disadvantages of working from home. To my mind, there is nothing extraordinary in these articles except to note that advances in mental health have been able to put a spotlight on this topic.
This is a first person narrative of the cost of working from home. This is my story which started around 2001. For many years I worked from home as a software developer – designing systems, writing code and providing support as required to sales and support staff and to customers.
In the beginning this was great! With a young family there seemed to be many positives. No more having to get ready for work, I could work the hours I wanted, help out with family stuff. As the children got older, I could go and collect them from a day care centre that was close to home.
Here is where things get blurry. There was no moment when things changed. I suspect it was a gradual change over time such that you do not even notice things changing.
As you read this, there are a few things to note. The people that I work(ed) for had offices in the UK, USA and Australia. This would mean when my work day in Australia was ending, the UK would be starting their day, and I could be getting emails. I also subscribed to the Inbox-Zero idea before it was a thing. To leave my inbox with one or two messages not replied to, at least in my head, was wrong. “You cannot go yet, there are emails needing replies”. So getting an email from the UK was problematic at least for me when i wanted the end the day with an empty inbox.
Phone calls and emails are big distractions and worse when you get both at the same time. That is, you receive an email asking some question, and then 5 minutes later you get a call from the sender of the email asking whether you have seen the email and responded. Things get worse when you could access emails from phone, plus notifications. When my phone buzzed to indicate a new email had arrived, there was a need to look inside. Was it an email that required immediate attention (or not)?
One of the big issues is blurring of work and home boundaries or the never ending work day. There is a physical separation between work in office and being at home. Whether you work from the dinner table, or if you have turned a room into the office, it is very easy to open your laptop and have a look at your inbox, or work on some problem that was not quite finished during the day. My thought process was something like “if I do this now, it is something I won’t have to worry about doing tomorrow”. However, tomorrow created its own set of the problems to be dealt with. The though that tomorrow would be easier never eventuated.
Problems with sleep. The above items meant that I could be doing work after dinner and more often the case than not. It also meant I would go to bed with thoughts about what I didn’t finish today, what I have to do tomorrow. I could easily wake at 2am having to write notes. The reason for the notes were (1) so that I did not forget the next day and (2) to get the thoughts out of my head so I could go back to sleep. It is safe to say that I was not relaxes when going to sleep. Sleep hygiene was a foreign concept.
Loss of social interactions. In an regular workplace you can interact with other staff at morning tea or lunch time and chat about anything. When you are at home, who can you chat with? Morning tea and lunch become a coffee and food at your desk while looking at code. Or when you have that conversation with an angry or frustrated client, who can you talk or vent to? The inability in these situations to talk to someone, allow for ruminations to occur about your own abilities. The blurred work/home boundaries mean you do not get out much. As a result, over time you become more disconnected from society.
Cost on mental health. The above factors can have a detrimental effect on how you view yourself and the world around you. The anxiety, stress, and loneliness of working from home can lead to depression or make it worse. In my case it became worse. For a longtime I have been a people pleaser and if there was some problem with the software I would take this personally.
One can easily make an argument that “if you only did …” then “it would not have been such a problem”. These types of statements are easy to make in hindsight. In my case, I thought everything I was experiencing was normal. There was nothing to which I could compare my own experiences with. For those who do work from home, it is important to find ways to create healthy boundaries between work and home so that you can be control and if you are struggling then talking to someone is OK.