Working From Home (WFH): What Exactly is Causing Distress?

    Written By: Yu Ting Pak

    Working From Home (WFH) has been introduced since the beginning of the pandemic to keep employees safe. While WFH during normal circumstances can be advantageous, the forced adjustment poses a distinct set of challenges and difficulties.

    What is unique about the pandemic is that employees are facing numerous adjustments all at once, and not just to their work setting. WFH can intersect with children completing school virtually and restricted childcare arrangements. If that isn't enough change, many individuals aren’t able to engage in their usual leisure activities, including routine exercising and socialising since the gyms, restaurants, and bars are usually the first establishments to face restrictions. Top that all with the small living spaces in Hong Kong and we are left with a complete transformation of our chosen lifestyle.

    Consequently, WFH during the pandemic can result in the following commonly reported issues:

    So what exactly is causing the distress and lowered productivity?

    What impacts our mental health and work productivity isn’t simply the setting itself. Instead, a deep dive into the different components of remote work has found various specific factors that can impact our stress levels, work productivity, or both.

    Individual level – Increasing stress and lowering work productivity:

    1. Work-family conflict – This is understood as the clash between work demands and family responsibilities. This is further impacted by a lack of physical boundaries between work and home life. A crowded home further complicates the family and work imbalance. High work-family conflict results in increased stress and decreased work productivity. This is especially observed in younger employees with younger children at this time.
    2. Increased social isolation – A lack of social connection increases the stress in an individual, resulting in a negative impact on overall work productivity

    Organisational level – Lowering work productivity

    1. Low levels of job autonomy – Job autonomy is the extent of independence and discretion an employee has while completing their work. This includes the ability for employees to schedule their own work activities each day and making various work decisions on their own. When an employee perceives to have a lower level of independence it causes a negative impact on their overall work productivity.

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    What can we do to reduce stress and improve productivity?

    1. Set boundaries between your work and home life

    Common WFH stressors for individuals in Hong Kong can include:

    • Small apartment spaces
    • Working parents with children engaging in virtual school
    • Working parents with limited access to childcare support

    The common theme for these stressors is the lack of boundaries that separate work and home life. Having physical separation often helps reinforce other boundaries like time, expectations and emotional boundaries. With the lack of this reinforcement, employees may be expected to work beyond their routine working hours and provide more immediate responses.

    Tips to set and enforce WFH boundaries:

    • Physical and emotional boundaries – Create a separate workspace or corner that you can remove yourself from during breaks, meals and after work. Try to keep your leisure activities and meals in a different area. It’s hard with small spaces, so another way to do this is intentionally clearing out the workspace as much as possible to signify being “off work” before reusing the same spaces for your leisure activities.
    • Time boundaries – This depends on the nature of your work but it is encouraged to recreate getting off at a reasonable hour as if you would in the office. This includes blocking out mealtimes for yourself to ensure that you do get that break and separation.

    2. Maintain social connections

    It’s easy to be isolated when you are spending more time alone. Take the time to schedule virtual work lunches with your colleagues, or even team virtual catch-ups. Turning on your video may require some effort on your end but having a visual instead of just an audio call improves the human connection. Feeling connected to our coworkers help with easing the stress you may be experiencing while working in an isolated space, which will also positively impact your productivity in your work.

    What might be helpful is to try and recreate your routine at work as much as possible. Are you used to 3 PM coffee breaks with your coworkers? If so, set up a quick video call and take it together!

    How can companies and corporations support their employees during these times?

    1. Encouraging social connections between teams and employees

    Companies can help facilitate ongoing connections between employees by encouraging ongoing team meetings and activities that would reduce the feeling of isolation between each team member. Companies and team management can take an active role in facilitating this by shifting communication from written channels like emails to channels that encourage virtual face-to-face interactions between team members. Various video platforms offer interactive experiences that help recreate live engagement between team members.

    2. Building on employee independence and autonomy

    Job autonomy is important to both in-person and remote work settings. What is unique about this unforeseen phenomenon is that management has to adapt as well as employees. This drives uncertainty from numerous angles including the level of autonomy that should be given to employees and team members. A shift to reduced job autonomy is not uncommon but tends to lead to reduced work productivity.

    Rather than micro-managing tasks, managers should work with individuals to promote self-efficacy. This will free up time for both parties and result in increased productivity. This may include setting larger milestones and allowing employees to create their own pathways to meet them, as they might in a regular in-person work setting.

    What else can we keep in mind?

    We are still in a global pandemic so increased stress and mental health challenges are still our reality. Individuals and companies should continue to keep this in mind when reevaluating productivity and thoughts of how much work “should” be done. Stress and anxiety in normal circumstances impact our focus and engagement in many of our life domains, let alone our wellbeing and productivity at work amid a pandemic.

    Speak with a psychologist

    If you are suffering from any of the issues discussed in this article, why not speak with one of our psychologists at MindWorX.

    Book an Appointment With MindWorX
    Resources:

    1. Galanti, T., Guidetti, G., Mazzei, E., Zappalà, S., & Toscano, F. (2021, July 1). Work from home during the COVID-19 outbreak: The impact on employees' remote work productivity, engagement, and stress. Journal of occupational and environmental medicine. Retrieved March 16, 2022, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8247534/

    2. Bergefurt, A. G. M., Weijs-Perrée, M., Maris, C., & Appel-Meulenbroek, H. A. J. A. (2021, March 15). Analyzing the effects of distractions while working from home on burnout complaints and stress levels among office workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Eindhoven University of Technology research portal. Retrieved March 16, 2022, from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/352648273_Analyzing_the_effect_of_distractions_of_working_from_home_on_mental_health_of_office_workers_during_the_COVID-19_pandemic

    Topics: COVID-19, Mental Health

    Yu Ting Pak

    Yu Ting Pak

    Yu Ting Pak is a licensed therapist trained in New York City. She specializes in providing culturally-sensitive therapy to adolescents and adults. She has over 5 years of experience with a diverse range of clinical challenges including depression, anxiety, relationship/family issues and low self-esteem.

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