The Terrible Toll Of Working From Home During The Pandemic
GLASGOW, UNITED KINGDOM - OCTOBER 12: A man suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder uses a light box in his office to combat the illness on October 12 2005 Glasgow, Scotland. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), or winter depression, is a mood disorder related to the change in the seasons and the resulting reduction of exposure to daylight. The end of British Summer time, when clocks go back one hour at the end of October, will see most people making their daily commute in darkness both ways. With winter nights stretching to 19 hours in the UK, and Scotland's often inclement weather, it is estimated that the "Winter Blues" can affect up to 20% of the population. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Though the initial pandemic lockdowns offered some reprieve from the daily grind — no arduous commutes, more time at home, less workplace drama — the mental and physical burden from “living at work” alongside the forced seclusion are now proving difficult for countless Americans.

Productivity is also beginning to slide as isolation and the consequent loneliness have become the “new normal.” Worse, as a new wave of lockdowns sweeps across Europe, the potential for renewed restrictions here in the U.S. rises as well, particularly if Joe Biden prevails. He has signaled a willingness to proceed with further restrictions on a federal level as the pandemic drags on with seemingly no end in sight. In what may portend even more lockdowns, Biden has named Michael Osterholm — a strong proponent of various pandemic strictures – to his COVID-19 advisory board. It’s vital that we consider the enormous toll such restrictions are having on Americans in the workplace even as reported cases surge across the country. 

Working from home is burning people out in droves

Once considered a luxury or a perk, working from home during the pandemic has mutated into a kind of purgatory increasingly referred to as “living at work,” and worker burnout is rising fast as a consequence. According to CNBC, “Over two-thirds, or 69%, of employees are experiencing burnout symptoms while working from home…up almost 20% from a similar survey in early May.”

The burnout is exacerbated by the endless economic uncertainties caused by the extended restrictions on all sectors of American life. Those surveyed felt compelled to overwork out of fear and anxiety. Despite feeling burnt out, “the majority (59%) are taking less time off” because of “the threat that they, too, could lose their paycheck or have their salary cut at some point if the recession continues.” 

A growing number of Americans are also so exhausted from “living at work” that some are now considering quitting their jobs outright in exasperation and defeat, according to a recent survey reported in the Miami Herald:

Sixty-three percent of respondents said they felt like the cons [of working from home] outweigh the pros — so much so that 3 in 10 people said they have considered quitting their job since the coronavirus pandemic banned them from their workplaces, according to the survey conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Front, a company that offers collaborative email for customer communication.

More than half of the respondents also stated that work had become even more stressful because of the endless technical gauntlet employees are forced to navigate “to make remote work possible.”

Monitoring software has become the standard for many employers that all but shackles remote employees to work computers in their very homes, according to CNBC

Companies such as ActiveTrak, Hivedesk,  Teramind, Time Doctor and WorkExaminer enable companies to track the activities of their employees by installing software on their computers. Most monitoring software will track keystrokes, email, file transfers, applications used and how much time the employee spends on each task. Most will take periodic screenshots to let managers know what is on the employee’s screen.

In a bizarre ruling against privacy written before the prevalence of laptops, if you “work on company equipment, your data belongs to the company” based on the “Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.” Many companies are now taking full advantage of such an invasive ruling to the detriment of their employees.

All these factors now carry a dangerous physical toll, in addition to the mental health element. An academic study published in PloS One reported that “[b]urnout was a significant predictor of…hypercholesterolemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, hospitalization due to cardiovascular disorder, musculoskeletal pain, changes in pain experiences, prolonged fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries and mortality below the age of 45 years.”

Burnout is leading to darker despair

Another specter that hangs over the current pandemic is a looming sense of despair. As a growing number of Americans are burnt out and contemplate quitting their jobs, “diseases of despair” have begun to invade the American landscape like never before. 

Drug use and overdoses have escalated exponentially in 2020 due to the inordinate amount of stress many are struggling to cope with due to the pandemic and the various restrictions associated with it. According to NBC News: “[A]vailable information suggests U.S. drug overdose deaths are on track to reach an all-time high. Addiction experts blame the pandemic, which has left people stressed and isolated, disrupted treatment and recovery programs, and contributed to an increasingly dangerous illicit drug supply.”

A dramatic increase in suicides may be on the horizon as well. In September, the journal Nature expressed grave concern over the impact lockdowns are having on mental health and suicidal ideation “due to the combination of economic stress, social isolation, barriers to receiving mental health treatment and increased levels of national anxiety.”

Sadly, such a bleak forecast is beginning to prove accurate. In Fresno, California, “suicides were 70% higher in June than in the same month last year,” Medical Xpress reported.

Pandemic isolation coupled with ongoing stress is also causing suicidal ideation to skyrocket among younger Americans as well, according to the CDC. 25% of young Americans between the ages of 18-24 have seriously considered ending their lives because of the pandemic and the consequent restrictions.

In the UK, The Telegraph reports that “The number of people seeking help because of suicidal thoughts has tripled since lockdown, with some ambulance services seeing cases rise by almost two thirds, an investigation has revealed.” 

A global mental health crisis has now emerged to rival the pandemic itself:

The Royal College of Psychiatrists said mental health services were ‘overflowing’ with patients,” The Telegraph continued, “with growing numbers struggling to cope with anxiety, psychosis and depression. Experts said millions were battling isolation, fear and post-traumatic stress, with many only seeking help when their crisis had become acute.

It’s worth noting again that a group of world-renowned epidemiologists has come together to warn of the dire mental and physical consequences posed by continued lockdowns. They also specifically state that the working class bears the “heaviest burden” in these increasingly draconian measures. 

“Current lockdown policies are producing devastating effects on short and long-term public health,” they write in The Great Barrington Declaration. “The results (to name a few) include lower childhood vaccination rates, worsening cardiovascular disease outcomes, fewer cancer screenings and deteriorating mental health – leading to greater excess mortality in years to come, with the working class and younger members of society carrying the heaviest burden.” 

Remote work is also putting companies at risk

Far from being the novel, positive workplace shift some envisioned at the onset of the pandemic, remote work is having a significant negative impact on productivity and bottom lines for many companies as well.

[A]s the work-from-home experiment stretches on,” The Wall Street Journal reported, “some cracks are starting to emerge. Projects take longer. Training is tougher. Hiring and integrating new employees, more complicated. Some employers say their workers appear less connected and bosses fear that younger professionals aren’t developing at the same rate as they would in offices, sitting next to colleagues and absorbing how they do their jobs.”

Many CEOs now view the current trend of working from home as a hindrance and “not their preferred long-term solution once the coronavirus crisis passes.”

Some are also beginning to argue that current protocols in light of the pandemic have led to “lost creativity and innovation” due to enforced isolation, according to Fortune. More importantly, research now shows that actual human contact and interaction are imperative to foster growth and productivity in the workplace. 

“In one of the most revealing studies of creativity in the workplace to date,” Fortune detailed, “researchers from MIT, Northeastern University, University of Cologne, University of Bamberg, and Aalto University studied several teams working on projects involving computer science, economics, psychology, and other fields; their findings were published in the International Journal of Organisational Design and Engineering in 2012… Facing each other, looking into the eyes, confiding—all those behaviors reflect and build trust. The researchers measured trust within the groups and found that it was crucial to the whole process. Their conclusion: ‘There is no substitute for face-to-face interaction to build up this trust.’” 

The broader impact of isolation and loneliness

Loneliness was already at unprecedented levels in the U.S. even before the pandemic. A survey done by Cigna in early 2020 reported that loneliness had reached “epidemic levels in America.” 

Prolonged isolation can have a corrosive effect on the psyche and drive many toward dysfunctional behaviors and dark thoughts of despair. In a recent piece on the dire effects of being forced to be alone during the pandemic lockdowns, the BBC reported that loneliness can lead to “an impaired ability to regulate their own thoughts, feelings and behaviour.” This impairment has significant consequences on one’s ability to socialize and engage others in a meaningful way, especially for younger individuals.

“In this way,” the BBC continues, “isolation can become a self-fulfilling prophecy known as ‘the loneliness loop’. It can lead to a toxic combination of low self-esteem, hostility, stress, pessimism and social anxiety — ultimately culminating in the isolated person distancing themselves from others even further. In a worst case scenario, loneliness can make people depressed, and a common symptom of depression is social withdrawal — again, not helpful.”

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