Mental health challenges rise as work-from-home demands drag on

Jaime Aguilar remembers when he left the office to work at home — March 13 — and can tell you the precise number of days he’s been away.

“They gathered us around and told us starting tomorrow, we are going to work from home until we figure out what is going on with this pandemic. They talked about coming back in July. And then July passed. I have been working from home for 186 days now, but who is counting,” he said last week.

The transition was “very exciting” at first, said Aguilar, a digital communication specialist at the Community First Foundation in Arvada. But it didn’t take long for problems to emerge and frustrations to mount. Early on, his old computer didn’t prove robust enough to handling video meetings.

When Aguilar’s wife, Denver City Councilwoman Jamie Torres, joined him in the home office, it strained the broadband connection. The pair had to juggle who got the office for Zoom and Microsoft Team meetings, and how to allocate Wi-Fi.

Some problems involved pacing. Aguilar said he would start full bore in the mornings and work through lunch, not taking the breaks he did when at the office. Eventually, it caught up with him.

“Productivity is up but so is the amount of time spent in front of the computer working and getting burnt out because you don’t take as many long breaks away from your desk. You have a tendency to keep working past regular hours or getting to work earlier than normal,” he said.

Eagle Hill, a consulting firm based in Arlington, Va., surveyed 1,000 workers in August and 55% of them said they were dealing with burnout, up from 45% of those surveyed in the early days of the pandemic. Of those experiencing burnout, nearly half blamed the increased workload, while 39% cited balancing work and personal life, and 37% attributed it to a lack of communication and feedback.

The disruption that came with shifting work from the office to home, something unimaginable five or 10 years ago, has contributed to the stress. Just shy of one in four U.S. workers were still working at home in August, down from 35.4% in May, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Before the pandemic, fewer than 5% of workers worked remotely.

Telework is more common among women, 27%, than men, 22%, among older workers than younger workers, and among Asian and white workers than among Black and Hispanic workers, according to the BLS. Those with bachelor’s degrees or higher worked from home at a much higher rate, 44%, than those with less than a high school degree, 3%.

But six months in, the novelty has long worn off, and one consulting firm, The Martec Group, is warning that extended work-at-home arrangements could have a serious impact on the mental health of many American workers.

Before COVID-19, 62% of employees reported positive mental health, but that has dropped to only 28%. Job satisfaction has fallen from 57% to 32% and job motivation has fallen from 57% to 36%. And while other studies have shown increased productivity, Martec found that 42% of workers report increased stress levels and worsened focus.

“We found four distinct segments, from those who are thriving to those who feel trapped,” said Jim Durkin, a founding partner of the Chicago-based consulting firm. About 16% of workers fit the thriving category. The group was dominated by females in their mid-20s to mid-50s and those who described themselves as introverts.

About a quarter fit into the hopeful category. They were satisfied with their employers still but struggled with mental health and productivity issues. Just over a quarter fell into the discouraged group. They described significant declines in mental health and job satisfaction and were more likely to be critical of their employers.

The last group, the trapped, suffered the biggest declines in mental health and in company satisfaction and were the most likely to describe missing out in interacting with their coworkers. They were mostly miserable at home and anxious to return to how things were before.

The last two groups tend to be populated by extroverts who craved social interaction, Durkin said. And they are the employees most likely to benefit in coming back first as offices reopen.

Workers do describe being able to get more work done and they enjoyed the ability to dress casually and skip the commute. But some also described feeling isolated and lonely and disconnected from their colleagues and managers.

“The fact that I don’t interact with anybody at all is difficult,” confided Kelly Taylor, a geotech at a large oil and gas company in Denver. “Even as an introvert, it gets really old being inside my head all the time.”

Her job duties haven’t changed, but her comfort level has. Her house is too small to have a dedicated office, meaning she couldn’t fit the two big monitors her employer offered to send home with her. She spends her days hunched over a laptop she holds on her lap. That was doable for the first couple of months, but her back and shoulders are feeling the strain.

Like Aguilar, she had tech issues early on. Her DSL connection was too slow to handle her work projects and video meetings, even though she mutes her audio and video on calls. She signed up for faster but more expensive broadband and is waiting for the bill on that.

But the hardest part for Taylor, who lives alone, is the social isolation. She tried to stay in touch with friends, but the level of contact has faded over time, making her appreciate even more the small interactions she had at the office.

“I feel very isolated and like nobody cares about me or even gives me enough thought to care,” she said.

Even before the pandemic, workers in Aurora and Denver faced a higher likelihood of burnout, according to a study from SmartAsset, which compared how much time workers were putting in, how tough their commutes were, and how much housing costs were stretching them.

Of the 100 cities examined, Aurora workers had the highest risk of burnout of any city, while Denver workers had the sixth-highest rate.

“While our study did not take into account the effect of remote working, recent data shows that people are working three additional hours per day during the coronavirus pandemic than they were prior. As a result, workers, particularly those in cities at the top of our list, may be more prone to burnout in the current remote working environment due to COVID-19,” said Kara Gibson, a spokeswoman for SmartAsset.

Gibson said tracking burnout matters, not just for the mental well being of workers but also for the bottom line. Citing different studies, she said workplace stress is estimated to cost the economy more than $500 billion dollars a year and contribute to 550 million lost workdays. Burned-out employees are 2.6 times as likely to look for another job, 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

“Tracking and preventing worker burnout is important for employers who want their businesses to thrive,” she said.

One question the Martec study doesn’t answer is resiliency. Will remote workers who are frustrated or feeling trapped work through their discontentment and come to accept the “new normal”? That’s an important question given that more employers are seriously considering abandoning office leases and making remote work a more permanent arrangement.

Aguilar said over time, he has been able to adapt, in part because his employer has shown empathy. After complaining about his computer, he received an upgraded model. When burnout became an issue, the foundation shared information on the warning signs. They provided half days off on Fridays. People could ask for mental health days.

“They were understanding, sharing resources and articles to explain burnout,” he said. “They were putting it on our radar.”

Jaime Aguilar of Community First Foundation ...

Hyoung Chang, The Denver Post

Jaime Aguilar stands in his home in Denver on Wednesday, September 16 , 2020.

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