WFH: The Emotional and Mental Impact of Working From Home

March 18, 2020
As the novel coronavirus outbreak spreads, more and more businesses are shutting down temporarily or telling employees who can work from home to do so. 
Making pajama jokes, taking photos of maintaining a daily routine and setting up a home office can be fun, but there are also acute side effects of working remotely -- especially during a time like this. 
Daily impact 
For Ben Golliver, Washington Post’s National NBA writer, the fact that the entire NBA season has been suspended hasn’t hit him yet.
“I’m still in denial,” said Golliver, who also hosts Sports Illustrated’s Open Floor and the independent Greatest of All Talk podcasts.
Golliver, who lives in LA, estimates that he spent about eight hours a week commuting to and from games in the city, 25 hours watching games, and at least 10 hours writing. He has been covering the NBA since 2007.
“So much of my life is built around basketball … having that all taken away simultaneously is going to have a major emotional impact,” he told Cheddar via FaceTime Monday. 
That awareness is keen because choosing to work from home versus having to work from home as policy is a key factor in how someone feels about the practice. 
This perception, says social psychologist Francis McAndrew, immediately puts people into different mindsets.
People who perceive that they are getting something they have chosen feel confident and optimistic. Those who perceive working from home as a situation that has happened to them feels less so, he adds. 
“Both of them have to deal with change, but one group is starting out in a better place than the other,” McAndrew said. 
Productivity and team impact
In many ways Golliver is accustomed to working from home or remotely. 
His coverage takes him on road trips across the country. A hotel lobby may be his office one day, while the next day is a courtside seat or locker room. In that way, having to work from home now for the foreseeable future (Golliver is still covering the logistics of what the season suspension means) hasn’t changed his working dynamic with his colleagues. 
But Golliver’s is still an uncommon case. About 26 million Americans work remotely in some capacity, according to a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report. That’s just 16 percent of the total workforce, which means the vast majority of workers are accustomed to working physically in groups. And according to an exclusive YouGov study conducted for Cheddar on Monday, more than half of Americans have never worked from home prior to March 1. 
On top of the transition issues, there are a lot of mixed messages about working at home, says Greg DeLapp, CEO of EAPA, the Employee Assistance Professionals Association.
“You watch TV commercials, and it’s team, team, team. And here I am working alone. What does that say about me?” said DeLapp. 
To combat that feeling DeLapp recommends “finessing” an arrangement. “Three screens linked together -- that’s a team!” 
Other issues and concerns that come up include feeling ill-prepared, worries about recognition, and most importantly lack of socialization. 
If a worker has been somewhere else, it’s first about transition issues, says DeLapp, who has nearly 40 years of experience in employee assistance and HR. 
Not having the same technical infrastructure of a whole IT department for example, means workers may have to spend more time figuring that out on their own and getting their own equipment.
Then there’s the issue about recognition -- wondering if the work now is solely about meeting deadlines, how will other people know what you did?
And finally the lack of social interaction means there aren’t colleagues around for casual conversations, to bounce ideas off of. 
“Not everyone can work from home,” said DeLapp. There’s a confidence factor, and some people excel in an environment without the distractions of the office. 
“There’s a sense of vulnerability at times and it can be debilitating,” he added. “[You] always have to be on guard against that.”
Long-term impacts
The word “uncertainty” has gotten a lot of mileage with the virus’ spread. But that is the most stressful feeling right now.
“It’s the lack of knowing,” said McAndrew, who is a Knox College psychology professor. “If you knew you were going to be doing something for one week, you would prepare very differently than if you were going to do something for six months.”
In some ways, the longer this or any situation goes on, the more certain you are that it might go on longer, he added.
That may be more helpful because it gives you the opportunity to establish a new routine. 
“Routine is important because it allows us to preserve our cognitive energy for stuff that absolutely needs it,” he said. Having to pay attention to everything you do is completely exhausting.
If you sense a change in your mood
Everyone will respond to working from home differently. But it’s important to be self-aware of how you’re feeling over time. 
“If you find yourself totally lacking in motivation, find it harder to do things that used to be routine, that’s a sign that your attention is lagging,” McAndrew said. “If there’s also a downshift in your mood if you’re a normally upbeat person -- those are signs that something isn’t right.” 
And if you are feeling stressed and you think you need a social fix, take a walk or find someone to connect with even if it’s for a few minutes. 
In cases where cities have restricted movement, anything you can do to make your human contact more immediate and less electronic would be helpful, he advises:
  • Speaking by phone or Skype so you can hear an actual human voice is better than text or email.
  • This would also be a good time to get to know some neighbors in similar circumstances and organize a pseudo-work network. Even though you may have very different jobs with very different employers, you all still share the same human need for affiliation.
Taking it “one day at a time” 
Working from home can present new distractions absent from the office -- namely access to TV and constant news updates. 
But if you look at the headlines across the board they are mainly reporting the same news. With that perspective, focus on what you can control, says DeLapp. 
“I can’t control [the outside world], but I can control my immediate environment,” he said to tell yourself. Wash your hands, limit your social interactions. 
To focus on the here and now is what it means to take things “a day at a time” and that will help control emotion. 
To wander and get worked up about something out of your control -- a news story far away -- “That kind of thinking is going to do nothing but wear you down and fatigue is a great setup for depression and anxiety.”
Take advantage of this time
Even with the serious backdrop of why many are now working remotely, this can be a good time for self care with the additional time at home.
Golliver said he has increased his daily walks to seven to eight miles a day, up from five to six. He’s also getting more sleep because he’s not home late from games, writing until 2 am, and then waking up early for east coast hours.
“This is allowing me to get seven solid hours every single night, which I’m already seeing impacts of. I feel better a little bit, more energetic,” he said. 
Golliver has also been encouraging people on his podcast to consider focusing on wellness.
“You’re stuck at home, it sucks -- but how can you spin it forward? How can you do some of those resolutions you made in January?”
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