COVID Opened the Door to Remote Work, Here’s How It Impacted Mental Health
Nowadays, it seems like many workplaces have a toxic culture or at least a dysfunctional one. They demand — not just expect — more from their employees than any human being should have to, or be willing to, give. Sixty-hour weeks. Twelve-hour days. Giving up weekends and holidays. They treat employees as fungible things that can be easily replaced, and regularly are, especially if they don’t live up to the brutal “standards” that are supposedly required by the free market.
Toxic workplaces also tend to be full of toxic people. Bullying of employees and coworkers is common. Gaslighting even happens, more regularly than we’d like to admit. Required conformity and enforced corporate “team-building” parties and picnics suck the meaning out of workplace enjoyment, in my opinion. Exhortations that the workplace is a “family” and then behaving in ways that belie this are rampant, false, harmful, and destructive.
Corporate practices often aren’t human-friendly, much less family-friendly. In some companies, flexible working hours, job-sharing, onsite childcare, remote work, part-time work, and extended sick and other types of leave are largely reserved for only the highest echelons or never even considered for any workers. Health and disability insurance are often nonexistent or ultra-expensive for workers because of the monetary costs to the company. In my experience, discussions about the stress caused by work end in suggestions to try yoga. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), if they exist, provide some therapy, but only with a provider of the company’s choosing and usually only for six weeks or so.
Then along comes the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, corporations and other, smaller businesses were faced with the difficulties of staffing during lockdowns and quarantines. All of a sudden, workers weren’t so available or so desperate. Owners had to scramble to hire enough workers to keep the wheels turning. Some businesses were forced to raise wages. Others had to rethink corporate travel to cut costs.
And some turned to remote work. Not all could, of course. Some jobs simply can’t be done from home. Construction workers, wait staff, airline attendants, and countless others were simply let go or put on furlough, many of them without even partial pay. But many jobs, particularly office jobs, were the sorts that could be done from home, on the phone or via computer. And that seemed beneficial both for the affected companies and for the mental health of their workers. Bosses suddenly realized that work-from-home can improve their bottom line, reducing overhead. It soon became clear that many home-workers were able to be as or even more productive when not being constantly interrupted by mandatory meetings and other useless exercises.
How did telecommuting affect workers’ mental health? First, remote workers were spared from many aspects of toxic workplaces. Micromanaging became largely unfeasible. This certainly helped improve their working conditions and stress. So did getting respectably dressed only from the waist up, especially for those of us with limited spoons. Being able to step away from the computer for a half-hour or more to do something about chores or even hobbies provided a welcome break. Lunches could now be taken whenever you were hungry and last more than 30 minutes. Even spending more time with pets reduced stress and provided emotional support that’s next to impossible in most workplaces.
Many of the stresses that so exacerbate mental health conditions were at least lessened. Many people were more comfortable in their own homes, with comfort objects and self-care items more readily available. Those with a greater need for alone time suddenly had more of it. If they found that they could work better or more productively part-time at home, it was a benefit for the companies as well.
Of course, not all bosses took to this new way of working. Once they figured out that employees could be more productive when working at home, some of them upped output requirements. They could insist that employees remain logged in during standard working hours, making flex-time less doable. Or they started requiring more output from those telecommuting, or scheduling Skype meetings that cut into employees’ time.
I work at home, remotely, and have for a number of years. I do so because I have been fortunate enough to find jobs that pay (though not a lot), jobs that match my skill set, jobs that aren’t 9-5, and jobs that are conducive to working around my days of depression and hypomania. I’ve considered going back to work in an office from time to time when funds were low, but not enough to actively pursue it. Truth to tell, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again, and not just because I like working in my pajamas. (For those who are curious, I’m doing transcription and ghostwriting at the moment. They provide a supplement to Social Security and allow me time to work on my blogs.)
Did toxic work environments cause mental illness? Probably not, though they have pushed some people closer to the edge and others past the breaking point. It’s hard to work in corporate culture with any kind of mental disorder. For these people, remote working is a blessing. COVID has been devastating, but one of its side effects has been to improve working conditions for millions of people — and especially those living with mental illnesses.
Getty image by Maskot