Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Canada in mid-March, millions of people have been working from home in lieu of going into the office each day.
And for some, the benefits are plenty.
“It can help (employees) be more productive and less distracted,” said Megan Walsh, a management professor at the University of Saskatchewan.
However, working from home is not for everyone, and experts say there are potential negative side effects to consider.
“Feelings of loneliness, isolation and depressive symptoms” are top concerns for Walsh.
Working from home during a pandemic is vastly different than usual, and it’s important for both employers and employees to remember that.
“The context of working from home during COVID-19 is unique in that many workplaces had to transition to work from home quickly (and) unexpectedly, and child care options for many are limited,” she said.
“In addition, many recovery opportunities, such as social events, are now limited, which could exacerbate some of the negative outcomes.”
Even after some social restrictions lift,employees may still feel overwhelmed and isolated while working from home, said Eddy Ng, professor of management at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.
Ng said even outside of our current situation, people who work from home can have troubles separating and balancing their work and personal lives.
“Employees who don’t feel well (even slightly) often take a day off, but are less likely to do so when they work from home,” he added.
Working at home begins to fail when individuals forgo breaks. In fact, not sticking to a schedule can have major implications for both productivity and mental and physical health.
“When it comes to work breaks, it can be tempting to either not take breaks at all, or to try to ‘prove’ your productivity by doing things like answering emails while eating your lunch,” Walsh said.
“It’s important to schedule breaks in your workday and to make them as much of a ‘real break’ as possible.”
For example, Walsh recommends eating your lunch away from your computer. Consider calling a family member or taking a walk outside to “really disconnect” from work during the dedicated break time.
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Not everyone’s schedule will look the same, but it’s important to do what feels right for you.
“This could be the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. structure, (or) it could be working a little in the evening to make up for child care duties during the day,” Walsh said.
“It’s really about… being as easy on yourself as possible.”
Mental and physical health
When an employee is working without structure, it can take a toll on both their mental and physical health.
“It can predict stress, depressive symptoms, social isolation and a blurring of boundaries between work and family time,” Walsh said.
“In addition, (it) can increase presenteeism, which is when workers ‘show up’ for work when they should be resting — like when they’re sick.”
Working from home can also wreak havoc on your physical health, especially if you don’t have a home office.
“Working from home can predict musculoskeletal problems in the neck, shoulders and arms — usually from working on a computer without a proper ergonomic setup, or from not taking as many breaks as they would in the office,” Walsh said.
To offset these negative side effects, employers need to set boundaries for employees working remotely, Ng said.
This means setting clear work hours and making sure people don’t work outside of those hours, unless in extenuating circumstances.
Instead of large group video calls, which are “impersonal and less effective,” Ng recommends setting up a buddy system, where two to three employees check in regularly with one another.
Walsh says communication is a key predictor of success in remote work.
“Having regular online meetings and checking in with employees can help in communicating effectively and can make employees feel supported,” Walsh said.
Role modelling from leaders is another predictor of employee productivity and satisfaction when working remotely.
“Employers should think about their own behaviour and ensure they are role modelling practices that can help employees, such as healthy work scheduling,” Walsh said.
“For example, if you’re sending employees emails late at night, this can be stressful and make employees feel that they should be doing the same.”
Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:
Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.
To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.
For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.