'We are restless‚ apathetic‚ unsettled': Coping with remote work fatigue in SA

Working from home is causing burnout and fatigue.
Working from home is causing burnout and fatigue.
Image: 123RF/fizkes

Zoom fatigue. Distractions. Backache. Long working hours. Covid-19 fatigue. Indifference. Burnout.

Sound familiar? These are the issues employees working remotely from home under the “new normal” are grappling with in SA. And many are taking strain.

Recognising the challenges of working remotely and the pandemic‚ mobile operator MTN has elected to give employees an extra week off work — minus calls‚ emails and messages — over and above their annual leave days.

The company this week said it was evident that some staff were experiencing strain‚ fatigue‚ even burnout‚ associated with mostly working from home.

“The pandemic has upended the traditional workplace‚ blurring the boundaries between work and home‚ meaning employees no longer have the luxury of 'punching out' on the workplace‚ nor do they 'clock out' of their personal lives when they arrive in the workplace‚” MTN said in a statement.

Chief of human resources Tebogo Maenetja said in addition to severe health concerns resulting from infections‚ they were seeing a wider affect on the overall mental health and wellbeing of their workforce.

In response‚ the company had introduced a “spring break” for all staff to rest‚ recharge and rejuvenate.

“The initiative will run between Aug. 1 and Oct. 31 and sees all employees‚ including contractors‚ as well as employees in the stores and call centres‚ receive one week of complete shutdown — no emails‚ no calls and no meetings. It’s our thank-you to staff for helping MTN to make the 'new normal' work‚” said Maenetja.

Experts agree that working remotely can take its toll on mental health.

Dr Colinda Linde‚ Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist and chairperson of the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag)‚ said for people living alone especially‚ remote work had been challenging.

“In these cases‚ work colleagues are often the only human contact they consistently have. For others‚ juggling online school and needing to assist children‚ also keep them out of the space you’re working from‚ is a big challenge. And there are other distractions at home — the TV‚ fridge‚ helpers moving around‚ dogs barking or wanting to be let out during an important meeting are just some of the challenges.”

She said another issue with remote work was when boundaries‚ such as after-hours‚ were not respected. “For example‚ if you aren’t in traffic at 5pm you are expected to agree to a meeting then. Though not taking a full lunch hour as you’re at home and just need a short break‚ for example‚ is often forgotten‚” Linde told TimesLIVE.

But in fairness‚ she added‚ many people were enjoying the option of being able to work from home‚ avoiding time spent commuting‚ working without being interrupted by colleagues and being able to work online from any location.

“Fatigue used to be associated with burnout or a state after a stressful period or illness. Over the past year‚ we have learnt about Zoom fatigue‚ Covid-19 fatigue and decision fatigue. A new term is doing the rounds too‚ to describe a state of indifference and joylessness that is part fatigue and part a feeling of lacking meaning: languishing‚” she said.

Linde said the term was coined by sociologist Corey Keyes‚ and it was basically the antithesis of flourishing. Think of it as the “mood of 2021” — we are restless‚ apathetic‚ unsettled and tend to have less interest in life or what used to bring joy. Not quite depression but if one had a history of depression and anxiety (or were genetically predisposed)‚ you would tend to be more prone to languishing than others.

Linde said languishing was not a mental illness as such but a set of distressing emotions — emptiness‚ monotony‚ restlessness‚ stagnation.

“Part of it is that we expected 2021 to be better‚ and different from 2020. But there’s still a pandemic. We still can’t mingle or travel freely‚ we are still in masks‚ and despite vaccines being available there are delays [in many countries] in the rollout‚ and even after receiving one there’s no guarantee you won’t get sick or that life is totally normal again. So we are in limbo‚ a holding pattern‚ waiting for life to start feeling like we are living again‚” she said.

Extroverts‚ she said‚ had struggled with limited socialisation and consequently were more prone to languishing.

“People with a history of depression and anxiety or who are genetically predisposed to psychiatric conditions are also more prone to languishing in that fatigue‚ poor focus‚ loss of interest or meaning are symptoms of these disorders as well‚” Linde said.

Depression and languishing can present similarly but there are distinct differences‚ she said. For example‚ depression symptoms included sadness‚ changes in appetite‚ feelings of worthlessness‚ and thoughts of death or suicide.

Work in progress: Should we say goodbye to the office for good? When figuring out what work will look like post-pandemic‚ we'll need to consider what's sustainable — for both employers and employees LIFESTYLE5 days ago Linde warned that people's mental health would not just return to normal when the pandemic was over‚ they were back in the office or lockdown restrictions were lifted.

She offered the following tips to cope:

Nature. Make time to get out when you can. Change of scenery is useful and can include a physical activity like a walk — it releases endorphins to boost the mood. Make time to get away from screens and devices‚ and really connect in a conversation. This includes avoiding work on weekends or some evenings. Disconnecting will give you more energy when you get back to work. Allow yourself to actually “enjoy” things again. Instead of focusing on what “should” make you happy or not trying to find it at all‚ lean into anything that brings you enjoyment. As long as it’s not dangerous‚ it's worth exploring. When possible‚ create a designated space to work separate from where you relax (a different area for being “on” and which you can step out of). If it’s an option or available‚ therapy can be a helpful space and give you tools for navigating new and scary feelings‚ such as those associated with languishing. A therapist can also help you cope with acute things‚ like death in the family‚ and managing emotional and mental reactions to long-term things such as career choices. Gratitude. Even if feeling cynical or apathetic‚ you are still here with opportunities available to humans — to learn‚ grow‚ evolve. Do a list of things you are thankful for physically‚ emotionally and spiritually every morning and evening‚ especially when lonely or sad.

Work:

Limit meetings to 30 min. There doesn’t need to always be chit-chat. Schedule separate social talk or connecting times‚ even if online. Educate people about mental health — awareness is the starting point for realising there could be a problem. Neil Bierbaum‚ life and executive coach and author of the Personal Effectiveness series‚ said remote work could lead people to overwork themselves. In his experience‚ with people he worked with recently‚ he found most spent more hours working online than they did pre-Covid-19.

“People have back-to-back meetings throughout the day‚ with little breaks in between and that is not good‚” Bierbaum said.


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