How work from home is affecting women’s mental health in times of coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic has become a double-edged sword. On the one hand, our physical health is at risk, as the virus affects people differently across the world.
On the other, physical distancing, self-isolation, fear, uncertainty, and a prolonged period of working from home has led to a large number of people suffering from mental health issues.
It’s a silent pandemic that continues to rage on, one that is largely ignored as the physical effects of the coronavirus gains precedence over everything else.
The looming mental health crisis forced UN Secretary General Antonio Gueterres to warn the world in May this year on the need to address another crisis.
“The shocks associated with COVID-19 are now pushing many towards greater fragility and pain: grief at the loss of loved ones; anxiety at the loss of jobs; isolation and restrictions on movement; difficult family dynamics; uncertainty and fear for the future. Each of these on its own can trigger or deepen distress. Today many people are suffering several problems simultaneously,” he said.
This very concerning picture prompted the United Nations to release a policy brief on COVID-19 and mental health. It includes recommendations to governments and others that can help mitigate the mental health dimensions of the pandemic.
One of the major after-effects of the pandemic is the shutting down of physical workplaces, forcing people to work from home. With a number of organisations extending this policy until next year, or in some cases, till a vaccine is released, the new norm has given rise to a number of challenges affecting mental health.
According to the Microsoft’s latest Work Trend Index that surveyed over 6,000 information and first-line workers across eight companies globally including Australia, Japan, India, and Singapore, one-third of workers in India are facing increased burnout due to lack of separation between work and personal life. They are also concerned about contracting COVID-19.
The study also found that India had the second highest percentage of workers facing increased burnout in Asia at 29 percent. India came out top with over 41 percent of workers citing the lack of separation between work and personal life as negatively impacting their well-being, resulting in increased stress levels.
Women have been hit hard by the pandemic as they try to strike a balance at home – juggling office duties with household care. Their personal and professional lives have gone for a toss in the absence of support, an orderly structure or even networking systems.
How is this prolonged work from home affecting women and their mental health? HerStory looks at the larger picture of anxiety, loneliness, frustration, uncertainty and also resilience.
Increase in responsibilities
Working from home has resulted in an increased workload for most women, especially those who do not have help with household chores or child-rearing. With a number of gated communities in cities like Mumbai not allowing house help to enter the premises, the onus falls on the woman to take over household responsibilities as well.
“Since we have a large number of cases in our society, it’s been hard to manage without help at home. My husband works on a shift different from mine, which means while I am working, cooking, and looking after the children during the day, he is sleeping. It’s been hard to cope without any support,” says Varsha*, a 32-year-old financial professional from Mumbai.
For Avni*, a professional in the startup space in Bengaluru, additional work has led her to feel demotivated on most days.
“Household chores make me feel listless and tired all the time. This leads to lack of sleep and the inability to get out of bed in the morning and start work,” she says.
Krishna*, a writer from Mumbai says, “It’s just not about working from home though. It’s working with a 30 percent pay cut, having to pitch in with cooking breakfast and lunch, and an increased workload from my manager.”
Fear of the virus and loss
The inherent fear of contracting the virus or losing loved ones to it while remaining at home without much contact with the outside world has led to an increase in anxiety levels among women.
“One is constantly worrying and that’s not a great place to be. Also, the grief of losing someone you know and the fear that surrounds certainly does not help,” says Ritika*, a communications executive in Chennai.
“Whenever I hear of a death in the neighbourhood, it triggers me. For someone already living with an anxiety disorder, bad news does not seem to help. I end up thinking of worst-case scenarios, especially when I have elderly parents living hundreds of miles away,” says Aparajita*, a college professor based in Kolkata.
No boundaries when it comes to work
The biggest fallout of working from home, most women say, is there are no boundaries when it comes to timings. 9-5 jobs are a thing of the past, and one is expected to be on call late into the night even on weekends. With organisations struggling to remain profitable, the repercussions of uncertainty extend to the employees as well. Added to this is the fear of losing jobs that makes one work harder and not complain about long hours.
Ananya*, a product manager in an education services company in Mumbai, says. “I’m constantly anxious, worried I'm not doing enough, comparing my output to my peers, terrified that if I don't match everyone's output, I'll be benched. If I worked from office, it would mean I could focus on work for eight hours and not get into this overwrought, anxious space. Also, having my colleagues around would be a respite.”
Priya*, a tech professional in Bengaluru, echoes the same sentiment.
”For some reason, I keep feeling what I do is not enough. Added to that, there is no work-life balance. Those hours in the office were a me-time - time kept aside for working, being around people, and catching up with friends. These days all I long for is to go back.”
Ritika*, who works in product development finance with a global automaker, started experiencing the physical symptoms of stress. Her day began as early as 7.30 am and went on until 11.30 pm. She started bleeding heavily and medical reports pointed out that there was no physical issue and it was the result of stress and anxiety. She took a short break from work and is contemplating taking online counselling sessions offered by her company.
“While the initial energy lasted a good few months, the fatigue is most definitely setting in, and a sense of helplessness grips many women, especially those in their late 30s and 40s. The ‘down-time’ or the ‘space’ that usually comes with outsourcing some tasks are no longer possible. And therefore, every minute of the day is dedicated to planning, organising, work pressure, worry about delivery and targets, and it is only normal that diet and fitness routines are compromised to ‘get through’ the day,” says Fatima Agarkar, Founder, educationist and founder of ACE.
What the experts say
Psychologist Anuja Kapur says work from home jobs can be a real challenge for some women and their mental health.
“It can bend usually optimistic and prolific workers into tired, causeless, and cranky ones. So, before you hit rock bottom, be cautious and pick the signs of your mental health being disturbed in order to address your next steps. Working women have to face a major effect as their working hours now seem to have no end. The whole family is always home, so they have the added pressure to provide time at home and professionally.”
She also adds that it has led to loneliness and isolation, anxiety, stress and pressure, and depression. These could include the following:
- Outbursts, irritability, or frustration over small matters
- Loss of interest over activities enjoyed - such as sex or hobbies
- Insomnia or irregular sleep schedules
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Food cravings leading to obesity, or no hunger at all
- Anxiety, agitation, and restlessness
- Trouble in concentrating, making decisions, and remembering things
- Physical problems such as back pain or headaches
- Avoiding socialising altogether
What workplaces could do
Workplaces should be more sensitive to the needs of women working from home. They should take into account that women need both rest and respite from juggling different roles.
Online retailers, Prione Group and Cloudtail India have launched the ProEves Learning Lab in partnership with ProEves, a childcare benefit provider that helps children of working parents entertained and in safe hands during work hours. These include online camps, activities, a child-minder/teacher, online coaching, and more. Besides this, all employees get one Friday off per month, an Employee Assistance Programme focusing on self-care, virtual fitness, medical teleconsultation, and an employee engagement campaign.
“While ensuring they have the best IT and HR support so they can be at their productive best, we have also started employee engagement initiatives in the form of webinars and contests to keep their mental state positive and upbeat,” says Namita Thapar, Executive Director, Emcure Pharmaceuticals.
Towards mental well-being
While a number of helplines and online platforms are available for mental-health and well-being, self-care is as important to keep healthy during these uncertain times, says Anuja.
She lists a few tips to help women cope with the challenges of working from home.
Build a routine - When you organise your tasks and outline your goals, you mentally prepare yourself for what to expect during the day. Then it’s easier to work towards achieving the goals you set out, rather than vaguely meandering towards them.
Dedicate a room to be your home office - A wide desk, an ergonomic chair, and a little silence will increase your productivity and help you feel that you are working in a professional environment.
Get on the move - Add a thirty-minute physical workout routine to your day. Try going out for a walk or a bike ride. You can also opt for yoga or meditation. It’s all about doing away with the tension or stress built up over the recent period. Get that heart pumping.
Socialise - Talk to your favourite people or visit them as the unlock phase brings in some travel ease. Discuss the issues you have faced or are facing, this will bring in relief. Visiting or even talking to your favourite people brings happiness.
Talk to a professional - After working on all options available, if you find yourself giving into anxiety and panic, it may be time to talk and discuss further strategy with a mental health expert.
Saying “NO” is okay - One cannot take on all responsibilities and tasks. You can politely deny a request from office or if it’s a demand at home, you can ask it to wait till you have the time to do it.
*Names changed on request.