Before the coronavirus pandemic, psychiatrist Jessi Gold could count on one hand the number of times she had conducted an appointment over the phone or computer.
“When we switched to being home in March, it was like, ‘OK, it’s a short-term thing. I can do this short term,’ ” said Gold, who sees health-care workers and college students at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. But as weeks stretched into months, Gold, a self-described extrovert, began to feel the strain.
“I would burn out a lot easier just staring at the computer all day. I got headaches a lot quicker. I would feel myself needing to get up and walk around and make myself have breaks,” she said. Gold also found herself missing her connection with patients, even though she was seeing them virtually.
When Gold returned to in-person sessions once a week last month, “it was like night and day for me,” she said. “I was much happier. I left work feeling so much better.”
Lakshman Swamy, on the other hand, is in no rush to return to his traditional office setting. “Although I feel like I’m working a lot … the comfort of doing that work is really increased,” said Swamy, medical director at MassHealth and an ICU doctor in Boston, whose current schedule allows him to alternate three-week stretches of remote work with one week at the hospital.
Swamy said he is more productive at home, largely because he doesn’t have to commute and has a “preserved workspace.” In addition, he said, working remotely has allowed him to spend more time with his family and take better care of himself — attending meetings while walking, for example, and making more nutritious meals. “I can bake fresh bread and eat it for breakfast while I’m in a meeting,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Across the country, office workers and professionals like Gold and Swamy have experienced the pros and cons of working from home, and are considering which elements they would like to incorporate or scrap in their post-pandemic work lives. Mental health experts are hoping that decisions made by employers will prioritize individual well-being as much as possible.
“Before we had these cookie-cutter expectations of working processes,” said Lacie Barber, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University, who specializes in occupational health psychology. “The benefit of COVID is it made us change everything.” Rather than “rushing to go back to the way things were,” Barber said, organizations should “actually think about how it could be better than where we were.”
And while much of the country’s workers — front-line and essential employees or those in the service industry — don’t have the option of doing their jobs remotely (according to a May survey conducted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 17% of employed people 16 and older said they had teleworked in the past four weeks), experts say wisdom gained during the pandemic can be beneficial in any work environment.
“Employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of stress management, of setting healthy boundaries, of taking care of mental health and well-being,” said Darcy Gruttadaro, director of the Center for Workplace Mental Health at the American Psychiatric Association.
Going forward, experts would like to see bosses create “safe avenues for our employees and our team members to be comfortable and confident in disclosing what their needs are and what their mental health challenges are,” said Julius Boatwright, founder and chief executive of Steel Smiling, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that focuses on Black mental health.
And they would like to see all employees — even those who don’t have a choice about where they work — advocate for an environment that “you believe is better for you, your job and your overall mental health,” said Benjamin Miller, a mental health expert and chief strategy officer for Well Being Trust, a national foundation.
Here are some lessons learned while working from home that experts say bosses and employees should keep in mind — whether work stays remote, returns to an office or becomes a hybrid model.
It can improve well-being
How a person’s well-being was affected by working from home was largely “grounded by privilege” related to job responsibilities, home life, neighborhood and socioeconomic status, among other factors, Miller said.
But for some people, the pandemic proved “that we can integrate wellness into our lifestyle and still get work done,” said Boatwright, who has found time for healthy activities and encourages his staff to schedule at least an hour or two of self-care during the workweek.
Even if you have to return to the office, experts say, it’s possible to continue self-care. Boatwright suggested incorporating simple breathing exercises, which don’t take more than three to five minutes, into your workday.
Bosses can contribute to employees’ well-being on-site by offering to hold walking meetings outdoors, inviting mindfulness experts to lead guided sessions for staff or sponsoring occasional healthy lunches, Gruttadaro said.
It can interfere with boundaries
The past 15 months have shown that one of the main challenges of remote employment is the “blurring of boundaries” between work and home, Miller said. “And that leads to all kinds of problems.”
Gruttadaro agreed. “If you used to work eight hours and now you’re working 10 to 11 hours, something else is being given up as part of your life,” she said. “If it’s social connectedness, if it’s doing activities you previously loved, if it’s exercise, those are all unfortunate things to give up because that’s what keeps us healthy.”
The increased reliance on emails and other electronic communications while working remotely also can exacerbate “workplace telepressure” (feeling like you have to respond immediately to text-based messages), said Barber, who has researched the subject. This in turn can lead to higher levels of work fatigue and sleep problems.
With more people on flexible schedules, “reestablishing predictability” at work is key to reducing telepressure, Barber said. Leaders and subordinates should have discussions about explicit ground rules for communication, including expected response times, and bosses should reinforce those rules by not contacting employees outside those hours. Telling people to simply ignore messages sent at unusual times doesn’t work, she said.
Bosses also can model healthy behavior for both at-home and office workers by encouraging employees to use vacation and take time off themselves, experts said. They should also regularly check in on staff, wherever they are.
For at-home employees, experts suggested learning to psychologically detach from their work. Possibilities include creating a “fake commute,” taking a walk after work or even just closing the laptop. Such habits can send “a signal that you’re done with work,” Miller said.
It can allow more individualized schedules and settings
While there is a heightened risk of blurred boundaries in remote work, many workers appreciate having more control over when and how they work, Gruttadaro said. Some people have adapted their schedules to suit their natural energy levels; perhaps they feel most productive early in the morning, or they may be night owls. Others enjoy being able to squeeze in a nap in the early afternoon and benefit from a boost in productivity afterward. These advantages can be difficult to replicate in a traditional office setting.
There are some employees, however, who might need a more structured schedule and setting to motivate themselves, and for them, returning to an office environment may be beneficial, experts said.
Personality type matters, too. Introverts may thrive in the quiet and solitude they have at home; extroverts may do better working face-to-face with colleagues.
Working from home has been a mixed bag for many parents, who enjoyed spending more time with their children but experienced increased stress and strain from juggling work, child care and school. Many of them might have longed for office life during the pandemic, Miller said, but when children go back to in-person learning, home offices might become more appealing.
Experts emphasized that the constantly shifting work landscape reinforces the importance of having open and honest conversations about work expectations.
It can challenge social connections
Losing in-person contact with co-workers, family and friends during the pandemic “was a very unnatural thing to happen and that stressed a lot of people out,” leading to increased rates of isolation and loneliness, Gruttadaro said.
It’s difficult to develop and maintain relationships while fully online, Barber said. In offices, there are more opportunities for informal interactions with colleagues or bosses throughout the day “that really do build up those relationships.”
While a return to an office setting or a hybrid work model may ease some of these pressures, there are also options for better maintaining social ties remotely. Barber suggests, for example, that managers set aside time during virtual meetings for casual chit chat, rather than diving straight into work matters.
“When it comes to the workplace, there is a difference between speaking to someone on a screen and seeing them in person” Gruttadaro said. “There is just this feeling of closeness that comes with being in the same room and there is more of a likelihood to, perhaps in some cases, share more personal information and just really have a more meaningful conversation.”