Analysis: what are the long-term impacts and challenges of working from home during the pandemic? 

By Maébh ColemanMarian Jennings and Rowena Hennigan, TU Dublin

This year has seen a baptism of fire for many who've been conscripted into the largest remote working experiment in history. Industry expert Matt Mullenweg called it "the remote work experience no-one asked for". However, as the months have passed, many workers have learned by doing and are now comfortable and established in their home working set-up.

While workers are set-up for home working on a practical level, cracks are starting to appear on a physical, mental and emotional level. Many are working from home with high levels of anxiety, personal challenges, conflicting priorities, economic strains and various other challenges. Stress levels are high, fatigue has set-in and we are all experiencing some level or form of Covid anxiety.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, clinical psychologist Dr Keith Gaynor described himself as "well...but anxious". Being anxious is fairly universal, Gaynor told Tubridy, given the nature of the pandemic we've all been enduring for the past six months. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, clinical psychologist Dr Keith Gaynor on how we can help manage our mental health in these strange times.

Support your home workers

Work, home and schooling responsibilities are all thrown together, often in the same small physical space, all competing for attention. It’s time to appreciate the potential negative impacts of this "working from home in a crisis", creating the awareness needed so that individuals can ask for help and employers empowered to provide the support and wellbeing initiatives needed.

Pre-Covid, a 2017 report from the United Nations International Labour Organisation found that employees are more productive when they work outside of the conventional office, but that they're also more vulnerable to working longer hours, a more intense work pace, work-home interference, and, in some cases, greater stress. All of that is without the impact of local Covid restrictions, which are also limiting our movements and social interactions, and the potential personal implications related to health and bereavement.

Established fully remote companies (many of which have existed since 2005) are aware of these potential challenges in their employees’ wellbeing. They aim to proactively counteract these through initiatives from employee onboarding and ongoing employee engagement. These supports and initiatives are specifically tailored to remote workers, including encouraging regular physical meet-ups and retreats to foster social interaction and team building in their workforces.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Brainstorm, the future of the 9 to 5 work life

What work life balance?

When work, life and other responsibilities are thrown together in the same space, where is the balance? According to a survey conducted by Mental Health First Aid Ireland, we are facing significant and varied challenges due to the mass shift to remote work. Survey respondents reported negative physical ramifications as a result of working from home, as well as issues relating to mental health and wellbeing. Over a third of respondents reported that were not happy with their work-life balance.

As boundaries are blurred between work and life, workers have found it hard to switch off mainly due to the removal of the commute to a physical office location as the time and space to move into work mode has been removed. 42% of those surveyed agreed that they found it difficult to maintain the boundaries between home and work life and almost half of respondents (49.3%) worked over their contracted hours.

Loneliness and social isolation

Stuck in a home-office, with little or no real life connection opportunities with colleagues can also mean individuals feel they are lonely and socially isolated. The Psychological Society of Ireland defines isolation as "the objective size of one’s social network and the frequency of contact with the same.’ Loneliness, however, ‘occurs where a gap is perceived between the social relations one has and what is desired, in relation to quantity or quality."  In April 2020, their research indicated that the prevalence of loneliness has more than doubled since 2018 among those aged between 18 to 34 in Ireland.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTE Radio 1's Today With Sarah McInerney, Dr Anne Marie Creaven from the University of Limerick, mental health specialist and GP Dr. Harry Barry and psychotherapist Enda Murphy on the challenges we face adjusting to the new normal

In Irish law, employers have a duty of care to provide employees with a safe place of work and safe systems of work which includes psychological safety during remote working. Managers and owner-managers play a vital role in the day to day implementation of this duty. As with all aspects of health matters, prevention is key.

Employee Assistance Programmes (EAP) play an important role here. If an employee develops a mental health problem, the employer is required to provide reasonable accommodation to support that employee. Research by Laya Healthcare found a staggering 91% of Irish workers are struggling with anxiety during Covid-19, yet a mere 10% are seeking assistance from a mental health professional.

These findings should not be overlooked. In fact, these two conflicting pieces of information equate to a prominent red flag for future workforce issues such as fatigue, absenteeism, and consequently, burnout. Moreover, the overarching message is that if an individual worker is struggling they need to be able to speak up and ask for help.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Bernard Harbor from Fórsa discusses the findings of a survey about how workers feel about remote working

Irish EAP programmes have provided a vital lifeline to employers and employees in their Covid response, to maintain health and wellbeing in home working. Many services pivoted to be offered digitally, with yoga, fitness and various health assessments being provided electronically. New offerings were also launched by providers such as Spectrum.Life to support and aid the growing population of home-workers including ergonomics, physio, mental health, remote working skills, parenting etc. 

How to make a difference

Awareness is slowly building of the small things we do every day as home workers which really matter. The initial joke about home working in pyjamas still prevails but it is widely accepted that how we dress impacts our mood and readiness for work.

Scheduling a walk or exercise before sitting at the computer is also vital to setting the tone for the working day and can, in one way, replace the commute and the divide between "home" and "work". Scheduling breaks, stretching, moving, getting outside for fresh air and resting regularly are all paramount to maintain energy levels.

We need to take that awareness we have on a physical level and move it into how we feel and what we may need in relation to human connection. Recognising the importance of reaching out regularly to colleagues for a virtual coffee chat and seeking out those personal connection opportunities via family and friends, where possible, are vitally important

Maébh Coleman is a lecturer and teaching fellow at the School of Business at TU Dublin. Marian Jennings is a law lecturer at the School of Business at TU Dublin. Rowena Hennigan is a lecturer on the Future of Work module at TU Dublin and a freelance consultant.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ. If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, support information is available online