Working from home is resulting in widespread anxiety, says psychiatrist

Typically, employees bring their strengths to work and leave their weaknesses at home, but in the work from home era that simply isn’t possible

Maayan Manela 17:1109.11.20
The current work from home situation has created new challenges for everyone - employees, managers, and the unemployed. The overall mood of employees and of job seekers is unsurprisingly low, compared to the period prior to the pandemic. Even those who are employed have friends who are unemployed, and the overall gloomy feeling is seeping into everyday life. Dr. Oren Tene, director of the public mental health department at the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center told Calcalist in an interview about the stressful situation that we find ourselves in today, about workplace anxiety, and how to properly deal with it.


How is the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic affecting employees?


“First of all, there are several organizations that are made up of successful people who are accustomed to seeing growth charts, and are used to bringing their strengths to work, and leaving their weaknesses and chaos at home. But now work and home are convoluted and it’s difficult to separate the two. We are dealing with powerful organizations that a large portion of their employees are suffering at work. While the employees have legitimacy from the employer to express their difficulties, they are unaccustomed to broadcasting their problems at work. They can't properly express the difficulties they are facing. The interesting thing is that most of the time their difficulties can be resolved easily if they only shared them.”


Dr. Oren Tene, head of the psychiatry clinic at Ichilov Hospital. Photo: Joe Cognac Dr. Oren Tene, head of the psychiatry clinic at Ichilov Hospital. Photo: Joe Cognac


“The work from home challenge can be divided into two possible situations: people with families and those without, for both sides it’s a new and significant challenge. For people with families during lockdowns and without the traditional education system, homeschooling can be chaotic, and doesn’t allow employees to focus and concentrate on their work. In the Israeli labor market, women and also men are required to do everything as parents, and when supportive frameworks exist, it’s possible. Now, when there aren’t any set scholastic schedules or parents to help children with homework, the responsibility falls entirely on the employees.”


“On the other hand, there are employees without families. Their situation isn’t any less worse, they experience total isolation - over the course of several weeks they can go without seeing anyone.


“A lot of our communication is written, we write emails, WhatsApp messages, posts on social media - and often this becomes an alternative to phone conversations or face-to-face interactions. This creates a situation where people can go several days and weeks even without actually talking to anyone.”


Is working from home really that different?


“We need to understand that the workplace is not just a place where we come to work, rather it’s a place of personal growth, mingling, creativity, self-expression, self-achievement, and all these things are difficult to maintain while at home. People have told me that their creativity has diminished. Working from home makes all these things disappear. For example, at the clinic we don’t work from home but we still don’t see other co-workers, and that human interaction is really missing. One of the reasons that people work is to be surrounded by a workplace environment, and have multidisciplinary encounters.”


Employees today are still worried about losing their jobs and about the general environment. What’s workplace anxiety?


“I have a patient who told me last week ‘it’s been hard on me, and I know that this isn’t justified: I have a job, a home, while others around me practically have nothing and tell me to keep quiet and say thank you.’ There are two aspects here. The first deals with those who remain at work, who often feel as if they owe their employers something, and it troubles them. Some other issues which employees have brought up is that they don’t dare ask for bonuses, they work longer hours, and sometimes feel as if they are expected to work even more. Even people who are employed are worried, because they are afraid of losing their jobs too. The second aspect is that we all live among each other, there isn’t a single person who hasn’t seen or known someone who’s unemployed, and this anxiety seeps in. Anxiety is defined as if it’s contagious, although workplace anxiety such as this can seep into anyone. Many people feel that if in the past they had a hard time finding a job, today they’d have an even harder time finding one. They see what’s happening around them and that anxiety seeps toward them as well. Meanwhile, they cling to their jobs, are more committed, and are often inflexible, because that flexibility has been taken from them.”


Do managers experience crises as well?


“Employers are in their own sort of trouble. I can say that as a manager my ability to oversee and criticize others' work has been significantly damaged, and the experience of losing control adds to the general uncertainty of these times. Employers demand results to present to their bosses, they want to protect the workplace framework and work output, but all of this is done in very difficult conditions. Many employees feel as if there is a lot of micromanaging going on, while employers feel as if they’ve lost their ability for oversight.”


So what can managers do about that?


“The key is flexibility, creativity, and proactivity. It’s crucial to be proactive, instead of waiting for a difficult situation to arise. We must foresee issues and work with them. By using flexibility and creativity, we can improve things in significant ways for the entire team. Sometimes small decisions such as setting work hours to correspond with children’s online school Zoom sessions so that employees will be more productive, is a good idea, or setting aside times for individual activity, such as exercise, having a meal, getting fresh air. Creativity is the name of the game. I know a woman who as a single mother could not complete all of her tasks on time, yet she was proactive and approached her employer. Between physical tasks she was able to intersperse work, the solution was a bit different and altered her work hours, but her place of employment took care to help her. During certain hours she paid for a babysitter, and this was a magical solution that helped her. We all go through difficult times, the first step is to legitimize these feelings.”