Last year, everything changed. As the world dealt with the fallout of the pandemic and companies scrambled to find new ways to get operations running again, the human element - which has a huge impact on office dynamics and quality of life within the workplace - suffered. As workplaces became remote, the ability to personally connect with co-workers working in close proximity completely disappeared.
Gone were the chats near the water cooler. Gone was the camaraderie that came with being “stuck in the trenches” with your colleagues as you battled to meet the next deadline. Almost overnight, everything we knew about our working lives changed.
As early as June 2020, a survey conducted by clutch.co found that 63% (of 301 employees) reported having reduced interactions with their co-workers. While this was an issue even before the pandemic - Gartner revealed in a survey that 41% respondents felt disconnected from their co-workers while working remotely – it has not only become exacerbated under the current circumstances, it has been unavoidable.
In Part 1 of this two-part series, we take a look at how the pandemic has affected workers from different walks of life. We spoke with a few working professionals, and they shared their stories with us on the condition of anonymity. The names mentioned below have therefore been changed on request.
Working in isolation has a deep impact on mental health
The reduced interaction, coupled with many employees not staying with their families, or spending a major chunk of their time working even while at home, has led to an increase in the feeling of isolation and loneliness.
Winston, a sales executive at a Software company in Hertfordshire says, “Going from working 80 hours a week in the trenches with the lads to all of a sudden having to dial in to meetings and schedule appointments to speak with my own colleagues was strange. I developed a feeling of constant loneliness and disconnection from everything and everyone.”
Winston decided, a few months after having to work at home, to seek therapy, and it is here that he realised that he had been suffering from depression caused by the onset of the pandemic and the associated isolation.
Winston isn’t alone. A study from October 2020 found that job insecurity, long periods of isolation, and uncertainty of the future worsen the psychological health, especially in younger people and in those with a higher educational background.
The impact of WFH stress hits women harder than men
A survey of working women in India by Pink Ladder found that 4 out of 10 women faced anxiety and stress due to having to work from home. According to the same study, over 50% of the respondents reported feeling a lack of motivation while working.
But perhaps most worryingly, the survey found that women were facing something called the “double-burden syndrome”, where they were expected to take care of household chores while also giving their all at work.
This stemmed from a lack of proper support from the men at home.
Shahana, a manager at a leading consulting firm says, ”Balancing working even 9 hour shifts while trying to run a house with people young and old to take care of has been hectic to say the least. Not only am I responsible for my work, I also have to look after the nourishment of my spouse, my kids, and my parents.”
Shifting to working from the peace and quiet of her own office to the hustle and bustle around the dining table has not been easy. “At least back then I had the office as an escape of sorts. Who would’ve thought that one day I’d yearn to be able to stay in my cabin all day!” she laughs.
It’s not just employees
We know businesses took a big hit when COVID-19 hit.
How many businesses pivoted and survived has been well documented already. But there were a lot of businesses that could not survive the havoc wreaked by the pandemic.
Business, especially small businesses and startups struggled to survive. While many couldn’t afford to make the digital pivot and some had to lay off employees, others depended on having customers interact physically in order to operate.
Pierre, an entrepreneur from Naples, Italy, owned a sports academy. He had poured his life savings into building the place, and had just opened the doors 4 years ago. But, as Italy was hit worse than most countries during the first wave, his business was decimated.
“I tried to keep my staff on the payroll for as long as I could” says Pierre. “But as time went on, I was bleeding money, and I had to slowly let all of my staff go. I tried trimming all the fat from as many places as possible, even tried to mortgage my house to take a bridge loan, but, eventually, the battle was lost”
Losing his business was not easy for Pierre. “I poured everything into this academy. I poured my heart and soul, blood, sweat, and tears into this business, and after 4 long years, I was left with nothing.” Complete bankruptcy and an uncertain future led Pierre down a dark path of substance abuse. It wasn’t until he reached out to his partner that he was able to get the help he needed.
Stories like Pierre’s are not few and far between. The onset of the pandemic has seen a huge uptick in substance abuse and suicidal thoughts among the workforce. A report by the American CDC found that substance abuse during the pandemic increased by 13% in Americans. According to the APA, there was an 18% increase in cases of drug overdose in Americans during the pandemic as compared to the year prior.
Despite this bleak picture, all hope is not lost. The first step in overcoming a problem is identifying it. And having done that, we can start to take steps to change things. In the next part, we will take a look at the organisation’s role in protecting the employees’ mental well-being, what steps have been taken, and what more we can do to help ourselves and each other during these tough times.
To examine the role and steps taken by organizations in preserving the mental health of their employees, do view Part II of the story here.