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The work-from-home burnout is real, so don’t hesitate to ask for leave

While working remotely for the past few months, most of us have neglected to take breaks. Experts say this is not a good idea

At home, tasks that are non-urgent get postponed till they have to be tackled at some point (Photo by Eea Ikeda on Unsplash)
At home, tasks that are non-urgent get postponed till they have to be tackled at some point (Photo by Eea Ikeda on Unsplash)

“What is the point of taking leave when you’re just going to be sitting at home anyway?" says Pallavi Mehta, a 30-something software engineer from Bengaluru. In the past few months, since the covid-19 pandemic forced everyone to work from home, Mehta has just taken a couple of days off, when her dog fell sick. The annual leaves are piling up, but Mehta says “most of the time the thought of taking leave doesn’t cross my mind." Forget long leaves for vacations or family events, even her sick and casual leaves are largely unused. Minor illnesses, which would have once made her want to take the day off because of her long commute and longer hours at the office, didn’t feel like reason enough during this period because she could take it easy and put up her feet once in a while, take calls from the bed or even catch a 20-minute afternoon nap.

That sounds great on paper, but actually, the work-from-home burnout is real. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion," wrote British author and historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson in an article for The Economist in 1955, and this self-evident truth has become an adage known as ‘Parkinson’s Law’. Originally used to explain why the ranks of the British bureaucracy were swelling, the ‘law’ has almost universal application, and has never before been more real for employees. Working at an office provides a natural cut-off time for the workday, even though that time may differ every day for white-collar workers; you might be working late, but you know that at some point you have to pack up the laptop, book the Uber and go home. Someone comes and switches off the lights.

At home, tasks that are important but non-urgent get postponed till they have to be tackled at some point, eating into end-of-the-day time to unwind. “Boundaries between work-time and personal time are very blurred right now... there is no end to the workday. At the same time, certain things are more fatiguing—say you were at an office, you could just walk up to a colleague to have a work chat but now it’s find a convenient time to set up a call, put it in your calendar. Also, there’s a chance of miscommunication, especially on text and email. All this adds to fatigue and anxiety," says Sonali Gupta, a clinical psychologist and the author of Anxiety: Overcome it and Live Without Fear.

Gupta says it is very important to take breaks, and feels companies should mandate regular breaks just as they would in the physical workplace. “There has to be some degree of policy intervention around lunchtime and other breaks. And yes, I agree that companies should encourage employees to take leave—though I won’t say this should be strictly mandated, as leave policies for various levels of employees may differ," says Gupta. She agrees that a general culture of encouraging judicious use of annual leaves, not very prevalent in the Indian corporate space where taking leaves is sometimes frowned upon, should become more common, especially now, for the mental wellbeing of employees.

“Most HR policies will have to evolve," says Human Resources (HR) consultant Gautam Ghosh. “We are still in the early stages of this evolution, and the previous few months of working from home were more focused on the transition and its technical requirements. But now, ‘employee experience’ is a term you hear increasingly frequently in HR circles." Ghosh says employers may find it difficult to define “leave" when employees are still in the same physical space they were in. “There are so many ambiguities to be ironed out—for instance, if my electricity and internet connection go off and I have to spend five hours on a working day getting them fixed, is that a personal day off or a working day, since without that infrastructure I cannot do my work? These are the kind of issues that are showing up," says Ghosh, who also believes that a prevalent mindset of “monitoring, evaluating, surveilling" employees will have to undergo big changes.

One of the reasons employees, especially those working in the IT sector, are under stress these days is because they deal with proprietary information and data and working from home means their networks can be open to hacking attempts and cyber theft, says Supreme Court advocate NS Nappinai, cyber crime expert and founder of Cyber Saathi, a digital resource on cyber safety and the law. “The infrastructure to help employees protect data while working from home should have been put in place before the pandemic; instead, there’s suspicion and paranoia now. A relook at corporate policies is very necessary right now. It is important for employers to address the fears and concerns of employees," says the lawyer.

In April, Microsoft’s Workplace Insight team started tracking changes in workplace dynamics using a 350-employee group, looking to get some answers to questions like “How will employees integrate—and separate — work and home life under the same roof?" “Will we be able to maintain our relationships and networks without our typical face-to-face connections?" and “How will managers support and engage fully remote teams?"

The authors of the study recently released some takeaways and observed that “as our days became fragmented...with more meetings and personal responsibilities to juggle, we leaned on flexibility. Working in pockets helped, but sometimes we found that job demands rushed in to fill spaces previously reserved for personal downtime." They also also found that “some teams have been intentional about encouraging employees to use their vacation time to unplug and relax" and these teams had been more productive and happy.

Mental health experts stress the need for a routine and setting of clear boundaries between working and personal time. Gupta stresses the need for a “closure ritual" every day—a small activity to mark the end of the workday that signals to your brain that it’s time to turn off the lights.

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