A Mumbai-based digital marketing manager, found herself spending hours staring at her laptop blankly. “It’s not like I did not have work to do. I was just numb and mentally exhausted,” recalls the woman who did not want to be identified. Hours of being on video calls, with barely any time to eat, sleep or exercise, coupled with mounting work pressure, had left her exhausted and too tired to do anything. “I realised it could not go on like this and started seeing a therapist who told me that I was facing burnout,” she says, confessing that she had thought that work-from-home would mean more time for self-care and family. Clearly, this hasn’t been the case, something echoed by a software development engineer based out of Bengaluru, who also did not want to be identified. When he first started working from home, he thought it was all fun and games. Today, he believes that it is as stressful and taxing as working from an office.
They aren’t alone—millions across the globe are echoing similar concerns. Workplaces have always been a source of some stress, but the past couple of years have been particularly challenging. Asif Upadhye, the director of Never Grow Up, an employee engagement, employer branding, and work culture firm, agrees. Computer technology company Oracle, for instance, found that 2020 was actually the most stressful year ever, he points out. Some of the reasons for poor mental health included the lack of face-to-face interaction, increasing levels of loneliness while working from home, multiple distractions and the fear of being exposed to the virus when being called to return to work. Throw in the fact that work hours increased, lives turned sedentary, and video calls became a ubiquitous part of our lives.
And while businesses have been doing their part to minimise the impact on their workforce, nearly 94% of all employees are still reporting high-stress levels. “A number of other factors, including potential job loss, work-life balance going for a toss, unsteady income and the general strain that comes with juggling one’s responsibilities while working from home have impacted the overall nature of workplace stress since the onset of covid-19,” he says.
Examining the dynamic change
Workplace stress is not a post-pandemic phenomenon; stress has always been a pervasive part of all workplaces. As Dr Alok Kulkarni, a mental wellness expert and senior consultant psychiatrist, Manas Institute of Mental Health, Hubbali, puts it, “The lockdown has only served to attract more attention to mental health in general and to stress in particular. I have had clients telling me that they are now working more hours than they did while in the office. One reason could be increased distractibility whilst working from home and lessened efficiency. Conversely, the lack of a social context while working from home may make it seem that one is clocking more hours at work.” Additionally, all these distractions lead to delayed deadlines, which, in turn, exacerbates stress, he adds.
Not everyone is affected in quite the same way, of course. As Preeti Malhotra, Practice Head – Wellness & Partnerships, Great Place to Work, India, points out, industry and organisation also impact stress levels.
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“In the case of industries that were impacted both negatively and positively by the pandemic, stress has gone up though the reasons are worry and uncertainty for the first and significantly increased work in the latter,” she shares. Also, some groups of people seem to be more affected than others.
Zahabiya Bambora, a psychologist and EAP coordination manager at HopeQure, a mental health organisation, says that women, young individuals, persons with chronic ailments, and those who have lost work due to the crisis appear to be the hardest hit by stress during the pandemic. The constant flux doesn’t help too. “As pandemic rules eased a bit, work from the office resumed just when the employees got comfortable with the working dynamic from home. The workplace environment change can be noted as one of the biggest workplace stressors for the working population,” she says.
And yes, the constant stress and fear of losing one’s job have become more significant than ever before. As Upadhye points out, more than 54% of employees have expressed concern over the possibility of being made redundant from their roles.
At the same time, other stressors—which have always been present in the workplace—continue such as having a job that you don’t enjoy, juggling unrealistic deadlines, working in a toxic environment, receiving little to no recognition or being forced to use outdated technology.
Bambora adds a few more issues to the list: poor relationships with colleagues, unrealistic expectations from the management, and additional miscellaneous tasks. Dr Kulkarni says that the cycle of appraisals and constantly needing to prove yourself can be highly stressful too.”Some people may be experiencing imposter syndrome and may feel inadequate about their competence. Constant striving to seek the approval of others can be a great stressor.” Additionally, as Bambora points out, one finds a lot of misconceptions and typical ways of thinking floating around in workplaces, including the assumption that high levels of stress at work is a positive thing. Too many people, for instance, believe that if you aren’t overly busy, you aren’t critical to the company. “These folks thrive on jam-packed schedules, extended work hours, and excessive workloads,” she says. In fact, this is likely to reflect poorly on your overall quality of work. “You’ll get less work done because stressed people are inefficient, poor communicators, and poor decision-makers. Accepting stress as a normal part of the job is harmful to both employees and employers,” she says.
Upadhye agrees with her. “Feeling stressed out at work is sometimes worn as a badge of honour,” he says, adding that the hustle culture and tendency to glorify over-working (as a sign of being a hard worker) is misunderstood as the equivalent of being successful. He adds that this will harm your team and business in the long run. “It is also not the way to create an environment where people can bring their best selves to work.”
While, admittedly, the definition may differ from person to person, work-life balance can be defined as an environment where “employees can unplug, spend time with their loved ones, pursue their hobbies and prioritise self-care, all while also taking ownership of and delivering on their work promises,” as Upadhye outs it.
He adds that with the changing conversations and approach to work the term has now evolved to ‘work-life integration, and “achieving a seamless blend of one’s personal and professional lives.”
In Dr Kulkarni’s opinion, prioritising health, relationships, and family while ensuring optimum career progress could be one definition of work-life balance. “Regular physical exercise, taking time out for hobbies, connecting with friends are all crucial for an optimum work-life balance,” he says.
Upadhye advises that accepting the fact that there is no such thing as a ‘perfect’ work-life balance is important. “The minute you try to create the perfect schedule, both professionally and personally, it’s bound to go south,” he says.
Another tip he shares is to make one’s physical and mental well-being a priority. This could range from indulging in your favourite self-care activity to taking a long vacation, and setting healthy boundaries for your work hours.“Coping with stress at work is often part of the day, which is why identifying one’s stressors and reducing its effects will allow people to live a happier, healthier life,” he concludes.
Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based psychotherapist