Nowadays, many workplaces have a toxic culture or at least a dysfunctional one. They demand – not just expect – more from their employees than any human being should have to, or be willing to, give. Sixty-hour weeks. Twelve-hour days. Giving up weekends and holidays. They treat employees as fungible things that can be easily replaced and regularly are, especially if they don’t live up to the brutal “standards” that are supposedly required by the free market.
Toxic workplaces are also full of toxic people. Bullying of employees and coworkers is common. Gaslighting even happens, more regularly than we’d like to admit. Required conformity and enforced corporate “team-building” parties and picnics suck the meaning out of workplace enjoyment. Exhortations that the workplace is a “family” and then behaving in ways that belie this are rampant – false, harmful, and destructive.
Corporate practices aren’t human-friendly, much less family-friendly. Flexible working hours, job-sharing, onsite childcare, remote work, part-time work, and extended sick and other types of leave are largely reserved for only the highest echelons or never even considered for any workers. Health and disability insurance are nonexistent or ultra-expensive for workers because of the monetary costs to the company. Discussions about the stress caused by work end in suggestions to try yoga. Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs), if they exist, provide some therapy, but only with a provider of the company’s choosing and usually only for six weeks or so.
Then along comes the COVID pandemic. Suddenly, corporations and other, smaller businesses were faced with the difficulties of staffing during lockdowns and quarantines. All of a sudden, workers weren’t so available or so desperate. Owners had to scramble to hire enough workers to keep the wheels turning. Some businesses were forced to raise wages. Others had to rethink corporate travel to cut costs.
And some turned to remote work. Not all could, of course. Some jobs simply can’t be done from home. Construction workers, wait staff, airline attendants, and countless others were simply let go or put on furlough, many of them without even partial pay. But many jobs, particularly office jobs, were the sorts that could be done from home, on the phone or via computer. And that proved beneficial both for the affected companies and for the mental health of their workers. Bosses suddenly realized that work-from-home even improved the bottom line, reducing overhead. It soon became clear that home-workers were able to be as or even more productive when not being constantly interrupted by mandatory meetings and other useless exercises.
How did telecommuting affect workers’ mental health? First, remote workers were spared from many aspects of toxic workplaces. Micromanaging became largely unfeasible.
This certainly helped improve their working conditions and stress. So did getting respectably dressed only from the waist up, especially for those of us with limited spoons. Being able to step away from the computer for a half-hour or more to do something about chores or even hobbies provided a welcome break. Lunches could now be taken whenever you were hungry and last more than 30 minutes. Even spending more time with pets reduced stress and provided emotional support that’s next to impossible in most workplaces.
Many of the stresses that so exacerbate mental health conditions were at least lessened. People were more comfortable in their own homes, with comfort objects and self-care items more readily available. Those with a greater need for alone time suddenly had more of it. If they found that they could work better or more productively part-time at home, it was a benefit for the companies as well.
Of course, not all bosses took to this new way of working. Once they figured out that employees could be more productive when working at home, some of them upped output requirements. They could insist that employees remain logged in during standard working hours, making flex-time less doable. Or they started requiring more output from those telecommuting, or scheduling Skype meetings that cut into employees’ time.
I work at home, remotely, and have for a number of years. I do so because I have been fortunate enough to find jobs that pay (though not a lot), jobs that match my skill set, jobs that aren’t 9-5, and jobs that are conducive to working around my days of depression and hypomania. I’ve considered going back to work in an office from time to time when funds were low, but not enough to actively pursue it. Truth to tell, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do that again, and not just because I like working in my pajamas. (For those who are curious, I’m doing transcription and ghostwriting at the moment. They provide a supplement to Social Security and allow me time to work on my blogs.)
Did toxic work environments cause mental illness? Probably not, though they have pushed some people closer to the edge and others past the breaking point. It’s hard to work in corporate culture with any kind of mental disorder (except possibly narcissism). For these people, remote working is a blessing. COVID has been devastating, but one of its side effects has been to improve working conditions for millions of people – and especially those living with mental illnesses.
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Comments on: "Remote Work and Mental Health" (6)
Thanks for the insightful read! Being a person with bipolar, I perform higher quality and more efficient work in the home office setting. The program I’m running is going very smoothly, but I’m not putting in the same number of hours as others. I ask for more work, but most of the meetings on my work calendar are the ones I set up. I wonder if others are cutting me out of work because I’m not logged on as much or because I’m not succumbing to the scatter-brained, multi-tasking mainstream work culture. (Or maybe that’s my paranoia).
To keep my mood balanced, I usually need a couple appointments a week or time to get labs done, but some supervisors seem less understanding of my sick time. One supervisor called me while I was in an appointment, even though I had it noted on my work calendar. I also get questioned on my level of involvement with my daughter, even through she’s in school and after-care. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t win!
I have a question for you. I enjoy reading your blog. I have subscribed for a while. How do you know when you can no longer work? I asked for a work from home accommodation because of my bipolar disorder, but I think it’s going to be denied. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to come into the office everyday. I am considering applying for disability, but how do I know that’s the right thing? My work stress has caused suicidal thoughts at times and I’m unable to handle small amounts of stress.
First off, let me say that I can’t give medical advice. Anything I say is from my own, admittedly limited, experiences, I knew I could no longer work in an office when, after years of excellent reviews, I got a new boss, told her about my bipolar, and received a bad review. I quit to go freelance, couldn’t make a go of it, and went into a deep depression. When that happened I applied for disability and was rejected. My attorney advised me not to pursue it because by that time I was doing work-from-home and had some money coming in. If you do apply for disability, get ready to be turned down and have a lawyer lined up to help you reapply. The ADA says that workplaces have to grant “reasonable” accommodations for certain disorders, of which bipolar is one. But all they have to say is that work from home isn’t reasonable and there’s not much you can do. If they fire you for asking, you have a case against them legally and should consult with an attorney. I hope this helps. Best of luck.
Thank you for the reply. That did happen to me. I asked for the reasonable accommodation and then got a bad performance review. But, I am getting a new boss so I have hope that they’ll be different. We will see. I am going to apply for disability retirement and see what happens. I know they won’t completely grant my work from home request.
Insightful perspective – my blog is all about resources for HR/business owners of remote teams. Want to guest blog? https://peoplestack.ca
I’d love to! Would you like to repost this one, or should I write something new? You can get in touch with me at email@example.com.