Commentary: Being forced to log on to work from home created stress and fatigue for workers
Employers should enter 2021 resolving to communicate clearly boundaries on when responses to work are required, says NUS Business School’s Dr Rashimah Rajah.
SINGAPORE: Coupled with employees reporting decreased mental health in 2020, managers now face new challenges stepping into the new year.
According to a Qualtrics study in Singapore in April 2020, 26 per cent of employees surveyed reported a decrease in mental health.
Out of these, 25 per cent reported a decrease in mental well-being due to stress, 22 per cent due to anxiety, 19 per cent due to job insecurity, 7 per cent due to fatigue, and 6 per cent due to work-from-home (WFH) arrangements.
That wholesale leap into WFH might have a lot to do with it. According to a study by Mercer South and East Asia in April 2020, WFH arrangements have been especially hard for managers, with 39 per cent reporting they were less effective at work than before, compared to 22 per cent of non-managers.
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WHY WFH CAUSES STRESS AND FATIGUE
What is the relationship between working from home and mental health? A 2017 study on job connectedness that I did with Professor Remus Ilies from the National University of Singapore might have the answer.
Seeking to understand employees’ attitudes to using ICT devices to attend to work matters remote, the study examined how using technology for work can affect work-family boundaries and personal well-being.
This experience sampling study surveyed 115 employees working full-time in Singapore and showed that job connectedness on its own did not have significant effects on well-being.
The relationships, however, changed when we look at the fit between employees’ values and the current work arrangement.
Job connectedness led to increased well-being (including higher job satisfaction, lower burnout, and lower work-family conflict), when engaging in such behaviour was voluntary.
When connecting to the job via ICT devices was involuntary, employees experienced lower levels of well-being.
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In other words, when employees, on their own accord, connect to work matters remotely, that brings them higher satisfaction.
Plausibly, this is because employees feel empowered, motivated and in control of their work tasks and career trajectory. Choosing when and where to do their work can account for conflicts in their personal and family schedules as well.
However, when this was involuntary, their mental health and personal well-being suffered. Work-family conflict and the feeling of burn-out were exacerbated, and job satisfaction was reduced.
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A 2020 study that I did with Assistant Professor Lucas Monzani from the Ivey Business School found that when being connected to the job is perceived as an obligation, or as an additional demand, technology is not as welcomed by employees.
Did the employee sense that he has to reply to that email while attending to the crying toddler at home? Did the individual have to pick up that phone call when she was making lunch? Depending on signals received by employees from their organisations, using ICT devices for remote work can be helpful or dreadful.
ALL ABOUT FIT
In most cases, alternative work arrangements were made possible for the employees in this study. Organisations provided resources like laptops, mobile phones, and flexible working hours.
One might think that this is the one-size-fits-all answer: Provide the resources, and employees will use technology to get to work. But the answer goes beyond providing resources.
It is all about fit. Did employees want to connect to the job remotely, because this gives them greater flexibility in fulfilling work and family duties? Or did they wish to keep their jobs and family life separate?
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For some others, having a hard cut-off time for work gives them the freedom to fully immerse in family and social activities.
WHEN FLEXIBLE WORK ISN’T A CHOICE
But the COVID-19 pandemic and mandatory WFH arrangements across non-essential services resulted in employees not having much of a choice in whether to be digitally connected to the job.
Their values were not aligned with the company’s new ones, and they did not have time to adjust.
You might say this arrangement was only obligatory during office hours. Indeed, many knowledge workers have engaged in flexible work or remote work in one way or another prior to the pandemic, but the reality is very few of them did this full-time.
According to the United States Bureau of Labour Statistics, only 5 per cent of workers were working virtually full-time, whereas this figure was 6 per cent in the European Union.
The sudden shift to full-time remote work meant that employees quickly lost their ability to appreciate face-to-face interactions with colleagues, leading to feelings of isolation and decline in mental health.
Employees entered an organisation thinking they were a good fit with the company’s culture of teamwork and work-life balance, only to find themselves alone and having to mix work with family.
So, how should managers enter 2021? The answer lies in ensuring fit.
The COVID-19 pandemic has tested companies’ ability to be agile and to embrace digital technology. When hiring new talent, recruiters should ensure that agility and resilience are among the top criteria for selection.
Agility and resilience can be assessed using personality tests and competency-based interview questions. When workers are agile, they can respond to work challenges flexibly and creatively.
For example, they can better adjust to WFH arrangements by creating their own personal boundaries, such as working from a quiet space in the house away from distractions.
Listen also to property experts discuss whether and how the outlook for the Singapore residential market has changed with COVID-19 and why they say it seems to be holding up exceptionally well:
For their current talent, managers should ensure that employees are equipped with the necessary training to conduct their work tasks effectively using technology and ICT devices.
This goes beyond technical skills and should include soft skills like effective virtual communication, email etiquette, and ground rules for video conferences.
RESOLUTIONS FOR MANAGERS
Understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all answer is a first step. Managers should take time to understand employees’ needs and preferences with regards to using technology to work from home.
Often, accompanying provision of resources with clear communication will help.
For instance, managers could allay employees’ concerns by saying that a work mobile phone does not mean the employee will have to be contactable 24 hours a day.
By demarcating specific timings or tasks for which the mobile phone will be used, managers help to reduce anxiety associated with job connectedness, as employees know they have opportunities to disconnect and unwind from work.
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Managers themselves need to embrace technology to conduct their work more effectively.
With more trust, empathy, and clearer (virtual) communication with employees, companies can still stick to their yearly resolution: The next year will be the best year ever.
Can you say no to returning to the office? We posed this question to one CEO and one HR expert in our Heart of the Matter podcast:
Dr Rashimah Rajah is a lecturer in the Department of Management & Organisation at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School. The opinions expressed are those of the writer and do not represent the views and opinions of NUS.