If you think working from home was a panacea for all that ails us -- from grinding daily commutes to work, to aches from sitting for hours in front of a monitor, to long tedious meetings -- think again. 

A year into the pandemic, employers have stopped worrying employees would be less productive and started to worry they will burn out from over-work. 

A survey by KPMG Canada that was released in April, for example, found 31 per cent of full-time employees in Canada are so overworked they are on the verge of burnout. 

Indeed, productivity levels remain high among staff working from home, because people are working longer than they did in an office setting, says Julie McCarthy, a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus and Rotman School of Management.

“Boundaries have completely disappeared,” she says. “Home is work and work is home.” 

McCarthy, who has researched stress and anxiety levels in employees for 20 years, says “Employers are seeing high levels of burnout and exhaustion among employees.” 

Danielle Stewart, a consultant on mental health with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), agrees. 

People feel they can’t stop work, she says. They feel they “always have to be ‘on’.” 

They work late hours, and all day without breaks, she says. “It is too easy to move from one meeting to another without a break when all you have to do is click a button!”

That’s a far cry from the early days of the pandemic when some employers demanded their employees do face time on cameras with their bosses each morning to make sure they were at their desks. 

Who knew commutes could be good for us?

Even grinding commutes now seem like a healthy alternative to the grind of having no transition time between home and work to wind down. 

“You wake up, walk downstairs, turn on the computer,” says McCarthy. “Commutes are a time to unwind, to listen to a podcast,” she points out. 

While she can’t say if more people are having stress-induced heart attacks, she can assess the stress situation employees working from home are in by the number of calls she is getting from employers and the issues they are now raising. 

While at first their concerns were about productivity, they are now about how to build resilience and manage stress in the workplace. 

To help employees shut down their computers and focus on their well-being, managers need to give employees autonomy to plan their days and their jobs around procedures and times that work best for them, she says. 

“Give them control to increase their well-being,” she advises. And make sure they are taking care of themselves by exercising and cooking healthy meals, she adds.

Indeed, the KPMG study found that 62 per cent of employees say the pandemic “has proven they can work independently.”

So why not let them? 

How to increase productivity? Give employees independence

The bottom line is employers don’t want burned out employees. And they should also recognize that higher levels of well-being lead to increased productivity. 

In other words, it pays to help employees structure their day not only to decompress, but to create and nurture interpersonal relationships in the workplace and beyond. 

Stewart agrees. Employers must encourage their staff to stay connected with friends, family and co-workers through email, social media, video conferencing and the telephone. 

Even creating virtual “coffee breaks” that employees must build into their calendars to take with other staff members online can help, she says. 

Feelings of not being able to shut down work are only exacerbated by the fact they have no work-life balance in the midst of a pandemic that allows precious few outlets for social connections. 

“Society is seeing higher rates of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, throughout the pandemic,” she says. 

Another stress is that it is more difficult to build authentic work relationships through virtual meetings and connections, rather than face-to-face interactions, she says. 

How do you avoid burn out? The WSPS advises: 

  • Build those coffee break chats with colleagues into your day. 
  • Go for a walk to emulate the commute before and after work. 
  • Take breaks. 
  • Eat healthily. 
  • Try to work from a specific spot in the house that you can close off. 

Another concern: ergonomic injuries

Mental health isn’t the only health concern for employees working from home.

Since the pandemic started, ergonomic injuries have been on the rise, too, creating a need for more workers with certified occupational health and safety (OHS) skills

Mike Lanigan, an ergonomics consultant to the WSPS says when the pandemic first hit, employers gave many staff members a laptop and left them to scrounge around their home for alternative working spaces to the office.

They ended up using dining room chairs and tables, for example, that were not intended as office setups. 

That led to their arms and legs sitting on hard surfaces causing circulation issues and worse, he says. 

Meanwhile, others worked from their sofas and beds. 

No wonder that compensation claims are up for lower back pain along with forearm, wrist, or hand pain. Injuries from working from home include carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tennis elbow and hand-arm vibration syndrome.

So, what should employees do to avoid ergonomic injuries? 

Speak to their managers, for one, about getting office equipment for their homes. In the absence of that, be innovative about using pillows as back supports on chairs and boxes as footrests. 

Posture is important. 

Even better, go to the WSPS website for the following information and tips: 

Be prepared! 

Finally, do not be complacent about your workplace safety just because you are working from home. 

Indeed, concerns about safety appear to be top of mind for people because of the pandemic.

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