Joanie* is a working mother with three teenaged children. Ten years ago, shortly after the birth of her second child, Joanie began working from home (wfh) one day a week. “I thought it would be the solution to my feelings of guilt about being away from my kids,” she told me. “But it ended up making my life harder. I felt torn all the time – I could nurse while I was on a conference call, as long as I remembered to mute myself; but I couldn’t be with my older daughter while I was working, and she couldn’t understand why I wasn’t spending time with her. And of course, if I was spending time with them, I wasn’t really devoting my full energy to my job.”
However, during the COVID-19 lockdown, Joanie discovered that working from home with three teenagers was a completely different thing. “I’ve loved it in a lot of ways,” Joanie said. “I’m even thinking about asking if I can continue once businesses open back up. But there are a couple of things I’d do differently now. Because I still saw glimmers of the problems I had when the kids were little – there were times during the day when I’d just start to feel stressed and unhappy. And it wasn’t just because of COVID.”
If you are one of the lucky ones who has enjoyed some parts of the lockdown, you might just be one of many who are thinking about turning this temporary wfh solution to COVID-19 into a permanent way of life. But before you make that decision, it can be useful to recognize that being at home for your job has both benefits and drawbacks. In a fascinating study, Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom found that telecommuting raised worker productivity and decreased employee attrition, sick days, and time off and saved the company money by reducing the need for office space, at the same time that employees saved commute time, gas money, and the wear and tear of having to get to work on time. At first glance, it looked like a win for everyone.
But there was one problem. At the end of the study, more than half of the volunteers chose not to work at home 100% of the time. The reason? They felt lonely.
The Importance of Social Contact
David*, who, like Joanie had been working from home at least part of every week before the coronavirus pandemic, described a similar feeling. He told me that he had enjoyed the combination of being on his own part of the time and being with colleagues and business contacts the other part. “I didn’t realize how important those connections were until the COVID shutdown,” he said. “Now I really crave those in-person contacts. I’m socializing with friends and business connections all the time on the screen, but it’s not the same. I don’t really understand it, but I’m missing even just being able to shake hands with someone.”
Feelings of isolation and loneliness can make it hard to get your work done. But even if you’re still productive, those feelings can lead to emotional difficulties, including depression and anxiety; and they can also contribute to a wide range of physical issues.
Researchers have long recognized the importance of social contact in maintaining physical and mental health. There are even studies explaining the physiological impact of David’s missing handshakes. According to research, social contact can calm and soothe some of the chemical reactions to stress that make our bodies and psyches more vulnerable. Which is simply to say that there are physiological reasons that even if you like working from home, it can make you feel a little down simply because you are not having social contact with your work buddies.
Loneliness After COVID-19
I have been deeply impressed by the creative ways that people have been finding to manage their social isolation as they shelter in place; but it is clear that the absence of real contact is taking a toll, even on those who like having more time alone. Add to this package feelings of stress about not getting enough work done, and you have a recipe for feeling down, anxious, and generally overwhelmed as the world begins to open up after the COVID-19 lockdown.
“But even so, I think I’d really like to work from home after the lockdown,” you say? That’s totally fine. There are pros and cons to both sides of this question. In a thoughtful article about life after leaving his corporate job, Scott Mautz says that even though he was lonely, the positives of working from home far outweighed the negatives for him. One study concludes that the findings about the superiority or inferiority of either choice are “highly ambiguous” and depend on a number of factors, including the personality of the employee, the type of business, and the responses of co-workers, team members, and family members.
What’s important is to remember that when working from home, you can get surprisingly lonely, and to make adjustments accordingly, so that your loneliness doesn’t morph into depression, anxiety, or just a general sense of the blahs.
Mautz writes that being with family or loved ones and seeing colleagues on video chats or even in occasional face-to-face meetings isn’t enough to counteract the loneliness. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself missing the casual chats, even the irritating moments with co-workers you don’t even like. And, he tells us, be proactive about seeing colleagues, setting up business meetings, and seeking out business-related in-person activities. It’s not that you have to go back to work if you don’t want to, he says; but it’s important to be prepared to do things to offset the sometimes surprising sense of isolation and disconnectedness.
An Imperfect Solution?
As we start to move back into some sort of contact with others, remember that social distancing does save lives. So for awhile keep in mind that you will still be craving something more than what you are able to get from your social interactions.
One last thing. Looking for any kind of perfect solution can itself lead to the blues, because nothing is truly perfect. So remember – whatever you choose will have good and bad components, and try to enjoy whatever you’ve chosen without expecting it to meet all of your needs.
Both Joanie and David are looking forward to getting back to their offices. “I want to see people again,” Joanie said. “I’m even looking forward to a couple of time-wasting meetings,” David said. “And it’ll be great to be away from the house when my husband decides it’s time to run the vacuum,” he added. But they are also both very happy that they are able to work from home part of the time. As Joanie put it, “I understand now that part of the difficulty with working from home is that you can end up feeling kind of lonely and unsupported. You’re doing it all on your own, and you don’t get those off-handed ‘good job’ comments that you get when you’re at work. So you put extra pressure on yourself. And then you end up stressed and worried. So I’ll make an extra effort to arrange some ‘in person’ work time. But I do like being able to set my own schedule. And responding to work emails while I’m having coffee and still in my pj’s is really the best.”
*Names and identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.