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White-Collar Workers Hit the Pandemic Wall

Is it more than just "pandemic fatigue”?

Key points

  • Working from home isn't the ideal setup we might have hoped it would be.
  • Work-life balance is difficult to find, leading to increased anxiety, burnout, and "disenfranchised stress."
  • Disenfranchised stress is like a "double dose" of stress because we feel conflicted about feeling stressed, but there are ways to alleviate it.

When we headed home from the office a year ago with laptops, legal pads, and office pens in our tote bags, a lot of us didn’t expect that we’d still be showing up at work via virtual meetings and signing off form after form with an electronic signature 12 months later. There was unsettling anxiety attached to the fleeing of the workplace that was flavored with a “kid out of school” kind of freedom at first. We all knew that our obligations to our employers would need to be attended to, but also that the commute time had disappeared, and “dress for success” no longer included the bottom half of our outfits.

Aside from the shortages of essential products on store shelves, we had a reason to either have what the store had in stock delivered or picked up curbside—a luxury many of us never felt justified to choose before. Days were less structured, and many of our normal rituals that focused either on daily routines or social interaction disappeared from our lives. For parents, their caretaking and homeschooling roles exploded overnight. Skills that were lacking were made visible, and parents who were working from home while overseeing their children’s online learning realized quickly just how impossible work-life balance was to find.

Has the WFH (working from home) love affair gone cold?

While the nation is starting to loosen restrictions and thoughts of returning to the “standard operating procedures” that existed pre-pandemic are bubbling up across the states, there are indications that “working from home” (WFH) might remain more prevalent than in prior years. However, it appears that the “WFH” love affair has run cold for a lot of us.

When we are “working from home” week after monotonously stressful week, it becomes harder to see where the workday ends and the “clocked-out time” begins. Instead of clocking out at our once-normal time, we can be compelled to focus on the work tasks undone rather than the home and leisure-focused life begun. Too many of us had already fallen into the habit of working past quitting time pre-pandemic, but that made “finally” heading home that much sweeter. Working from home, the boundary separating work and leisure isn’t just diffuse; it’s dissolved.

A story from The Globe and Mail revealed some of the challenges that we are facing in this home office confinement. Stress has become overwhelming for parents especially, as they try to ensure their jobs get done and their children’s academic progress stays on track. Hair loss, irritability, anxiety, and exhaustion are other outcomes of a “flexible work environment.” While the “white-collar workforce” would seem to be having an easier time of things as we would believe that their jobs would be more secure since their job duties could be handled remotely, for the most part, they are facing their own set of stressors.

Working from home causes burnout, too

You may be feeling disenfranchised stress, which describes those feelings of anxiety and stress over things that you feel you do not have a right to be stressed about.

We seem to assume that as long as the paychecks continue and job security isn’t an issue, life is good. However, as much as we seem to believe that money is the secret to happiness, a steady paycheck isn’t guaranteed to keep anxiety and depression from the doorstep. In fact, research shows that a good income can mask poor mental health.

Folks don’t always want to see what’s below the surface when family members or friends are financially successful, and they may be skeptical when they hear complaints about anxiety, stress, or depression. And if you’re riding high with a solid income while the pandemic has left others with huge debts or housing and food insecurity, you may tell yourself that your financial status more than balances out any mental health challenges you’re facing. However, compromised mental health does not discriminate based on any demographic, including income.

If you’re dealing with disenfranchised stress:

  1. Acknowledge that you are entitled to your own feelings, regardless of what you worry others might think or say.
  2. Make a list of all of the stressors that you are experiencing, and brainstorm ways to decrease the negative impact each stressor has on your life. For instance, if you're stressed about missing "commute time" as time for solitude and reflection, add a daily walk into your morning and evening routines. If you're stressed about working too long into the evenings, set the alarm on your phone to remind you that it's time to switch gears from work time to family/leisure time.
  3. Find others who share your perspective or can be supportive of your experiences and feelings. Not only does having our own feelings normalized by others feel good, but it also does us a great deal of good to stay connected to our support network.
  4. Remind yourself that stress reduction in one area of your life helps minimize overall stress, so build time into your day for meditation, exercise, outdoor time, or leisure time. When we’re mentally exhausted from trying to justify our feelings and physically exhausted from the workday, engaging in mindfulness activities can also help recharge and recalibrate our emotional and physical state.