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Avi Richards photo via Unsplash

When Covid-19 closed offices across the globe last year, Pete Holmberg still did his best to cobble together a regular workweek routine that included laying out five collared shirts and trying to remember to shave each morning before logging into his Zoom-friendly workstation in the living room of his Manhattan apartment.

But as the months ticked by with no end to the pandemic in sight, the blended office/home arrangement made it easy for him stay online late into the evening, tapping out edits on a Google document with colleagues, while attempting to decompress with an eye on Netflix blaring ­­on another screen.

“I realized everything was blending in. I had no idea what day it was,” said Holmberg, 54, the director of content for marketing-communications firm Wise Collective.

After months of blurred boundaries, Holmberg saw his mental health was suffering, and he knew he had to act.

He’s not alone. Workers across the globe are finding it hard to unplug, and when they do, many feel bad about doing it.

“Covid has made every single thing more stressful,” said Sharon Korman, an American psychotherapist in Paris. “So anybody who had an issue before, for the most part it’s exacerbated.”

For conscientious workers, “remote guilt” is an unwelcome side effect of a pandemic that promises to drag on into the coming months, she added.

“Guilt is connected to people who tend to be hard workers and are very responsible about their jobs,” said Korman. “They’re the ones actually who are at high risk for burnout.”

Remote workers put in longer workdays

The risk is real. Once offices worldwide began closing in March 2020, studies show that work hours began to tick up.

The average workday increased by 2.5 hours in the U.S., Britain, Canada and seven other countries, according to a report from NordVPN Teams, a provider of virtual private networks (VPNs) to businesses. After examining data, NordVPN found that VPN usage didn’t dip during the lunch hour, “which might suggest that lunch breaks have become shorter,” Juta Gurinaviciute, the company’s chief technology officer, said in a press release.

According to a July 2020 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, remote workers logged into fewer meetings but sent more e-mails during an extended workday compared to before the pandemic. One-third of people working from home, even those not working longer hours, have felt an adverse effect on their mental health, according to Remote Tool’s State of Remote Work in 2021.

Virtual team-building firm Wildgoose found that 74 percent of employees polled in Britain reported some sort of stress or burnout. The psychological toll has made sleeping and eating more difficult for sufferers, increased alcohol consumption and worsened chronic conditions, among other problems, Kaiser Family Foundation research concluded.

In a red flag to managers, the fallout has not been equal. Workers in lower-income jobs have been found to be suffering “at much higher rates” than those in more prestigious jobs, according to an international study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It looked at economic hardship and related effects, such as depression, loneliness and health anxiety.

Difficult to turn off work ‘switch’

Other populations hard hit by despair and loneliness include younger people and women, who shoulder more of the burden at home. Concern over working conditions for women during Covid prompted the French government to commission a study on work and family, and whether changes are needed in family leave policies.

Even the benefits of the pandemic work culture can carry pressures. While many remote workers appreciate the time — and money — saved from a daily commute, the loss of a key “transition period” between office and home has made it tougher to switch off at the end of the workday, Korman said, explaining, “a bridge to the next part of the day is gone.”

In addition, foreign travel restrictions coupled with Covid anxiety have led many people to delay vacations. Even a modest “staycation” can seem luxurious.

The result is more burnout, said Erin Allweiss, co-founder of No. 29, a media-relations agency in New York with a largely progressive millennial client list.

“Nobody feels they can take a vacation because everyone knows you’re still online,” she said, commenting on the difficulty of avoiding work e-mails even during vacation time.

Beyond goodwill, businesses have an incentive to keep workers happy and de-stressed. The SARS pandemic that began in China and swept through 26 countries in 2003 might serve as a caution.

Although the SARS virus subsided within a few months, researchers in Hong Kong found more than 40 percent of survivors suffered “alarming” psychological side effects over the next four years, the Atlantic reported. Ailments ranged from post-traumatic stress disorder to depression to frequent psychosomatic pain.

Still, the support businesses offer to help remote workers through difficult times has proven to pay off. A BMC Public Health review of 23 public health studies on the mental and physical effects of working from home found that the well-being of workers was “strongly influenced” by the degree of support they received from their employers and colleagues.

Businesses must step up

Many companies have tried to address remote worker hardship by offering subsidies for work-related expenses or personal support for counseling, child care and tutoring. Others have focused on mental health, with meditation sessions and trivia games.

In addition, there are many Zoom happy hours, which Korman and other experts caution can become, “overstimulating and hard,” if they feel mandatory – and simply come to seem like more work.

At No. 29, workers were offered a floating wellness day each month to use as they wished, optional online workouts led by personal trainers and a company-sponsored socially distanced picnic in a Brooklyn riverfront park with personal pizzas and a women’s brass band.

“We have this very two-dimensional experience of the screen for every interaction,” Allweiss said. “And I think that’s a very hard cycle for companies on their own to break.”

On that point, many remote workers took matters into their own hands. Anuja Madar’s medical technology UX team, based in Massachusetts, began working together quietly on Zoom, keeping the link open even if they weren’t talking.

“Sometimes just the four of us are just sitting there in silence. It’s just a way for us to try and create a little bit of community,” said Madar, 40, who lives in Barcelona.

As for Holmberg, his Wise Collective weekly team meetings begin with a half-hour or so of personal chitchat because “people realize this is filling a purpose.” On one morning, the virtual watercooler was abuzz after the televised interview with Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Beyond that, five months into the pandemic, Holmberg redrew his own boundaries in order to preserve his mental health. He decided to protect his weekends — even if he wasn’t going anywhere beyond his sunny outdoor terrace.

“I formalized my schedule in such a way that [my] deadlines were 5 p.m. Friday. I would never allow a Monday deadline,” Holmberg said, adding that because a physical boundary between home and office no longer exists, “we need to put that boundary in place.”

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