Three months into the lockdown, SA workers are feeling the burnout and stress that come with working from home. By Nafisa Akabor.

No boundaries, loneliness, difficulty with time management and digital miscommunication are just some of the problems that workers have had to contend with since the lockdown forced them to work from home.

Even though working from home has resulted in an overall boost in productivity, it has also come at the cost of employee exhaustion and mental wellbeing.

Anne Dolinschek of marketing firm Nfluential says the biggest contributor to working longer days is the avoidance of long hours in traffic.

“I think there’s a blurred line since the lockdown started. Some clients and employers don’t know where the boundaries are and seem to think people are available 24/7 because we’re all at home, instead of sticking to working hours.”

There isn’t an expectation from her employer to work longer hours, but Dolinschek says there’s a lot more on the go, making it necessary to get things done, which can be exhausting.

“There is also mental and emotional exhaustion from working in an unknown situation with no idea when it will end. Some time off with no expectation to check e-mails or do work would be great to recharge.”

Mohammed Dawood*, who works at a large mobile operator and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of angering his employer, has been working long hours because consumers use cellphone networks so much more during the lockdown. His projects were prioritised and greater pressure has been placed on existing work to help his firm ensure it keeps up with customer expectations. “There is a general acceptance with most of my team members that the time usually spent in traffic is now spent online, whether in another meeting or dealing with user queries,” says Dawood.

“My company has a very supportive and understanding work-from-home policy, including meeting-free periods, online wellness sessions, and the ability to run essential errands during working hours. But the reality is that if you are part of a team that requires you to be present, it is difficult to take advantage of those benefits.”

Dawood has been encouraged to take leave by his company’s HR department, which noted that there have been very few leave applications during the lockdown.

Shamima Ebrahim*, the head of projects and operations at a fintech, noticed that her teams have been more productive since lockdown began. “There were 1,520 hours logged in a single week during May from my team of 33, which is an average of 46 hours per person,” says Ebrahim. A normal 8am to 5pm shift (excluding a lunch hour) amounts to 40 hours a week.

“This is not the norm and definitely not expected. Work is scheduled and there is no company commitment to work late unless a deployment has been planned. But towards the end of May, burnout was starting to set in,” she says.

The company has regular check-ins with its employees and encourages a timeout. Unfortunately, that can be limited to stepping out into the garden, doing exercise or switching screen time to Netflix.

“We’ve also asked our staff to set working hours that they can stick to because there is no expectation to be available 24/7 or to be ‘more available’ when working remotely,” says Ebrahim.

Her firm is moving office and has given its employees the option to take their office equipment home during this period. “A good chair makes such a difference. The first few weeks of adjusting had led to an increase in back pain and physio appointments,” she says.

Local author Richard Sutton has turned his 2018 book, The Stress Code, into an app to help people manage their stress levels during the pandemic.

The Stress Code app lets users take stress, resilience and mood tests with the ability to calculate potential burnout and choose ways to manage stress. A snapshot of test results with percentages are displayed in colour-coded graphs on the dashboard, which is aimed at individuals or companies.

Sutton says the app provides organisations of any size with a consultant to help with a strategic direction, and was successfully piloted with international law firm Baker McKenzie. “It’s a real-time based technology with a dashboard that is available for HR and management teams to get an overview, which also interfaces with a consultant. A team member analyses the data and provides the best direction to take within the context of the situation,” says Sutton.

The app is based on a freemium model: some of its features are available only to paid subscribers.

Sutton stresses that consent is a big part of the app and all data is anonymous. “It’s been the most important feature of the construction of the app — safeguarding people’s information, which does not get used or sold in any way.

“Our offering to companies is to facilitate the wellbeing of employees and help assist with productivity, growth, success and innovation. Our health hack feature provides solutions to issues we experience on a day-to-day basis like low moods, worry, anxiety, feeling overwhelmed, and so on.”

*Names have been changed