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Mental health when working from home - how gender roles impact the experience

Updated: May 19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of working from home didn’t seem realistic. Though employees might harbour the fantasy, the concept was something of a pipe dream. Employers were unlikely to budge. And so, the very idea of working from home barely got any serious airtime.

Data illustrates this perfectly. The graph below -- taken from Google Trends -- represents the interest South Africans have had in the acronym “WFH” since 2004.

Before March 2020, there were almost no fluctuations in the flat line - meaning that no one was Googling the term. Ergo, working from home wasn’t even a concept that we were tempted to look up. 

Yet, as the pandemic took hold, there was a sudden explosion of interest in “WFH”. Just look at the spike in March and April, with interest hitting Google’s maximum threshold of 100.  Interest has remained reliably stable ever since (around the 40-50 mark), indicating that South Africans continue to research the idea of flexible working. And this makes sense, as a large proportion of us are dividing our time between an office and a desk at home.  

Does working from home affect mental health?

Clearly, flexible working has its benefits. Some of us enjoy the peace and solitude of marching towards a deadline while removed from the hubbub of an office. But this doesn’t mean the system is perfect. Indeed, here are some of the work from home effects on mental health:

  1. Working from home can lead to burnout

Whether you’re on Teams, Slack, Skype, email or a combination of all four, instant messaging programmes make you feel as if you’re “always on”. In the process, there’s the temptation to work longer hours so that you appear to be ready, willing and available to help.

But burnout inevitably results, especially if you’re a mother working from home and juggling caregiving responsibilities alongside your full-time job. 

No employee should feel compelled to burn the midnight oil simply to appear committed to the cause. Companies that lead with empathy encourage their staff to clock off at a pre-appointed time, and to leave those instant messages, emails and Slack notifications to the next morning.

  1. WFH can cause isolation and loneliness 

Working from home can be isolating. The effect is worse when you’re someone who craves social interactions, or enjoys operating within a team environment. This is one of the biggest ways working from home affects mental health.

WFH can also cause communication problems, as the subtleties of inflection can be lost over a messaging service or app, causing colleagues to misunderstand what you’re trying to say. That’s why, when it comes to communicating effectively, it’s often better to have a face-to-face conversation.

  1. Women often face a ‘double shift’ at home 

Unfortunately, WFH can blur the lines between work and home and women are most affected, as they spend far more time on domestic and care activities than men.

Gender roles are deeply ingrained in South Africa. Men are still seen as the primary breadwinner, despite the fact that more and more women are entering the labour force (53% of women compared with 64% of men).  

Attitudes are shifting, and there are men who now take on homemaking roles, but they’re still in the minority. Gender roles are difficult to subvert, as they’re rooted in long-standing “traditional” values. Or, in other words, outdated conceptions of how society should work. 

International Women’s Day reminds us of the gender roles still at play

International Women’s Day takes place on March 8th, 2024 and stands tall as an annual celebration of women’s causes. It shines a spotlight on civil rights and reveals the reality for many women, not only in South Africa, but the world over: a life spent juggling work, children and homemaking, either as a single parent or as one half of a partnership. 

Given this reality, companies should make certain accommodations so that they can retain their talent:

  • Keep an office open during the week so that women can create separation between their personal lives and their careers; this office might be smaller than the pre-pandemic space, but it’s still a valuable commodity to have

  • Embrace flexible hours so that mothers can fetch their children in the afternoon, and resume working later in the day

  • Encourage individual teams within the organisation to set their own schedules: i.e., when to come into the office and when to work from home. This way, everyone in the team gets a say.

  • Remember that staff are juggling their careers against the needs of their family: work can’t always come first

  • Drive the company forward in the spirit of empathy; results will follow

  • Put women in leadership positions, so that they can advance the needs of other women in the company

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