In times of the current Covid-19 pandemic, “Working from Home”, otherwise abbreviated to “WFH”, has become a term so synonymous with our new working lifestyle that it has recently been included in the expanded list for Oxford Word of the Year, as 2020 comes to an end.
This switch in the working arrangement, from being physically present at the workplace to carry out tasks from one’s home has been brought forth by the pandemic, as precautionary measures to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
However, prior to the pandemic, remote working as a working arrangement has already existed. It has only been because of the recent pandemic that this has become normalised and more popular and that the majority of people are now aware that carrying out work from the comfort of one’s home is actually possible. However, the situation has also shed light on the detrimental effects remote working has on one’s wellbeing.
What Really is Remote Working?
Remote working may be described as a working arrangement where employees are not physically present at the workplace, or as one where employees work flexibly such that they do so both from the home and the workplace. This flexible work arrangement is considered desirable and is even encouraged by the Ministry of Manpower to be adopted by companies. Although it might seem that having a flexible working arrangement is a recent practice evolving from the current pandemic, it has existed since 1967, where German employees were the first in some companies to choose their starting and knock-off timings to work. Not long after, the Swiss adopted this practice to appeal to women with family responsibilities. Flexible working arrangements were therefore introduced for the purpose of accommodating to the needs of the employees while still maintaining productivity, which today has become more of a necessity in these times of a pandemic.
Working from home is an approach to organising work that aims to drive greater efficiency and effectiveness in achieving job outcomes through a combination of flexibility, autonomy and collaboration, in parallel with optimizing tools and working environments for employees (CIPD, 2017). For many of us, this may seem to be the perfect way to work – we allow ourselves maximum flexibility, convenience, autonomy, trust, and empowerment. However, to others, especially the many who cannot get used to it and were forced into this arrangement, they experience feelings of isolation, loneliness and abandonment.
Humans, by nature, are social creatures, and even if working from home can provide enhanced levels of performance and productivity, it also may create feelings of demoralisation. Working from home is not so straightforwardly beneficial at all.
Working from Home has its Challenges
There are apparent challenges for managers to lead a virtual workforce, but there are less obvious challenges too. What is for certain is that there has not been any meaningful synthesis of the role of managing a flexible workforce, and it appears that managers need to become better skilled at this relatively new role that they may find themselves thrust into. The role of the manager changes from person to the task. This means that the manager often concentrates their efforts and attention to the outcomes and results, rather than the employees themselves. This is difficult to do in an office environment, where personality plays its part significantly. This is why we often see people with huge personalities getting away with doing less work, and the resultant productivity or outcome may be questionable. Other managerial challenges involve assessing workload, performance, and ensuring some socialisation with the business, giving them a sense of a working identity. Managers who have a remote or virtual workforce need to adopt different approaches in terms of communicating, assessing the varying needs of their direct subordinates, and looking into how productivity or performance will be measured or assessed.
How Managers May Help
As we work through this conundrum, it is easy to see why wellbeing plays such an important part, especially when it comes to finding meaning and purpose. What managers could do, which should form part of the wellbeing strategy for remote workers, is to foster a sense of belonging, even though they are not present physically. This includes holding constant meaningful communication with the remote workforce, whether that be in-person, phone texts, or over web meetings.
The use of technology is ever so important, and Zoom calls carried out regularly provide a good example. Having Zoom “social time” allows for a virtual social community, so that web meetings are not always associated with work, and this mirrors an office environment to some degree. Managers may ensure employees are kept updated with organisational events, policies, and direction, so feelings of isolation that gradually arise may be reduced.
Hot-desking facilities are common among organisations these days, which accommodate short-stay visits, meetings, and gatherings unrelated to work. The use of these facilities for these non-work-related events is important for employee wellbeing because these increase loyalty and feelings of belonging. Therefore, managers may look at innovative ways of bringing the office to the home, recreating a virtual office environment as much as possible, such as birthday and anniversary celebrations, coffee breaks and water cooler talks. By doing so, the traditional office environment is replicated to empower employees in feeling part of a bigger team. This allows them to mitigate feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
Nevertheless, remote working provides opportunities for flexibility. The working day could be distributed – it may begin early in the morning, start later in the afternoon and last into the evening. The appeal is in the flexibility and in giving permission for this flexibility to work. Research suggests that remote workers are far more productive and in fact, end up working longer hours than doing the same in the office. Managers should pay careful attention to this, ensuring employees have workplace wellness i.e. adequate rest and that breaks are taken; more importantly, that they enjoy downtime. Employees ultimately need to feel a sense of empowerment, and only then the detrimental effects of remote working on an employee’s wellbeing may be minimised.
Think of the following scenario: you have friends over at your place and you serve them drinks. Before they can place their cups on your beautiful coffee table, you exclaim and dart out coasters underneath the ice-cold glasses before the first drop of dew can drip on that expensive rosewood. Your lightning-fast reflexes have intercepted what would have been a disaster. Your friends are startled at first, then they laugh and tease you. They say you have OCD – obsessive-compulsive disorder.
This, or a similar instance, may have happened at some point in our lives before. We tidy up a mess in the presence of others, or when our belongings are organised ever so neatly, and we end up joking about OCD.
But in truth, OCD is far from such behaviours that could be written off so light-heartedly.
A person with OCD will have compulsions – they feel the need to perform certain repeated behaviours to reduce emotional distress or to prevent undesirable consequences. These compulsions are so intense that they cannot carry out other daily routines without acting on them. Some common ones include:
Excessive washing or cleaning – They fear contamination and clean or wash themselves or their surroundings many times within a day.
Checking – They repeatedly check things associated with danger, such as ensuring the stove is turned off or the door is locked. They are obsessed with preventing a house fire or someone breaking in.
Hoarding or saving things – They fear that something bad will happen if they throw anything away, so they compulsively keep or hoard things, usually old newspapers or scraps of papers which they do not actually need or use.
Repeating actions – They repetitively engage in the same action many times, such as turning on and off a light switch or shaking their head a numerous number of times, up 20 to 30 times.
Counting and arranging – They are obsessed with order and symmetry, and have superstitions about certain numbers, colours, or arrangements, and seek to put things in a particular pattern, insisting to themselves that the layout must be symmetrical.
When Does OCD Become Chronic and What Should You Do If That Happens?
OCD is a chronic disorder, so it is an illness that one will have to deal with for the rest of his or her life. It is difficult to tell when the disorder becomes chronic, as it presents the individual with long-lasting waxing and waning symptoms. Although most with OCD are usually diagnosed by about age 19, it typically has an earlier age of onset in boys than in girls, but onset after age 35 does occur.
A cognitive model of OCD suggests that obsessions happen when we perceive aspects of our normal thoughts as threatening to ourselves or to others, and we feel responsible to prevent this threat from happening. These misperceptions often develop as a result of early childhood experiences. For example, a child may experience living in a dirty and dusty environment, while being subjected to some form of trauma at the same time. He associates a lack of hygiene with suffering from the trauma. At a later stage in life, he may start to feel threatened upon seeing the unhygienic behaviours of someone he lives with, be it his parents, romantic partner, or flatmates. This leads to the reinforcement of the association and to the development of his beliefs that suffering is inevitable when unhygienic conditions are present, giving him compulsions to improve these unsanitary conditions through washing and cleaning.
If one is affected by OCD to the extent that he or she is unable to hold down a job and to manage household responsibilities, then there is a need for clinical treatment as the symptoms have become severe. Like in the above-mentioned example, recurrent and persistent thoughts of dirt will give the individual compulsions to neutralise these thoughts, resulting in repetitive washing, and checking behaviours. This causes distress and significantly affects one’s functioning.
When OCD has become a chronic illness, through a formulation of intervention strategies, the psychologist should extrapolate the client’s pattern of behaviour and expect a positive prognosis for functional improvement.
How Can OCD Be Treated?
A person diagnosed with OCD may seek treatment through a treatment plan that consists of cognitive strategies. These cognitive strategies involve consciously implementing sets of mental processes in order to control thought processes and content. Through these cognitive strategies, we can examine and restrict the thoughts and interpretations responsible for maintaining OCD symptoms. This is conducted in the initial stages of therapy.
Thereafter, Exposure Response Prevention (ERP) methods are carried out once a client is able to understand and utilise these cognitive strategies. ERP requires the client to list out their obsessive thoughts, identify the triggers that bring about their compulsions and obsessions and rate their levels of distress on each of these. Starting with a situation that causes mild or moderate distress, the client is exposed to their obsessive thoughts and simultaneously tries to resist, engaging in any identified behaviours that they have been using to neutralise these thoughts. The amount of anxiety is tracked each time the process is repeated. When anxiety levels for this particular situation eventually subside, over several repeated processes, and when they no longer feel significant distress over this situation, the same method is repeated for the next obsessive thought with the next level of distress.
A client who is able to demonstrate strength in coping with the symptoms has a better likelihood for sufficient recovery.
OCD is Becoming More Prevalent in Singapore: How has it Been Accepted in Society?
In recent years, OCD has topped the list of mental disorders in Singapore, with the greatest number of people experiencing it in 2018, compared with other mental illnesses.
The disorder has been found to be more prevalent among young adults than those aged 50 and above. In terms of socio-economic status, OCD is more likely to occur amongst those with a monthly household income of less than S$2,000 than those who earn above that amount.
It has also been found that the prevalence of people experiencing OCD at least once in their lifetime is higher in Singapore than in South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
In addition to becoming more prevalent, people who experience OCD are also becoming increasingly reluctant to seek psychiatric help or counselling, making matters worse. There is some acceptance of the condition as normal and trivial by society, because people who do not understand the disorder well enough misconceive OCD as a quality of being clean and tidy, as being clean and tidy is usually seen as a good thing. This misconstrual by society is dangerous for the undiagnosed, and their condition will further deteriorate if they continue to put off addressing their disorder.
The disorder will get worse if treatment is ignored, and there is a need to realise it in its early stages through observing how one’s life is being disrupted. Awareness about its onset of symptoms is important.