As I sat relaxing in my pyjamas, catching up on The Great British Bake Off on a Wednesday evening, I heard an email alert ping from my laptop. I looked over at my makeshift desk – our dining table in the days before Covid-19 – and sighed. Further alerts followed, and despite having already worked a long, exhausting day as a shifting freelancer on a national publication, I got up from the sofa and sat down at my desk to read the emails. My boyfriend rolled his eyes and started his almost daily, “you should keep your laptop closed in the evenings” speech, but the anxiety of being the only one on the team to not reply was too much for me to ignore them. Even when I’d tried putting my laptop away I’d found myself constantly refreshing emails on my mobile, knowing that my editor’s preferred time to send emails (with questions), was between 8pm and 10pm.
And I’m not alone. The rise of remote working has blurred the lines between work and personal time, with a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts finding that during the pandemic, the average workday has extended by 8.2 per cent – that’s an extra 48.5 minutes. The same study, which collected data from 3.1 million workers across Europe, USA and the Middle East, also saw an increase in the number of internal emails sent and received. The truth is, we’re working longer hours and it’s having an impact on our mental health. A poll by worker’s union Prospect found that 30 per cent of remote workers reported working more unpaid hours than before the pandemic, and 35 per cent of remote workers said their work-related mental health had got worse during the pandemic, with 42 per cent attributing it to their inability to switch off from work.
It’s a shift that Dr Omara Naseem, a specialist counselling psychologist, is seeing first hand. “Working in the NHS, we’ve seen a massive rise in referrals for mental health services for people presenting with symptoms such as anxiety, depression, stress, and burnout. This has a lot to do with Covid-19 and working from home,” she explains. “Part of this is because we’re working beyond our limits now – we're constantly switched on, we’re in hyper arousal all the time.” She goes on to comment on my personal situation. “If you’re relaxed, and then quickly switch back on again, you enter a fight or flight mode that’s going to lead to chemical imbalances, disrupted sleep, chronic stress due to a build up of the stress hormone cortisol, and at some point, burnout.”