As a psychologist, Nikita Baruah is seeing first-hand the consequences for many people who have been working from home for nearly a full year because of the pandemic.

Baruah says she frequently hears the same complaints from clients: stress, restlessness, insomnia and anxiety that bother them because they’re stuck and not moving.

“I’ve got clients who just don’t move for nine-eleven hours a day,” she says.

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept through the country last year in March, organisations in Guwahati, and across the country, rolled out a slew of measures to keep their businesses running. While several lost jobs, the lucky ones were directed to work from home to slow the spread of coronavirus. 

The experience of working from home felt exciting for some workers. As productivity tools streamlined virtual operations processes and video conferencing calls became the norm for meetings, workers tried to adapt to the new normal at the workplace.

However, it hasn’t been easy. As the pandemic stretches on, more workers are becoming disgruntled and burned out. 

The struggle: financial crisis, overtime work, health issues

For 38-year-old Gitima Deka, life was fraught with stress when the pandemic first hit and she was stuck home, working full time and helping school her five-year-old daughter and eight-year-old son. 

“I am constantly on the verge of a panic attack,” Deka says.

She works for a public relation and communication agency, and her husband recently lost his job. While her employer is very understanding, she feels the need to get everything done correctly.

“I find myself working all the time, even when I should be getting ready for bed. I should show that I am a good employee so the organisation keeps me. At this point, I’m so exhausted. My kids are frustrated, and they miss going to the park, catching up with their friends, attending school. On top of the stress of juggling work and my home life, there is financial anxiety,” she adds.

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It used to be that working remotely was a perk. These days, it’s about survival. While those working remotely still have a job, there is the threat that they, too, could lose their paycheck or have their salary cut at some point.

For Nilamoni Lahkar, a techie, work from home has not only blurred the line separating his personal and professional life but has also made him aggressive and insomniac.

“I was initially enjoying working from home. However, over time, I realised it has taken a toll on my health. While working in my office space, I would be attending meetings and interacting with people. Unfortunately, it’s everything virtual now. The little workout I used to do has also stopped. I have put on a lot of weight since the lockdown, and I am having trouble sleeping at night. I am angry and frustrated,” he says.

Neil Bora (name changed on request), who works as a social media manager, mentions having anxiety attacks.

“When at work, I would see my colleagues go on tea or lunch breaks, but now I am sitting at home the whole day working. I am always restless, I keep checking my phone, assuming there is a message from the office. There is no respite even after working hours are over, as I keep getting work messages. My boss over commits to his clients and make us work like slaves. The management is also acting very harsh. My body posture has worsened, and I am suffering from severe back pain too. My diet and exercise routine have all been hit,” he says.

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What experts say:

As the world continues to function in this new pandemic era, psychologist Udeshna Goswami observes that the mental break from work, as well as technology, is very important.

“Everyone manifests stress differently. The lack of human connection is making it all the more difficult, emotionally. You may be more angry or irritable, or you may appear to be more depressed or withdrawn. Be kind to yourself. To help alleviate the stress, try to implement a routine and structure in your day-to-day life. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help from counsellors or other support networks if you need it. We are all in this together and will come out stronger,” she notes.

Dr Manish Kumar, a corporate psychiatric consultant, suggests the employer should make changes to adjust to the needs of the employees of each sector and not to follow a one-to-fit-all model. They should support employees throughout and be flexible; show care and trust; set realistic goals; always provide them with a pat on their back and recognise their diverse needs; be compassionate and empathetic, and keep them motivated.

Nalbari-based yoga expert Pranami Talukdar recommends doing small exercises between meetings to break up the time spent in front of the computer screen. 

“Get up — even for 30 seconds at a time — to do a few squats or stretches. Even going up and down stairs can help break the monotony and physical inertia. Keep your body hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Consume fruits daily and eat nutritious food, rich in protein. For tackling body ache, anxiety, and insomnia, one can practise these yoga postures: cat-cow, downward-facing dog, sphinx, cobra, and bridge.”

Talukdar also recommends performing Surya Namaskar, Hatha yoga, and Anulom Vilom at least four days a week. 

While it’s often overlooked, grief is another factor that can be contributing to exhaustion. Bhaskar Brahma, a mental health advocate and fitness expert says, “Many may be grieving because of loss, current events, or disruption in lives. These effects range from death in the family or feeling fearful about a loved one’s well-being to losing jobs or access to hobbies and social life. Many employers fail to address this challenge. Clear communication is the key to solving these problems. Employers need to considerate. Mental well-being should be made a priority.”

Brahma advises one to adopt a healthy lifestyle – like waking up early, working out a bit, eating fresh and nutritious food, going to bed early. “Screen time after dinner should be avoided and more human interaction should be encouraged. Sharing the emotional load makes life so much better and easier,” he adds.

Survive and thrive with empathy

What organisations and the management need to do is to stop thinking of the pandemic as an emergency situation to be handled via clever operational tactics. Instead, they need to use an empathetic strategic approach to survive and thrive in this new world. 

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