Blurred lines between home and work since people started working remotely during the pandemic could be leading to a mental health crisis.

While working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic has been a requirement and has also been seen largely as a positive thing by many, it seems that it is also having an effect on workers’ mental health. 

According to a new report, the extra hours that people have found themselves working during the pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on individuals’ mental health, with women being disproportionally affected. 

Remote working leads to longer workdays

With the line between work and life becoming blurred as many people adapted to working from home, a large number of people found themselves working longer hours than they would in a standard workday in the office. As a result, 49% more staff are now reporting mental distress compared to 2017-19, with the latest findings warning of a “mental health crisis”.

The report, titled ‘Burnout Britain: Overwork in an Age of Unemployment’, highlights the problems that the blurred line between work and home has resulted in. It notes: “For workers who have made the transition to working remotely, the always-on culture of being available for meetings, calls and checking emails has suddenly entered their homes.

“The rapid speed of this change, alongside insufficient barriers put in place to separate work and home lives, has steadily extended the length of the working day. By April a third of [non-furloughed employees] were working more hours than usual.”

Women are more likely to be affected

Women have been more affected by the change than men, with women being 43% more likely to have increased their working hours beyond a standard working work than men. This is linked to an increase in mental distress, especially among those women with children. 

This is because women are more likely to have increased their hours since working from home but also because childcare adds extra strain. In fact, 86% of women working normal hours but with childcare hours greater than or equal to the UK average experienced mental distress during April of this year.

Shorter working weeks could be the answer

In order to limit the damaging effects that increased hours is having, the report calls for a four-day working week for public sector workers. It says that with things continuing as they are, we are heading toward an “unprecedented mental health crisis” both for those who are unemployed and those who are over-employed. 

On top of a reduced workweek, the report has recommended that the government forms a Working Time Commission to look at how working hours could be reduced and work be shared more equally across the economy. 

Joe Ryle, a campaigner with the 4 Day Working Week Campaign, which released the report, said: “It’s extremely concerning that overall the shift to working remotely has resulted in workers doing more hours and not less.”

“This country desperately needs a four-day working week to rebalance the economy, boost mental health and give people more time to spend doing the things they love,” he added.

Britain needs a cultural shift

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic caused an increase in working hours for those working from home, the UK had some of the longest working weeks in Europe. 

According to figures released by the TUC last year, full-time staff in the UK worked an average 42-hour week in 2018. This is almost two hours more than the European average. In comparison, people in Germany worked, on average, 1.8 hours less each week during the same period but were 15% more productive. 

Alison Pay, from Mental Health at Work, said: “The global pandemic has brought flexibility to the workplace on a scale hitherto unimaginable, but with it has come an increase in working hours and merging of boundaries between home and work and we know these factors contribute to mental health issues.

“At Mental Health at Work, we ask organisations to consider what workplace adjustments are available to them and how this can be implemented to support employee mental health.

“A shorter working week is one of those adjustments, benefitting the individual, their family and the organisation, whilst as a minimum maintaining employee engagement and productivity.”

Employers’ duty of care

With the risk of employees experiencing mental distress on the rise, companies need to look at what they can do to support individuals, whether they are in the workplace or working from home. Ensuring support is available, that it is tailored to individuals’ needs and that employees understand how to and feel comfortable accessing it is vital. 

Similarly, businesses need to enable staff to switch off when they shouldn’t be working in order to better foster a healthy work/life balance. While flexibility is a benefit for both employers and employees, it is vital that this flexibility does not see people working more than they should. 

Stopping out-of-hours contact, assessing workloads and employee one-to-ones can all help to ensure people feel comfortable fulling clocking out at the end of the day and raising any concerns they have.