27 September 2023

Times for change: How to understand the stresses of today’s workplaces

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Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi* says vocational psychologists can teach us a lot about how the new ways of working are impacting our wellbeing.

The current pandemic means that millions have lost their jobs or are working fewer hours.

Those who are fortunate can work from home or are slowly returning to work.

Vocational psychologists, who study the links between jobs and mental health, say that the current employment crisis and its impact on mental wellbeing present some unique challenges.

For many, mere days separated the warnings about COVID-19 in their area from the lockdown orders that jolted, or ended, their employment.

And while the financial impact of unemployment or underemployment is a top concern, psychologists and social scientists have long understood that jobs are more than a paycheque.

For many people, work provides a sense of identity, as well as psychological benefits that come from being productive.

Many workers also benefit from the structure of a daily routine and a connection to the larger community.

“Work connects us to the rhythm of the world,” said David Blustein, a Professor of Psychology at Boston College.

A typical work schedule requires a person to get up at a set time and go through a routine to leave the house by a certain hour.

“For people who are quarantining or in lockdown, we don’t have the same opportunities for that kind of structure,” Dr Blustein said.

For some people, that lack of structure can feel like a deeply personal loss.

Disrupted workers may have trouble organising their time or even creating expectations for the day.

This sense of unease and the stresses of unemployment, or of finding new ways to work, will be likely to continue in the coming months.

As the crisis continues, Dr Blustein said that the negative impact on mental health will only increase.

People who are unemployed for six months or longer are at twice the risk of developing depression and anxiety disorders compared with the general population, he said.

“The psychology of not being able to provide is devastating,” he said.

“There are dozens of years of research showing that any kind of stress around survival needs and meeting those needs will be the highest in producing negative mental health outcomes,” said Ryan Duffy, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida.

Studies by Dr Duffy and other vocational psychologists have found, for example, that while a person’s sense of wellbeing drops significantly during periods of unemployment, it typically rebounds quickly to former levels when new work is secured.

The exception to this wellbeing rebound, other research suggests, is when workers must change occupations.

Employees who had been forced to switch to a new line of work that they hadn’t planned for reported a steady decline of job satisfaction that lasted for up to six years.

While the unemployed are at greatest risk for mental health issues, those new to telecommuting also face unique emotional challenges, Dr Blustein said.

Part of that comes from a blurring of boundaries between work and home, as telecommuters face the challenges of setting up places to work in their private spaces.

Bouncing between conference calls and household chores can mean that work and domestic responsibilities are no longer compartmentalised.

For parents, childcare or remote learning are additional responsibilities.

The result can be a sense that tasks are never completed, work never ends, and days are blurred together.

“It is often hard to denote when the week is over and the weekend begins, because we are not shifting our location, daily activities or even our outfits,” Dr Blustein said.

“Life is interwoven in a web of endless days and, for many, a lack of clear structure and boundaries.”

Telecommuters who feel that work never ends can experience a continuous sense of stress or anxiety.

Although social media is filled with jokes about working in sweatpants or forgetting the day of the week, the experience can feel isolating.

Dr Blustein said telecommuters and furloughed workers also miss the connection of a larger shared experience.

A rainy day, for example, that drenches commuters before they enter the office is a shared experience and an opportunity for commiseration.

“Talking three or four minutes with a colleague or an administrative assistant about the weather — those are treasured parts of our lives,” Dr Blustein said.

“That’s part of what has been so unmooring about this experience.”

The uncertainty about how long all of this will last compounds the problem.

“I call it the age of uncertainty, because we don’t quite know what will happen,” Dr Blustein said.

“But we know the world of work has changed.”

Displaced workers, or those who are unemployed, who begin exhibiting self-destructive or dysfunctional behaviours, such as excessive drinking or “not being able to get out of bed”, should seek counselling or other forms of mental health treatment, said Robert Chope, a Psychologist and Professor Emeritus at San Francisco State University.

Signs of trouble may also be more subtle.

“They are cynical. They are emotionally exhausted. People don’t want to be around them,” he said.

Dr Blustein also advises his clients to focus on other areas of their lives that can bolster a sense of identity and purpose, such as relationships, care giving, leisure activities and volunteering.

Building an identity in other domains can help give people a sense of who in they are in the world separate from who they are in the work world.

“We need to find other sources of meaning for our lives,” Dr Blustein said.

* Emilie Le Beau Lucchesi is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Elmhurst College, Chicago. Her website is www.emilie-lucchesi.com.

This article first appeared at www.nytimes.com.

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