In the last 2 years, the world has been upended by the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the pandemic, massive cultural shifts, political unrest, natural disasters, a global refugee crisis, war and settler regime violence have only compounded the negative effects on our mental health.

For most of us, decompressing and de-stressing from work includes seeing friends, travelling, exercise and participating in hobbies. And yet even as we gave up so many of the things that make up our lives outside of work, work was expected to continue. For those lucky enough to work from home, the lines between professionalism and personal life became more blurred than ever as our home became our workplaces. However, in a world where “productivity” is so important that it follows us to our bedrooms during a global health crisis, where does mental health fall on the scale of importance?

With our work and personal lives largely confined to our homes, it is inevitable that feelings of isolation and loneliness will rise. One study by the American Psychiatric Association showed that since working from home, 66% of employees felt lonely or isolated sometimes, and 17% felt this way all the time. Burnout and the accompanying mental and physical exhaustion has also reached an all time high in this new work-from-home reality, especially when compounded with the inability to disconnect from the workplace. In fact, one study reported that 49% of participants have quit their jobs due to stress, while another 29% stated that they would take unpaid leave of absences if they could due to extreme stress.

Many workplaces now find themselves in a position to help employees cope with these new mental health challenges. One silver lining that came out of all of this is that the stigma surrounding mental health challenges has been reduced. In one survey, 54% of employees reported that since the start of the pandemic, their employer has been more open and willing to talk about their mental health struggles.

However, one stressful aspect of the work-from-home phenomenon that has gone unacknowledged is the added financial strain of moving the office to your home. Many people either couldn’t afford or didn’t have the space for a quality office set-up, yet were forced to procure these items to maintain productivity in the home setting. This equity issue is especially exaggerated in academic institutions, with universities and accommodations closed and their associated amenities unavailable to students subsisting on unlivable wages.

Lastly, workplace culture needs to change to accommodate conversations surrounding mental health and solutions for mental health challenges. Global culture has undergone major changes in the last 2 years, and workplace culture needs to change with it in a way that stops treating mental health struggles as an individual issue, but as a collective challenge instead. As we start to chip away at the stigmas surrounding mental health and how it relates to work, let’s ensure that workplace support becomes the new norm. For a long time, workplaces told us what we could do to improve our mental health while the capitalist framework we existed within remained standing. “Exercise, eat well, sleep enough”, these were all band-aid solutions. As we enter this grey almost “post-pandemic” era, let’s shift the focus to reforming the labour system instead.


References

1. Bryan Robinson, P. 2022. Remote Workers Report Negative Mental Health Impacts, New Study Finds. Forbes .

2. 2022. Buffer | State Of Remote Work 2019. Buffer.com

3. 2022. It’s a New Era for Mental Health at Work. Harvard Business Review.

4. Sandstrom, G., and E. Dunn. 2014. Social Interactions and Well-Being. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40: 910-922.

5. 2022. State of the nation. The Office Group.

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Salma Sheikh-Mohamed

Salma Sheikh-Mohamed is a second year Master's student in the Immunology department at UofT, researching the use of Imaging Mass Cytometry (IMC) for immunophenotyping human tissue. Her recent work using IMC in the human brain can be found in a manuscript entitled Multiplex Imaging of Immune Cells in Staged Multiple Sclerosis Lesions by Mass Cytometry. When not working in the lab, she enjoys reading, baking, and working on her food photography skills.
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