Working days that bleed into the evening. Endless Zoom meetings and passive-aggressive emails. Noisy neighbours, children, chores and walking the dog… The delights of working from home will no doubt be familiar to many in post-lockdown Britain.
Prior to the pandemic, only one in eight of us were home-workers, and in many cases this was only some of the time.
In what has been the biggest gear shift in employment for decades, today just under half of Britain’s working population – about 13.4 million – have swapped the office to work from their living rooms, kitchens and home studies.
And it is having a serious impact on our mental health, according to the culture guru Malcolm Gladwell. Speaking on the podcast Diary Of A CEO last week, the author of The Tipping Point and Outliers said: ‘It’s very hard to feel necessary when you’re physically disconnected,’ adding that ‘as we face the battle that all organisations are facing now in getting people back into the office, it’s really hard to explain this core psychological truth, which is that we want to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary.’
Hannah Hickinbotham, 25, from Cambridge, began her first job during Covid and suffered because of the isolation caused by working from home
He added: ‘It’s not in your best interest to work at home. I know it’s a hassle to come to the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pyjamas in your bedroom… what have you reduced your life to?’
The remarks sparked a fierce backlash, with critics dismissing his comments as ‘pseudoscience’ and ‘pop psychology’.
But could he have a point?
Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, some of Britain’s psychology experts have also raised concerns about what has become, for many, the new normal.
They warn that a ‘starvation of social interaction’, over-use of screens and constant distractions could be having a profound impact on mental wellbeing.
‘Flexible working, a few days at home here and there, is a good thing for many people, but I am increasingly worried about businesses that say there is no longer an office to go to,’ says GP Dr Clare Gerada, president of the Royal College of General Practitioners.
‘Moments of interaction are crucial for wellbeing – without them, you’ll see more stress and more anxiety because it is very difficult to set boundaries between work and home.’
Meanwhile, clinical neuropsychologist Katharine James says: ‘We need firms to tackle it head on now, to divert a future mental health crisis. I am particularly worried about millennials, who are most affected by work-related isolation and also suffer anxiety and depression more than any other age group.’
Britons have taken to home working with more enthusiasm than most of our European neighbours. A global poll published in February showed the UK has the highest number of remote working days per week in all of Europe, with fewer than 40 per cent of major firms requiring workers to be office-based for at least three days a week. In some ways, it is in their interest. Large companies are expected to save about £55 million per year by cutting back on bricks-and-mortar costs if they adopt home working.
The number of Britons who say they are chronically lonely – feeling significantly lonely most or all of the time – has risen by a quarter since May, according to the charity Campaign To End Loneliness
But at the same time, referrals to mental health specialists have reached record highs, with ten million Britons predicted to develop conditions such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders in the aftermath of the pandemic.
No mental health expert would say this explosion in psychological distress is down to a single factor. All mental illness is complex, often developing as a result of a number of triggers, alongside genetic predisposition.
But they are unequivocal that WFH has worsened one important precursor to mental ill-health, especially in those who are vulnerable: loneliness.
After months home-working I felt anxious about going out
One employee who suffered worsening mental health due to home working is Hannah Hickinbotham, 25, from Cambridge.
When the research assistant finished her master’s degree in March 2020, she couldn’t wait to get stuck in to her new career.
Then Covid hit.
‘I started my first job in September, but it was fully remote, so it was mostly just me at my kitchen table or the desk in my bedroom,’ says Hannah, who lives with her partner, Josh.
‘Within a few months I started becoming more anxious about venturing out. I felt like I didn’t know how to be around other people, or how to act. And there were no distractions from my anxious thoughts.’
In January 2021, Hannah’s GP diagnosed her with anxiety and depression and referred her for psychological therapy. ‘I had this constant feeling of impending doom and feeling like something bad was going to happen,’ she says. ‘I’d become panicky after seeing friends for an hour and feel like I had to go home. I started to shut down and spend most evenings on the sofa. I felt very low and worthless.’
Then the eating disorder she suffered in her late teens started to rear its head again.
‘I started exercising to give myself something to do, but it quickly became obsessional,’ says Hannah, who hosts a podcast about eating disorder recovery called Full Of Beans.
Eventually, antidepressants prescribed by her GP and a new, in-office job helped lift Hannah’s mood.
‘I force myself to cycle in five days a week and try to see friends as much as possible,’ she says.
‘Everyone is different. But for me, being near people is essential for my mental health.’
The number of Britons who say they are chronically lonely – feeling significantly lonely most or all of the time – has risen by a quarter since May, according to the charity Campaign To End Loneliness.
Spokesman Jenny Manchester says that despite Covid restrictions having ended a year ago, ‘we’re still seeing a rise in loneliness, partly because younger people are struggling to make connections while working from home’.
US research conducted before the pandemic found that journalists who worked remotely were 67 per cent more likely to suffer loneliness than those based in an office.
Dr Gerada, who runs a helpline for frazzled GPs struggling with mental illness, has seen this problem first-hand.
Speaking on The Mail on Sunday’s Medical Minefield podcast, she said: ‘I know of many doctors suffering due to the isolation of working from home, and having no boundaries around their work.’
Dr Gerada, who initially qualified as a psychiatrist before moving into general practice 30 years ago, continued: ‘They’d log on at 7am, do a day’s work, then log off at 9pm, with no break, and it becomes demoralising.
‘You’ve got nobody to talk to about cases, and you don’t get the chatter in the coffee breaks, so it is pretty lonely.
‘There was one GP whose chair broke because she sat in it every day for six weeks during the pandemic, except for sleeping. It is a sort of metaphor. The chair broke, but so did her spirit.
‘If you move ten metres from your bedroom to your office, day in day out, you might expect mental health to suffer as a consequence.’
Video calls are no replacement for face-to-face interaction, research has shown.
Last year, communication experts at Stanford University in the US analysed the quality of social interactions on video platform Zoom. Professor Jeremy Bailenson, of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, noted that eye contact on video calls was unnaturally ‘excessive and intense’.
Being forced to watch your on-screen image, and the lack of non-verbal communication such as hand gestures, are what make these conversations feel unnatural and unpleasant, he added.
Other studies have found no difference in feelings of loneliness between older adults who use a lot of digital communication tools and those who use very few. Experts are concerned that spending more time alone at home could increase the risk of developing abnormal levels of anxiety.
‘Initially we were told the office was associated with a risk of getting Covid,’ says Dr Gail Kinman, clinical psychologist and visiting professor of occupational health psychology at Birkbeck University. ‘So many already link the working environment to a potential threat – even subconsciously.
‘In people who are natural worriers, fears grow out of the unknown, so the more time spent avoiding the office the scarier those threats become. The anxiety often extends to elements associated with work. Maybe you convince yourself it’s too risky to get on the Tube or meet a large group of people.’
Anna Albright, a cognitive behavioural therapist working in London, says she is seeing more anxiety now than ever, partly related to increased social isolation.
She adds: ‘People feel threatened, so they stick to their safe space, which is often home. But avoiding the world only perpetuates anxiety and fear.’
In January, a study by University College London researchers found levels of anxiety among Britons was the highest since the third lockdown in January 2021.
Despite these clear psychological harms, more than half of all home workers say that they would quit if forced to go back to the office full-time, according to a poll conducted in October.
‘For a start, people don’t like feeling forced to do something,’ says Dr Kinman. ‘If we’re not being given a choice, we push back.
‘We also like routines, and once we’ve become used to something we find it very hard to break the habit.’
There is some physiological basis for this. Brain-imaging studies show that repeatedly doing the same series of activities triggers the release of chemicals related to a feeling of reward in the brain.
The workplace is often associated with negative emotions such as stress.
Yet being in an office environment might offer some relief from psychological distress.
‘When we go to the office, or another place that isn’t our home, we change our mindset,’ says clinical neuropsychologist Ms James. ‘Our brain puts negative emotions that develop in one environment on pause when we move to another environment. By the time we are reminded of the difficult feelings later on, they are usually less upsetting because we’ve had some separation from them.
‘This is a psychological concept called compartmentalisation, which helps us carry on despite hardships.’
Dr Gerada adds: ‘We have important boundaries between home life and work life – and it’s those boundaries where we shift our identities. For instance, I find it very strange emotionally to be doing consultations, professionally, in my own bedroom. You need to be able to get home, take off your metaphorical white coat and take on a different persona, whether that is mother, girlfriend, husband, wife, whatever.’
There may be other benefits, too. ‘One of the hallmarks of depression is a lack of motivation to do anything,’ says Dr Stella Chan, a clinical psychologist and chair of evidence-based psychological treatment at the University of Reading. ‘This leads to a vicious cycle – patients feel like a failure because they haven’t achieved anything, which makes them more miserable. But studies show that if you challenge people to do the activity they don’t want to do, they get a strong sense of achievement.
‘This increases activity in areas of the brain associated with reward.’
The workplace is often associated with negative emotions such as stress. Yet being in an office environment might offer some relief from psychological distress
Over time, this lifts depressive thoughts and feelings. But she cautions: ‘This only really works if work is a happy place to be in.’
There is also intriguing evidence to suggest that lonely working environments could hamper professional performance. In April, researchers from Columbia University in the US recruited 300 pairs of volunteers and asked them to come up with novel uses for a plastic object.
Half of the volunteers communicated via video call, while the other half did so in person.
BY THE end of the study, the face-to-face pairs had come up with more ideas, of better quality, and took more time to look at the product. The digital participants spent much of their time focusing heavily on the face of the other person on the screen, according to the researchers. And studies of elite chess players have found that in-person competitors use more advanced, demanding moves than those competing digitally.
‘Working from home is invariably linked with online meetings, and this comes at a price,’ says Sir Simon Wessely, professor of psychological medicine at the Institute of Psychiatry.
Experts say the endless distractions of home life are also detrimental to productivity
The quality of interaction between colleagues suffers, resulting in less innovation, creativity, spontaneity and trust between workers, he adds.
Experts say the endless distractions of home life are also detrimental to productivity.
‘Many people think they are good at multi-tasking, but in fact studies show that very few people are,’ says Dr Kinman. ‘Switching from one task to another is very taxing on the brain and it takes a while to regain concentration.
‘Evidence shows doing this frequently can add up to two hours to the working day.
‘People end up under-performing in all the tasks they do, which just adds to the stress.’
But all the experts agree that returning to the office will never be right for everyone.
‘The truth is, there are some people who just don’t like their job, or the company,’ says cognitive behavioural therapist Ms Albright. ‘They get their social life elsewhere and that works for them.’
However, she adds: ‘They are in the minority. Most people’s mental health will benefit from spending more time in the office.’