Have the feeling your working days are longer than ever despite being hunkered down at home? Chances are your hunch is correct: the largest study so far of how our working habits have changed since the pandemic drove millions into home offices has found a significant leap worldwide in the time and effort we devoted to our employers.

The Harvard research analysed the rate of digital communications during lockdown of 3.1 million ‘knowledge workers’ (defined as those white collars workers who primarily use or handle information for a living) across 21,500 firms throughout 16 major cities. The results confirmed what so many of us working from home (WFH) have suspected: that the increase in online meetings and requirement to communicate via email and other digital means has spilled into our personal time to a noticeable degree. Those working from home are giving their employer almost an hour more of their time per day.

The main findings of the paper Collaborating During Coronavirus: The Impact of Covid-19 on the Nature of Work were:

  • 48.5 minute, or 8.2%, average increase in the length of the average working day – a rise that researchers described as “significant and durable”
  • 12.9% average increase in number of meetings per person
  • 13.5% average increase in number of attendees per meeting
  • Decrease of 20.1% average length of meetings

No off-switch

The Harvard study mirrored findings by several smaller studies. In late April Bloomberg reported that according to NordVPN, which can track log-ons and log-offs, US workers appeared to be toiling an extra three hours a day since lockdown while those in the United Kingdom had tacked on two hours a day of work-related busy-ness. Employees were also logging back in late at night, one survey even seeing a spike in digital work communications between midnight to 3am during lockdowns.

Sydney-based communications director John Campbell is not surprised. He initially found WFH “relentless”.

“Suddenly there was no off-switch,” he said. “The boundaries fell away in terms of when you worked. Taking phone calls from staff became very loose outside that normal 9 to 5, which was fine when necessary but it often wasn’t.”

Online meetings were many and surprisingly exhausting. “I found the Zoom meetings very draining because you had to focus so fiercely, in a way in which you don’t have to during a physical meeting,” Mr Campbell said. “Everyone I worked with commented on how very draining it was, much more so than a normal meeting, to the point where a 30 minute Zoom left us feeling the same as if we’d endured a two hour meeting in the office.” On top of that, Mr Campbell also found himself working longer days and on weekends as, during the most restrictive stages of lockdown, there was not that much else to do.

Pressure plus

While the Harvard study did not drill down into the effects of AFH-induced longer hours, WFH burnout is well-recognised both anecdotally and research. Brisbane-based lawyer Travis Schultz said increasing numbers of people, depending on their type of organisation, are feeling compelled to justify their roles now they are working from home. Compounding this is are the added economic pressures.

“There are so many sectors at risk and employees are looking to demonstrate their value,” Mr Schultz said.  “We have seen people logging in much earlier than they did - as most organisations can record and measure those statistics – and there is a high tendency to want to be the last to log off. There’s more pressure than ever to maintain a job particularly in any profession where COVID has impacted on the business and the organisation is looking to cut costs.”

In the background, too is the possibility of worker’s claiming for WFH-induced stress-related issues. “There’s no doubt that the anxieties associated with the pandemic have impacted global health to the extent that over time I suspect we will see an increase in applications for worker’s compensation and mental health issues,” Mr Schultz said. “These may have not necessarily been caused by working from home-related stress but exacerbated by related stressors.

“Although it’s too early to be seeing it flow through to any form of litigation. Anecdotally I’m hearing in my work people complaining about the stress caused by the new work environment.

“The question to me is whether this is going to change culture forever.”

Coping mechanisms

The looming issue of employee burnout due to over-working whilst at home was discussed in a Harvard Business Review paper released in April about a month after most pandemic lockdowns kicked in. It listed three major ways to prevent WFH burnout:

1. Maintain physical and social boundaries:

Most common ‘boundary-crossing’ activities to demarcate between work and personal time are getting dressed for the office and commuting to work. This means that making an effort to dress appropriately for work despite the fact it’s being down from home, as well as replacing the commute with a walk around the block or your house before settling down to the computer, can help put someone in the right mental state for the day.

2. Maintain temporal boundaries as much as possible:

As working 9 to 5 becomes unrealistic with the extra complexities that come with working from home (such as minding children, caring for elders and the like) researchers recommend embracing flexibility, noting working times so as to avoid over-work, and employing simple measures such as letting others know response times could be slower due to demands at home. Conversely, employers need to check in with employees more often, manage the pace of work and instil a sense of normality as much as possible.

3. Prioritise work projects:

WFH fragments work time far more than usual. As knowledge workers are truly productive on average only three hours a day according to studies, then creating a block of time of at least that duration free of interruptions and multitasking is strongly advised.