WFH, Work-Life Balance and Mental Health

I am working from home (WFH) today wearing slacks and a golf shirt (and wishing that I was actually going to golf).  It’s a day where at this moment I don’t have a single video call scheduled and I am using the day to clean up my virtual desk having come off two consecutive days of phone and video calls, delivering a webinar, recording a podcast, and delivering a two-hour on-line lecture to graduate students in the Masters of Actuarial Science program at the University of Windsor (more on that adventure another time).

Most who know me know that I am high-energy and tend to enjoy engaging in conversation, so the last two days are generally how I like my schedule to look.  With that said, after today’s morning workout, a couple hours of email and catching up on reading, my body just let me know that I am exhausted.  This is a signal that I would have ignored a decade ago and just kept pushing with the help of my addiction to that little white powder – sugar.  But somewhere between getting older and, with the help of others, getting a little wiser (not a lot, just a little) I have come to discover that car maintenance takes longer and is more expensive as the mileage creeps up.

What I saw when I worked downtown Toronto was a hyper-competitive world where you had to always be ‘on’ and your value to an organization was directly tied to the number of hours that you worked.  I have always liked to get to work early (7am-ish) and have historically done great work until my 11:30am lunch time and then done some pretty good work after lunch until around 4pm.  What was intolerable for some was that around 4pm I checked out and even if I stayed physically, I was spent mentally.  I was honest about this situation and rarely recorded any ‘billable hours’ late in the day to make sure clients weren’t paying for a second-rate effort and as a result I lost the popularity contest that the quieter workers won just pacing themselves to a 10+ hour day.

In a recent commentary I mentioned one of the reasons that we started ASI was to not have someone above me decide that I wasn’t needed anymore for political reasons more than anything about the quality or value of my work – I allowed that to happen once before and I was going to do what I could to avoid a second episode.  One of the other reasons was that I saw a world where I could work when I was ‘on’ and take time off when I wasn’t.  I had also recently discovered the game of golf and I thought it would be genius to golf on Mondays when everyone else was working (less crowded and less expensive).

Our friends at Benefits and Pension Monitor just alerted me to a study by Aon titled Accelerating Workforce Agility and Resilience.  In a nutshell “Globally, 84% of survey respondents view workforce agility, defined as the ability to quickly move employees into new roles or areas of the organization to support changing business needs, as very important or extremely important to the future success of their organization”.  Aon concludes that agility is supported by worker diversity and inclusion, technology tools and communication tools, and goes on to find that investments in remote work is picking up speed.  Also noted was the need to support workers at home with children due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

A few days earlier, BPM highlighted Employee Assistance Provider, Morneau Shepell’s Mental Health Index™.  The August report finds “The benchmark reflects mental health data from 2017, 2018 and 2019. An 11-point decrease from the pre-COVID-19 benchmark reflects a population whose mental health is similar to the most distressed one per cent of the benchmark population”.  Ouch! – that can’t be good.  Buried in the details was “The current scores suggest a risk to the longer-term wellbeing of employees, which may impact business productivity, health costs and disability absence.”

What does it all mean?  When I struck out on my own, I was considered an outlier…someone that didn’t fit the Monday-to-Friday 8am-to-6pm world in which I was educated to work – somewhat of a failure.  In retrospect, I don’t think I was that much of an outlier.  I think what all the research is starting to tell us is that all of us need some flexibility in when and how we work in order to manage stress and attend to our mental wellbeing.  As most of our staff have gone back to working in the office most days, it’s nice to see everyone and to get the energy boost that comes from working with others in-person.  But it’s also nice to know that we can all take some time to ‘recharge’ when needed and have some flexibility for visits to the dentist or attending a school play.  The measuring stick is no longer ‘face time’ but metrics like results, productivity, and value.

When organizations discuss whether every employee will go back to the office full-time after the pandemic is (hopefully) behind us I think the answer is more clearly no.  But I also think that organizations that are cancelling office leases and sending everyone home permanently don’t have it right either.  Humans are social beings and we are going to need to maintain strong connections which is something I don’t think that Zoom will do for us long-term.  Although some jobs require on-site attendance, the sometimes-crazy pace of new-economy knowledge workers can’t easily be bottled in a 9-to-5 day for five straight days. 

The right answer is going to be a balance of WFH and on-site work, along with more flexibility on when we put in the hours that are needed to get the job done.  Business leaders outside large scale manufacturing would do well to start preparing for this permanent way of working and the second order effort that will be required around not only matching jobs to workers’ skills but matching the on-site/WFH balance to each role and worker temperament.

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