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Working from home: the impact on mental health and the importance of staying connected.

By guest blogger Callum Baxendale.

One day in September 2002, my wife came home from work early to find me in somewhat of a predicament. You see, she wasn’t meant to come home early and I was meant to be killing myself. Of course, she didn’t know anything about my worst ever to-do list for that day and her coming home when she did really buggered my plans up. She realised something was amiss when I broke down in tears on the end of the bed producing trails of snot the like of which a toddler would be proud. I was falling apart right in front of her eyes and neither of us knew why. To cut a long story down to 1000 words or so, the doc came, told me I was depressed, got me help, got me signed off work and put me on a most wonderful cocktail of Diazepam and Sertraline. Slowly things improved. I’ve been on AD’s ever since and aside from the occasional wobble, I’m fine and haven’t seriously contemplated killing myself for nigh on 18 years so woo hoo to that <you might just be able to make out the faint sound of an imaginary party blower going off>.

How did I end up suicidal? Jeez, there’s myriad reasons I could spout and they probably all played a contributory role, but recent events have taught me something; working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, well, not for me at any rate.

I worked from home for the best part of ten years between 1996 and 2005 so by the time I had my snot-infused breakdown of 2002 I’d been working from a home office (with large chunks of checking Ceefax Page 302) for six years. I worked in field sales at the time so I did get out seeing customers, but when I wasn’t out I was in and in was home...alone. Yes, I spoke to colleagues on the phone, but I was pretty much left to my own devices back then and we didn’t have many devices - no Skype or Zoom to brighten up your day in those days. Great, you might think, and it was - until it wasn’t - until I fell apart. I’m now convinced that working from home played a part in my illness. I don’t think it caused it, but it definitely added fuel to the fire. Not being around others, not engaging face-to-face, it allowed my seemingly innocent thoughts to flare, to snowball into paranoia, to cause me to fixate and overthink. Without realising it, I ended up an overweight polar bear in a very cramped yet homely cage pacing up and down for months on end with no colleagues around to talk the mundane stuff. When conducted in person, such chats, however trivial, would likely have forced me to moderate my behaviour - with no one seeing me on a day-to-day basis, my thoughts were able to spiral out of control and suicide crept into my thinking; a few months later and I was no longer entertaining the idea of suicide, I was buying it tickets for the Palladium and doting on its every word until that snotty day in 2002.

Fast forward to 2020. I still work in sales and I still pop my daily medications. These days though I’m office-based and yet, despite my suicidal problems of the past, I’ve often found myself hankering after being able to work from home again. I’m really not a people person nor am I particularly likeable, so the idea of my working in isolation at home retains a certain appeal for all concerned. Understandably, when all this COVID-19 stuff kicked off, I was cock-a-hoop to learn I would have to work from home. OK, I would only be working from home to stop me contracting a potentially fatal virus, but that’s still reason enough to be cock-a-hoop, isn’t it?

Like many others I’ve been working from home now for more than five weeks and I’m pleased to report that I don’t want to kill myself. That said, I am aware of some mood changes. You learn to monitor your disposition quite closely when you know you’re wont to dip your toes into the dark waters of depression. I can sense a rising feeling of isolation from work-related matters despite Skype and WhatsApp and email. I can sense a certain paranoia creeping in when I’m not so involved on the calls and WhatsApp group chats. Call it ‘Imposter Syndrome’ if you want, but that feeling of having less worth than your colleagues is a nagging one and it’s very easily exacerbated by a lack of personal interaction even when you don’t particularly enjoy personal interaction. Somehow, not speaking to anyone when you're all in the office is a whole lot better than not being messaged online presumably because most of our online exchanges lack those subtle body language clues that allow us to interpret others’ emotions and intentions so much more reliably. Without those cues, your mind is free to go off on a bit of a wander and sometimes it wanders into some very grim places.

Working from home likely contributed to my depression and suicidal thoughts of the past and COVID-19 has made me realise that it could send me snotty again. But, as with all things brain-related, it’s more complicated than that. Working from home didn’t cause my depression, it just didn’t help matters. Somewhat unsurprisingly, I don’t think it’s helping matters now although thankfully I’m much more aware of how it isn’t and why and what I need to do to stop things going awry. That’s got to be a good thing - if nothing else, it might delay the next Snotfest for a few years.

If you’re working from home in this time of crisis and feel lonely or isolated, my advice would be to get in touch with others regularly, get speaking to your friends and colleagues. Use the technology available and get yourself Skyping like a pro. Yes, it’s embarrassing at first and yes, you might have to get dressed and brush your hair once in a while, but don’t let that stop you. And don’t be afraid to call someone and say you just wanted a natter, as naff as you think that might sound. I don’t much enjoy speaking to people, but I invariably feel better when I do - I’m still not entirely sure other folks feel better for speaking to me, but that’s a whole different 1000 words. Feeling isolated isn’t weak, it’s human and potentially fatal so don’t let it fester.

Plot Twist 1: Working from home saved my life in 2002. After all, if I’d not been working from home on that fateful day I wouldn’t be here today.

Plot Twist 2: Forget it, it was my wife who saved my life that day. It’s always about love when all’s said and done.

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