The 9-5 working day, 5-day working week at its inception was a revolutionary model designed to protect overworked manual labourers in the 1800s. Now, 200 years later, we are faced with an increased push to change the hours we work. This shift grants us more flexibility, work-life balance, and improved longevity. Although the calls for change had already been made, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has reformulated the working world. This, coinciding with an outspoken generation branching into the workplace, motivates us to rethink and redesign the working world to match our needs.

The Rise of the Work From Home/Hybrid Model

The rise of the Work from Home model is inextricably linked to the COVID-19 pandemic which began in 2020. After lockdowns were implemented across the globe, institutions rallied to implement a way of work that would ensure that the workforce that could execute their tasks from home, did so. Now, almost three years from that first level 5 lockdown, many South Africans in corporate environments find themselves in much the same place, with approximately 50% of South Africans working from home as of June 2021. Since 2020, the Work from Home model has expanded to include the hybrid model which comprises a company-decided split between working from home and reporting to the office.

The rise of these models has come with many benefits. For South Africans with adequate infrastructure, working from home has provided a respite from the daily stressors and costs associated with commuting. In addition to saving on costs, employees are able to spend more time with their families and customise their work environment to suit their preferences. On top of this, they are empowered by an increased flexibility in work hours. Theoretically.

Unfortunately, despite all of the positives stated, 90% of respondents to a survey conducted by World Wide Worx indicated that the remote work model did not result in reduced stress. In many instances, remote work has resulted in the line of demarcation between home life and work-life becoming blurred and ultimately muddied. Working through lunch and late into the night in addition to the standard 9-5 has become a common complaint among employees. In effect, South Africans are burning the candle at both ends.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

Burnout, as defined by the World Health Organization, is a syndrome “conceptualised by chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”. Additionally, burnout can be characterised by feelings of intense tiredness, perpetual cynicism towards work, and a mental distance from one’s work. In a 2020 interview with Discovery Health, psychologist James Gower describes the growing culture of “ePresenteeism”, which is where employees feel the need to constantly be online and visible even to the detriment of their own health. In a survey conducted by The Mental Health Foundation, 75% of workers highlighted that the rise of this culture has the potential to negatively impact their working experience by causing more stress, anxiety, and burnout.

This issue can present itself in many ways, from the anxiety associated with appearing “away” on Teams to, in more extreme cases, coming to work despite feeling unwell or being on leave. Gower stated that his clients have reported that, in the remote work model, employers have begun to increasingly disregard standard working hours by sending emails and making requests with little regard for the time of day. This, in combination with increased workloads, tight deadlines and the ever-shrinking economy, has resulted in the working environment becoming a higher-stress and higher-pressure experience. The rights of employees have been a topic of interest throughout the globe, with countries such as France and Ireland having instilled laws to protect employees from such behaviours in a series of regulations known as “The Right to Disconnect”. They have even gone as far as making the transgression of these laws punishable through hefty fines for companies.

Gen Z Approach to Work

In as much as remote work has been an additional avenue for stress, generation Z based in the US has seen this as an opportunity to redefine what the working world means to them. The pandemic brought about a swift economic downturn with retrenchments across various industries becoming commonplace. Following 2020, however, the US job market has swung to favour employees, allowing workers to choose jobs according to what best fits their needs. Lauren Stiller Rikleen, author of “You Raised Us, Now Work With Us: Millennials, Career Success, and Building Strong Workplace Teams,” told Business Insider that this time of uncertainty has given the youngest members of the workforce the advantage. She posits that, due to graduating during the pandemic in such a tumultuous economy, Gen Z has been given the opportunity to reframe their thinking and evaluate what is important to them. In contrast, older Millennials were entering the workforce shortly after or during the harsh effects of the 2008 Global Economic Recession. This made them, as the most junior members of the company, the target of retrenchments. As many businesses adhered to last in-first out policies, this put Millennials in a significantly disadvantaged position from which to negotiate their terms. Thus, it is not the case that Millennials did not want to change the landscape of the working world, but rather that their economic position (in the US at least) was significantly less favourable than that of Generation Z.

With the additional bargaining power in the workplace, the calls for greater flexibility with work hours and an increased importance placed on wellbeing have only intensified, and so has the need to move these key points from “perks” to policy.

How to Make Work, Work for You

As an employer or change agent in the workplace, you may be in the position to make widespread changes within the corporate space. By shifting the focus from time spent at work to the deliverables achieved, mandating flexible working hours, and dissuading staff from monitoring the statuses of other employees, it is possible to lessen the stress on employees to constantly appear “online” and visible. In addition to this, allowing employees a scheduled time within the day where no meetings can be scheduled, to free up some of their day to do their tasks, is another approach that can be taken by senior management.

From an employee perspective, the key tenet in creating a mentally safer workspace is forming boundaries and adhering to them. If you are aware of your triggers and what gives you increased anxiety at work, try to avoid them outside of work hours. An example of solid boundary setting is to not download the messaging and email apps used within your company onto your personal phone. If you do need to have access to your emails on your phone, silencing the notifications outside of your standard workday can also assist in reducing workplace stress.

Another important boundary to consider is setting time aside during the day in order to have lunch. It can happen that your day becomes clogged with meetings, making it difficult to find an hour to eat. Try to block out an hour in your diary anywhere from a day to a week in advance to ensure that that hour is available to you. It is also necessary to regularly take 10-15 minutes away from your laptop screen. If you can, book meetings to either start slightly later or end slightly earlier, allowing everyone on the call as well as yourself additional time to yourselves.

Essentially, boundary setting is a set of somewhat small changes which accumulate to make a marked difference in your work environment. Although they are somewhat difficult to enforce, in this period of renewed interest in employee well-being, be at the forefront and create an environment where your way of work, works for you.