Experiencing quarantine fatigue is more common than you think

A UAB expert explains why you might be struggling with work-life balance.

Quarintine 2A UAB expert explains why you might be struggling with work-life balance. Due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, many Americans have been ordered to work from home and change their daily routines. Nearly seven months into the pandemic, some have gone back to the office, while others are still working from home while also assisting their children with virtual learning. This drastic change in lifestyle has caused shifts in the ups and downs of emotions and a lack of motivation.   

Ben McManus, Ph.D., assistant director of the Translational Research for Injury Prevention — TRIP — Laboratory at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, says this is “quarantine fatigue.”  

“When the ideal working-from-home situation is not available, there can be several issues, such as social isolation, a pressure to work more to dispel employer’s doubts about working remotely and a blurring of boundaries,” McManus said. “The greatest contributor is a blurring of boundaries. Although in any work setting, a blurring of boundaries and duties is a prime contributor to work fatigue and dissatisfaction, the unique work settings during quarantine and remote work lead to a special blurring of boundaries.” 

Another factor in quarantine fatigue is the work-family balance and conflict — specifically, when negative emotions from work spill over into family life and vice versa.  

“Work-family conflict is a stressor that is related to subsequent negative mental and physical health,” McManus said. “However, in traditional work settings we have a fairly distinct transition from work to home: the commute. The commute has been found to be considered a useful break and boundary between work and home by as much of 60 percent of workers.” 

Despite trying to create boundaries when working from home, the distinction between home roles and work roles is blurred not only for the worker, but for all others living in the home. Many working from home also have children in the home, and it may be difficult for children to understand these time or spatial boundaries of their working parent or guardian. Now that many children are doing virtual learning, this has added to that stress.  

McManus says research in models of occupational demands have shown it is not necessarily the workload of a job that leads to stress; but rather, it is the worker’s ability to control their work activities and have some authority over the decisions affecting their work that contributes to work stress and satisfaction. With this blurring of boundaries and a lack of being able to control work-family balance, this can lead to lower well-being and higher stress.  

Fatigue has often been associated with physical outcomes, such as being sleepy. However, fatigue is best conceptualized as feeling as though one is increasingly unable to maintain a level of efficiency in a task while you are required to continue to complete this task.

“Fatigue is normal in response to work and stress, but the ability to adapt is dependent on recovery between shifts,” McManus said. “Chronic work fatigue is experiencing high levels of fatigue after work with little recovery between shifts, and it has been tied to many depressive symptoms, which often manifest in physical symptoms. High work stress has been associated with poor physical outcomes and higher sleep disturbances. So, remote work can certainly make us physically tired.”

Quartine 3Ben McManus, Ph.D.The blurring of boundaries can make it seem as if both the work and home “shifts” never end. A dedicated workspace with physical boundaries is ideal, and it must be treated as such by both the worker and others in the household.  

“Turn on ‘work mode’ in the workspace and turn it off when out of the workspace,” he said. “The rest of the household must understand and agree to not interrupt while in the workspace. Similarly, create time boundaries if possible.”

McManus says extra meetings, which may have been brought on by remote work, can increase fatigue and lead some workers to feel rushed and stressed about the quality and quantity of work expected of them. There is also such a thing as too much communication.  

“This can lead to too much information and generate a sense of overload in workers,” McManus said. “Although a sense of connectedness to the work team is important, too much interaction can interfere and interrupt the remote work-home balance. So, boundaries and expectations should be communicated in any work team working remotely.” 

The pros and cons of remote work will remain the same, and the long-term effect may be trying to apply what we have learned in our work environment, whether it be at home or back in the office.