Pros and cons of returning to the office

Passengers on the MyCiTi bus T01, from the Civic Centre to Table View

Phumlisa Vers and Own Correspondent

As more and more workers start returning to the office, it seems many of them still long for the comfort and convenience of working from home. But, says the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), returning to work can have positive mental health benefits for workers.

With the implementation of the hard lockdown in March last year when the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in South Africa, people were forced to work from home, with only those deemed essential workers required to be in the workplace.

Now, 20 months later, and with restrictions eased to Alert Level 1, many employees are having to return to the workplace.

Last week, during the afternoon peak, Tabletalk boarded the T01 MyCiTi bus and asked passengers how they felt about going back to office full-time.

Yonela Mali, sitting quietly with her head against the window and her exhausted eyes looking at the cars passing by, told Tabletalk she has been back at the office for about five months. “Honestly, it’s exhausting. I’m still struggling to wake up in the morning and make it on time.

“Working from home was a bliss,” she said. “All I had to do is get out of bed and start working while spending time with family. By the end of my shift, I still had energy to take an evening jog (which I never did before lockdown) and cook. Now my evening jog is walking from one bus to the other and then straight to my place. I barely even cook now. (I eat) just takeout.”

The implications of being back at the office, however, have not only affected workers’ energy levels but also their finances.

The MyCiTi card costs R35, with the standard travelling fee ranging from R13 to R21.

Having done the maths since returning to work, said Ms Mali, she realised that her travel expenses were more than she thought. “When I was working from home, the whole R800 (I spend on travelling every month) was enough for monthly groceries, and I would cook my own lunch. I saved a lot of money when I was working from home”.

Self-employed Esther Joshua, 20, who was on her way to Table View, said she had continued to work throughout lockdown. While workers’ return to the office had not impacted her, she did welcome the eased lockdown restrictions and the friendly atmosphere the increased number of passengers had created.

“The lockdown had a little impact on my business,“ she said.

“I use MyCiTi and since there are lesser restrictions, it has made travelling much easier and friendly. I work four times a week and travel for about two hours.”

She also felt that “although the pandemic led to many businesses failing, it also raised a number of small businesses.”

On a psychological level, said Dr Colinda Linde, clinical psychologist and chairperson of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, returning to the office can have positive mental health benefits.

“The lines between work life and personal life have become blurred, elevating levels of stress, anxiety and depression,” said Dr Linde.

“In some cases families are experiencing increased conflict from being in each other’s space and company far more than usual, without the buffer of separate social connection at work or outside of it. Compounding this is the reality that many don’t have an adequate office set-up at home and this can impact on work performance.”

In addition to this, she said, a recent study reported that employees are working an average of two additional hours per day since working from home.

When it comes to the future way of work, she added: “The solution is going to be bespoke for each company, and could start with a pilot project for a few months to see what works best for each role as well as the company, and the individual.

“A pilot does need an end date though, followed by a clear policy on what the hybrid workplace is going to look like.”