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For Primary Care| View from the ground

The Working From Home Paradox

View from the Ground, by Dr Sarah Merrifield

As the pandemic dawned, many experienced a shift to home working. This was also the case for me in my academic GP role, which makes up roughly half of my week. Initially, I was delighted. Gone were the long commutes, battles to find a parking space, and perpetual ironing of trousers. I revelled in my extra hour in bed and endless coffee. Working from home as a doctor was never something I considered possible.

However, the few days I worked in my clinical role at home while self-isolating felt uncomfortable. Here I was in my own house with my patients’ secrets and worries. It did not feel right for me, so I have since undertaken my clinical work on site.

Do I get more work done at home? Definitely! Minutes spent catching up with colleagues or walking between sessions can now be filled with quick tasks. Meetings can be fitted into all manner of spaces, no longer requiring travel time to be taken into consideration. There are, of course, other benefits, such as money saved on travel, and the ease of meeting colleagues from further afield. Remote working can also be more inclusive; those with caring responsibilities can now attend sessions that were previously impossible.

As time has passed though, I have realised that working from home is not the cushy number it is perceived to be. The main downside for me is that home has ceased to be home: no longer a place of sanctuary, it is now the location of work stress and difficult conversations. With the mental downtime of a commute gone, I am constantly sat in the room formerly known as my kitchen. Small jolts of anxiety hit when I hear my emails relentlessly ‘ping’ as I try to cook.

There is also a sense that the joy has been sucked out of work. Gone are corridor chats and human interaction—I am now a two-dimensional being, existing only in a head-and-shoulders Zoom rectangle. My step count plummets as my sole exercise encompasses a round trip to the loo and the fridge. I don’t need to worry about ironing my trousers anymore, as they no longer fit.

My own experiences are reflected in the findings of a survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health in early 2021, which found that those working from home commonly felt less connected to colleagues, did less exercise, and experienced disturbed sleep.1 As more remote clinical roles are advertised, there is a worry that isolation, already inherent in the role of a GP, will become even more of an issue.

I am not suggesting by any means that I want to go back to the workplace 5 days a week, but clearly a balance needs to be struck. A mixed week with flexible working would seem to be the ideal.

So, what is the solution? Well, I have not totally figured it out myself yet, but I have found a few things helpful. Keeping in touch with colleagues in a less formal manner can help to keep the connection going. This can be something as simple as a WhatsApp chat or regular social catch up. I have also found that getting out of the house is more important than ever: gone are weekends of ambling around the house—I need to get out there! And finally, I recommend addressing the exercise gap. Never in my life did I think that I would say this, but I actually enjoy the gym now!

Although there are a lot of perks to working from home, it is clear that we need to find more ways to maintain our work–life balance if our homes and workplaces are to become synonymous.