Long Hours, Low Morale: The Hidden Toll Of Teleworking

Working remotely has its advantages. But it can also be tricky to manage, as countless people pushed out of their offices by the pandemic are now discovering.

Some employees feel overloaded
Anne Rodier

PARIS — Working from home does not always improve employee happiness. In fact, the normalization of telework in this period of pandemic may be having the opposite effect, according to a recent survey by the tech company WorkAnyWhere, which found an "unheard of" drop in employee motivation.

"We are all overwhelmed, just overloaded," says Amélie, a senior manager in a small research and development firm. "We spend all day dealing with pressing issues. I have to block time in my schedule to be able to think."

"Issues that used to be solved in a few minutes through face-to-face interactions now take up an enormous amount of time and energy," she adds. "Usually we solve a lot of things by showing each other the documents, the prototypes. But at home, you first have to send each other an email to say you want to see each other... There are several back and forth exchanges, misunderstandings and conflicts, which must not be allowed to continue, to avoid irreversible damage. What used to take five minutes now takes an hour."

For many employees, teleworking has become synonymous with tension, stress and burnout. After two months, there is already a growing sentiment of mental wear and tear. The number of psychologist hotlines made available to employees has doubled, says Eric Goata, deputy managing director of Eleas, a firm specializing in the prevention of psychosocial risk.

"Employees talk about abandonment, loneliness and cognitive overload due to too much information being processed. It's overwork," he says. "They also cite excessive monitoring by their managers, difficulties cooperating with colleagues and the inability to reconcile private and professional life."

François-Xavier, a technical project manager who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says that teleworking has a compounding effect on toxic behavior. "In the office, managers who need constant monitoring to reassure themselves would simply drop by. But from a distance, it's more complicated to manage," he says. "Today I counted 28 emails from the same manager. Behind a screen, you're in a bit of an all-powerful mode. You're not necessarily aware that it's a burden on the employee's morale to feel spied on all the time."

Monitoring work is the manager's responsibility, but when working from home, this requires mutual trust and autonomy from the employee, which was not previously required. Indeed, teleworking alters normal workplace cooperation mechanisms.

"Deprived of support from their colleagues, those who don't know how to work alone can fall behind," says Eleas' Eric Goata. "They begin to doubt their abilities and feel neglected. On the manager's side, a lack of response or a late response can be interpreted as disengagement. But calling every morning to find out what has been done is harmful."

For Laure, the situation is even more dramatic. A civil service contract worker, she experienced psychological harassment before telework became widespread. Since then, things have gotten worse. She receives urgent requests in the morning, but the files needed to deal with them only arrive in the evening. No one knows about it except her and the person who sends the emails. Her questions remain unanswered and in video conferencing, she feels ignored.

"It's easier to tear someone down remotely," she says.

The safeguards represented by the physical presence of her colleagues are no longer there. But she also doesn't want the risk of working in person. As Goata explains, psychologically fragile people are in a delicate situation because "teleworking can play an important amplifying role."

Firms that have the means to monitor employees closely through regular surveys were quicker to identify problems. "In the beginning, we didn't have the same feedback, at the weekly meetings, from upper as well as lower management. So we set up a survey for employees, who reported isolated cases of people who were overworked, overwhelmed and didn't have time for lunch," says Caroline Arquié, human rights director of SGS France, a certification company with 2,800 employees, 25% of whom work from home.

I've stopped counting my hours.

"They acknowledged efforts on the part of the company but said they were insufficient," she adds. "Every manager now receives the results of the survey in order to respond to the concerns raised anonymously."

The audit firm Mazars took a similar approach and appointed "senior" referees to check the pulse of young teleworking employees who might suffer from a lack of supervision. "The younger the employees are, the more they need to be supervised and guided," says Célica Thellier, co-founder of ChooseMyCompany, the data analysis company that carried out the WorkAnyWhere study. "In teleworking, they feel they are learning less than before. The relationship with the manager lacks spontaneity and frequency."

Yann, a 30-something employee of a large service company, concurs. "I have an older colleague who is a bit of an informal boss," he says. "But since we are remote, I can't manage our communication. I don't know how to contact him. I don't dare call him. I'm online from 8:00 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. but I might only talk to him three times."

The young man explains that in the meantime, he's being asked to take on even more work. "It's been like that for the last two months," he says. "I'm struggling. I've stopped counting my hours, but I'm close to burnout."

The WorkAnyWhere survey, conducted in April and published in early May, found that many workers feel they're not receiving enough recognition for their efforts. Of the 6,500 people polled, 42% said they get less recognition when working from home.

Indeed, in a remote working situation, employees can become invisible, especially newcomers and people who are naturally quiet in team meetings. They can be overlooked for assignments. There are also cases of people taking advantage of the situation to take credit for the work done by others.

Of course, not everyone opposes teleworking. Past surveys showed a high level of satisfaction among remote workers. Perhaps, then, it's a question of just how much time people spend alone, away from the office.

"One or two days a week was good. But now, frankly, I've had enough," says François-Xavier.

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Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.

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