'A dream' or an emotional roller-coaster? Working from home has range of mental health effects

Thousands of Manitobans are working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some say they're thriving, others have had enough.

Manitoba psychologist's COVID-19 research hints at just how important routine might be to overall well-being

Alex Szele gives treats to his two dogs in front of a perfectly stacked woodpile. The wood came from a tree that fell onto his driveway one year ago. The Winnipegger says he's only been able to find energy to chop the wood now that he works from home. (Sam Samson/CBC)

Alex Szele has almost finished his home improvement to-do list.

Since the spring, he's filled in a surface crack on his home in Winnipeg's St. Vital area, remounted his back door, chopped wood from a fallen tree, replaced a door handle and a dryer vent, and pulled out dead stumps in his yard.

The last thing to do is put up gutters on his garage.

"This has been a dream come true for me," said Szele.

"It's been a lot of work, but it's been a lot of work that I would not have had the energy for if I'd been at the office."

Szele, who works in IT at the University of Manitoba, started working from home when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the province.

He lives with depression, and says the shift to a new routine with a home office is actually meeting his mental health needs.

Normally, "after driving to work, walking around campus, dealing with all the social stuff, talking to people, trying to block out all the background noise, getting home … I'm done," said Szele.

"Now I'm actually having enough extra energy to do more than just get by. I can actually do the things that are kind of, quote-unquote, 'getting ahead.'"

Working from home is "an accommodation for the limitations that my mental health puts on the way I live. And the end result is I can get to work and I can get my job done and I can live my life better and easier this way," he said.

"For the first time in my life, the entire working world is starting to work the way that works best for me."

Working from home 'kind of a roller-coaster'

Katarina Sawchuk's home has not only become her office, but her classroom and study hall as well.

The 21-year-old Winnipegger works part-time for Statistics Canada. She's also in her first year of a joint business-law degree through Université de Moncton. And she's doing it all from the loft in her mom's Jefferson-area home.

Katarina Sawchuk, 21, has been working and studying from home since the pandemic hit Manitoba. (Sam Samson/CBC)

"It's kind of a roller-coaster," said Sawchuk. 

"Some days I'm like, yes, this is great that I'm from home. I can wake up in my pyjamas and just roll over.

"Other days I really miss dressing up and going into the office or getting to go to school and actually meet with everyone and have human contact."

Sawchuk says studying with the Moncton French program has been her dream since she was 12 years old. She received early acceptance, a recruitment scholarship, and was preparing to move to New Brunswick. 

But then word came this summer that the university's classes would be online, and she'd stay put in Winnipeg.

"It was like, 'Oh, just kidding, you can't go,'" she said.

"So I think that finally hit me when I was supposed to be moving in, and that I was laying in my bed instead. I was like, 'Oh, wow. This is not what I expected.'"

In June, she hit a low point.

Sawchuk starts class at this desk at 6:30 a.m. On the days she works right after class, she sometimes doesn't leave this spot until late afternoon. (Submitted by Katarina Sawchuk)

"I had some emergency therapy sessions in there, because I realized that I was at that point. I knew that I needed something to bring me back up," she said.

"I forced myself to go out and … make my friends come get me to go do something — go to Earls for a quick drink or something like that. Just so that I wasn't just stuck in my room."

Routine important for mental health

University of Manitoba clinical psychologist Renée El-Gabalawy is leading a cross-Canada study on COVID-19 and mental health. She says early data suggests just how important routine might be when it comes to overall well-being.

"[With] essential service workers, we actually saw lower rates of mental health issues in that group early in the pandemic," she said.

"What we are thinking … is that because Canada as a whole wasn't as hard hit as China or as the United States, those people were still maintaining normal routine. They were still going to work. They were still getting that social connectedness."

The provincial government is offering some tips to help Manitobans try to create a routine while working from home. The Canadian Mental Health Association has also created a fact sheet on working from home.

Sawchuk says the thing she struggles with the most is differentiating between time spent on work, school and studying, and relaxation time. She says it's "inevitable" that her mental health will suffer through this, but she'll be relying on her social circles to get her through.

"Thankfully, I have good friends and I have good support and everything that could help me with that."

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts or having a mental health crisis, there is help out there. Contact the Manitoba Suicide Prevention and Support Line toll-free at 1-877-435-7170 (1-877-HELP170) or the Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868. You can also text CONNECT to 686868 and get immediate support from a crisis responder through the Crisis Text Line, powered by Kids Help Phone.


Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email