Remote work can have many positive effects on mental wellbeing – in particular related to reduced commute times, and increasing the opportunity for a healthy work-life balance. Surveys have found that alongside this: keeping out of office politics; reducing distractions from colleagues; and a quieter, more personalised work environment have all also been identified as pre-pandemic advantages of remote work.
However, since the onset of Covid-19 and the rush to make everything remote, some of the risks of remote work have been overlooked. With home-working comes a need to set boundaries between home and work life. In the current situation, it is not always possible to telework from a coworking space, or have a life out of the house. A Eurofound report discusses how the co-existence of work and domestic responsibilities in the same space can blur the boundaries, increasing work-related stress. Outlined below are two key factors of this:
1. Remote working increases constant work connectivity – the ‘always on’ culture which increases the risk of anxiety, depression and burnout. Four EU member states have already established a legal ‘right to disconnect’ outside of work hours, and the European parliament are currently looking to implement it as a European-wide fundamental right, following the increasing prevalence of telework. The flexibility to work outside of the workplace easily leads to irregular and more asocial working hours, and for some, involves simultaneously caring for work responsibilities and children, particularly in the context of the pandemic. From this perspective, returning to a workplace could be seen as a relief, especially reducing the ‘double burden’ placed on individuals with children.
Remote workers report more work-related stress ‘all the time’ (14% of occasional or permanent remote workers, vs. 9% of those who never work from home). This serves to highlight the importance of creating boundaries between home and work life, and learning to disconnect after hours. Pre-pandemic, 37% of regular and 18% of occasional teleworkers reported working in their free time, vs. only 4% of those rarely or never homeworking. If organisations are looking to invest in continued remote-working post pandemic, creating policy to lower these percentages should be a priority.
2. Social isolation is also a problem with working from home, and is compounded by pandemic restrictions. Remote workers, especially pre-pandemic, reported feeling forgotten-about as individuals, and focused on more as the tasks they produced. One study of 1,153 workers found that the 52% who worked from home at least occasionally felt more left out and ignored than those who went to the office. In ordinary times, flexible working (a combination of home and office work) avoids this issue, and coworking hubs can be a solution for permanent remote workers. In this situation, people who work from home either fully or part-time report that their work affects their health positively.
The evidence summarised in this article has mostly come from pre-pandemic remote work surveys. The pandemic caused many to be forced to remote work, with very little policy or support structure. Although the benefits of flexible or fully remote work are evident to both employees and organisations, there remains much to be written in policy to ensure the risks of remote work do not outweigh the benefits. Worker wellbeing is crucial, if only to allow companies to function optimally – and with an increased awareness and care for workplace mental health, it is essential this awareness equally spreads to remote/home working.
- As a remote employee, ensure that you can create a divide between work and home life. During this pandemic, it can be particularly difficult to do so, but taking daily walk pre- and post-work can be one suggestion to create a divide. Post-pandemic, working from a coworking hub or other social place can provide the necessary social support as well as a clear work-home divide. Working from the office part-time can also achieve this.
- As a remote employer, ensure that policies are in place regarding working hours and hours of disconnect.
- Office-based workers/managers should also remember to focus on communicating and treating remote employees/colleagues as they would in person. Take time to check in on their wellbeing, or make small talk to ensure they do not feel like a machine. Acknowledgements and recognition can build up to make a big difference on wellbeing and give purpose to employees – decreasing the risk of burnout or poor mental wellbeing.