While major companies like Apple and Google have required their employees to work remotely to curb the spread of COVID-19, we also have to consider the impacts of remote work on our mental health. Alternatively, the benefits of working from home include reducing your risk of contracting the virus and having more flexibility.
Still, it is natural to be concerned about social isolation and burnout. With remote work becoming a common trend in many industries like tech and business services, many employees know how isolation can affect their mental health.
Those who are used to working and having their steady dose of social interaction in the office may experience culture shock when shifting to a work from home setup. This may cause their mental health to deteriorate during the pandemic, even if it’s mild.
Remote Work: Impacts and Improving the Work From Home Experience
29% of American workers and managers expected to remain working from home full-time even after businesses resume “normal” operations, while 27% expected to work remotely at least part-time, reported Cecilia Amador de San Jose of All Work Space, an online news source and directory dedicated to flexible working spaces, co-working, and colleagues. 26% said working remotely made their jobs easier whereas 40% said the impact of remote work was both positive and negative.
Some respondents had mixed feelings about remote work such as increased number of meetings and/or phone calls (44%), problems with communication technology (37%), distractions at home (33%), and uncertainty about when to end work for the day (23%). Further, 40% said remote work had a negative impact on their emotional or mental health, including those that had reported a very negative impact (13%).
This was higher among parents with school-age kids in the household, with 8% saying that working remotely has had a negative impact on their emotional or mental health, as well as those who reported a very negative impact (18%). Only 12% said that working from home had a positive impact on their mental health. To deal with the stress of working from home, the respondents went outside for a walk/fresh air (51%), took breaks to spend time with family (31%), caught up on movies or TV (43%), cooked or baked (29%), and ran or jogged (28%).
In another survey by PWC, a multinational professional services network of firms based in London, UK., 44% of executives said that their employees have become more productive while working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic (versus 28% of employees). 43% of employees said their productivity levels remained the same unlike 25% of employers. When employees were asked what could help them be more productive while working remotely, they cited greater flexibility in w
ork hours (57%), better hardware and equipment (55%), and better experience for work applications and data (53%).
The Risks of Remote Work to Mental Health
1. Social Isolation and Loneliness
Social isolation can be a real problem when companies don’t establish support networks and build a culture of virtual collaboration and connectedness, warned Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic of Fast Company, the world’s leading progressive business media brand. Therefore, it is imperative for companies to encourage their employees and managers to maintain their professional relationships in cyberspace. Not only is it beneficial to work performance, but also to everyone’s emotional and mental wellness.
To illustrate, GitLab encourages “virtual coffee breaks” during work hours for its remote-only team to promote collaboration and foster a more comfortable workspace. Further, Revelry created a “watercooler” channel to encourage break-time chatter among its workers. There are other methods to deal with loneliness, but they should be thoughtfully implemented until every worker can return to the office.
Employees new to remote working may be tempted to work longer hours to prove that they can be productive at home, especially when they have less “extracurricular” post-work options. The lines between personal and work life will blur as more children engage in online learning due to school closures. For working parents, they might struggle to separate childcare and professional responsibilities.
To prevent burnout, consider creating a comfortable and private place in your house to work, if possible. Take exercise breaks and incorporate social interaction into your daily schedule. You can also turn off your email notifications before and after working hours. Try to maintain a normal sleep schedule to help establish structure in your routine. Employers can also provide their workers with clear policies and expectations when telecommuting. Policies can include when their employees are expected to work, for how long, and how often to communicate to relieve stress.
No Substitute for Face-to-Face Contact
Humans are social creatures and no technology can remove our need for face-to-face interactions. Digital technologies like Zoom have helped us recreate in-person interactions, but it is only a “cheap substitute” to real-life experiences. Understandably, it’s not a good idea to meet up with your colleagues for coffee during the pandemic. Perhaps in the future, the office will serve as a “social theater” where everyone can get their dose of social interaction. For now, we will have to deal with virtual “water cooler breaks” until it is deemed safe to go out.
Remote Working: Is It Really Good for Our Health?
We can’t deny the advantages of remote working. Neurodivergent individuals and other populations will benefit from remote working. Employees on the autism spectrum or those with mental conditions like OCD can work from home considering that loud noises, distractions, and the pressure to appear neurotypical in front of their co-workers. These factors can affect their performance and compromise their well-being.
With the shift to remote working, we can hope that companies will improve their ability to monitor their employees’ performance, sanitizing, and sterilizing office politics. These actions can make organizations more meritocratic and talent-centric.
Alternatively, workers who enjoy talking with their friends or family (either online or offline) or telecommunicating with colleagues may be less likely to experience the health risks of remote working, stated Markham Heid of Time, a weekly news magazine. Irvin Schonfeld, a professor of psychology at City College of New York and CUNY Graduate Center, noted, “I don’t think you can say it’s necessarily more or less healthy.”
Some remote workers get their dose of daily interaction with their family or friends, albeit if they live under the same roof. While meetups with colleagues are not advisable right now, employers need to prepare how their virtual workspace can facilitate professional interactions to prevent isolation. After the pandemic, maybe a combination of working from home and in the office for a few days might be helpful in curbing the aforementioned risks.