Does Remote Work Fuel Mental Health Problems?

Flexible work can be a boon for productivity, but it has its downsides.
  • Flexible work can be a boon for productivity, but it has its downsides.
  • Workers can feel disconnected from their team and their support network, which can exacerbate mental health issues.
  • Employers must be aware of these challenges and offer the right support to help lessen the impact.

For most people, flexible work is a welcome opportunity.

Whether it’s flexibility over their daily work schedule, choice of location, or time management, flexible working arrangements are highly valued among workers and research shows that overall, it has a positive impact on employee engagement and productivity.

Suggested Reading: Future of Work: Flexibility is the Key Ingredient to a Happy Workforce

One of the most common forms of flexible working is choice of location. Advances in technology, wireless devices and secure connectivity means people can now work from virtually anywhere. This enables individuals to save time commuting and work from more convenient locations, therefore improving their work/life balance and working more productively.

At least, in theory.

While flexible work is generally seen as a boon for employees and employers alike, there are of course downsides, and one particular area of concern focuses on the impact of remote work on employees’ mental health.

Glide, a broadband and connectivity services supplier, recently released a report investigating the mental health implications of working flexibly.

Glide noted that working people who have or have had mental health problems, which is estimated to be 1 in 6 people, contribute £225 billion to the economy every year. That’s around 12.1% of the UK’s total GDP.

“That’s why it’s so important to address mental health at work – of course, you want your employees to be well, but you also want them to work efficiently. A toxic work environment can be damaging in many ways.”

Flexible work is often a reprieve from toxic work environments. However, despite best intentions, it can (and does) go wrong.

One of the biggest concerns is that remote working can be lonely. For those who are accustomed to working in an office setting, working apart from the rest of their team or from the support of management can feel isolating.

Unsurprisingly, these problems often come from those who work alone at home. In a 2019 US study, State of Remote Work, remote workers acknowledged the downsides — and it’s worth noting that 84% of those surveyed were working from a home office at the time:

  • 49% said their biggest struggle is wellness-related
  • 22% can’t unplug after work
  • 19% feel lonely
  • 8% can’t stay motivated

These concerns aren’t new.

A 2017 article by Steve King, published in HBR, notes that “isolation and loneliness are among the biggest complaints” raised by remote workers. “Working remotely means missing out on the human interaction and social aspects that being in an office provides.”

Positively, coworking and shared workspace communities are helping to fill those voids and stem the “loneliness epidemic”. Where workers once plugged in at home and worked long days alone, with little or no face-to-face social interaction, thanks to the growth and proliferation of coworking spaces, many now have the option to check into a local shared space and work alongside other people.

But there are other problems.

Our always-on culture is blurring the lines between work and home life. It’s too easy to glance at your smartphone, pick up a notification or check emails outside of core working hours.

Here are three challenges noted by Glide:

1. Blurred boundaries between your work and home life

Flexibility might prompt a better work/life balance, but it can be difficult to separate the two – particularly when working at home. Try and create a dedicated workspace with clear boundaries for when you’re working – and when you’re not. This should be communicated to colleagues, so no-one is receiving messages and feeling pressure to respond when they’re not working.

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2. Feelings of isolation

Remote workers can feel like they’re less a part of the business. It’s easy for this to be exemplified when their colleagues are busy and forget to reach out to their remote teams. Employers have to make it a priority to keep up communication. Regular meetings, calls (video or phone) and in-person events help to bring everyone together.

3. Lack of collaboration

Where do your best ideas materialise? Creativity is often inspired by collaboration – and it can be negatively impacted when staff aren’t regularly interacting with each other. Use collaboration tools to help keep remote teams in synch, and consider regular in-person team meetings – once a month or more frequently – to keep the creative juices flowing.

However, there is much more that employers can, and should, be doing.

The Mental Health at Work 2019 Report offers in-depth guidance to employers to help increase their awareness of mental health, and to help them offer better and more timely support for their teams.

In summary, the report outlines six key recommendations for workplaces. These are:

  1. Owning Responsible Leadership: Recognise employee mental health as a critical component to being a responsible business. Enable an inclusive culture by embedding wellbeing into management accountability and publicly report on your wellbeing performance in external communications such as annual reports.
  2. Understanding the Impact of Work: Position the enhancement of wellbeing through good work as a priority corporate objective. Audit both mental and physical health risks and develop a plan for minimising them. Increase management’s understanding of the positive and negative impact it can have on employees, and hold them accountable.
  3. Equipping Line Managers: Make employee mental health ‘business as usual’ for all managers. Embed the promotion of good mental health as a core competency for managers. Recognise and reward empathy and compassion.
  4. Providing Tailored Support: Take an inclusive and employee-led approach to providing support. Introduce training for workplace adjustments and modifications, so that support can be tailored. Build active listening and communication skills and make signposting easy.
  5. Respect and Inclusion: Promote and implement zero-tolerance policies and guidelines. Develop awareness of non-inclusive behaviours, define those that are unacceptable, and encourage staff to be responsible bystanders if they witness harassment or bullying.
  6. Financial Wellbeing: Embed financial wellbeing into your organisation’s wellbeing strategy. Review whether there are any work-related causes that could be impacting employees’ financial wellbeing, such as pay or shift patterns. Promote financial education to help employees get the right support at the right time.

Suggested Reading: Is it Possible to Achieve Financial Stability through Workplace Wellness Programs?

Work-related mental health problems aren’t just limited to remote work and loneliness. They happen at anytime, to anyone, anywhere — but they may be exacerbated by certain situations, such as working in isolation.

Regardless of your team’s work arrangements, wherever and however they carry out their responsibilities, it’s essential to work towards creating a positive, inclusive workplace culture that supports employees’ mental health, and encourages other people within the organisation to do the same.

Read more in the guidelines here:

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