Remote Work Mental Health: The Pros and Cons of WFH on Our Brains
Work and mental health go hand in hand: full-time employees spend 40+ hours a week working, so their happiness as a person depends on their happiness as an employee.
The lockdown from coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shift to remote work stirred the pot regarding workplace mental health. Most employees gained new flexibility, weighed down by loneliness. And as companies choose between staying remote, going back to the office, or something in between, employee mental health should be a key factor.
In this post, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of remote and in-office work on employee mental health. We’ll also share some principles and tactics employers can use to improve job satisfaction, employee happiness, and workplace mental health.
Mental health and the work environment
Remote work might be growing rapidly, but it is far from a silver bullet for the workplace woes employees have been lamenting for decades.
Any job, whatever its format, will affect employee mental health for better or for worse. While the shift to remote work might help address some issues traditionally in offices around the world, remote-first employers face new challenges in supporting home workers.
The mental health benefits of in-office work
On-site work has many issues and drawbacks. But many advocates swear by the positive impact of socialization and in-person collaboration.
Some of the most commonly accepted pros of traditional work are:
Opportunities for socialization
Generally speaking, we humans are social beings who benefit from interaction with others. And given the amount of time we spend working each work, the office becomes a natural hub for socialization and friendship.
However, an office is not a catch-all solution. The delicate balance between office productivity and socialization is far from a new problem, as you can see by the perpetual cycling between cubicles and collaborative open-floor plans.
A place dedicated to work
Another advantage of on-site work is that it can offer a place for focusing on work. Getting things done can be easier than at home, especially in shared households with small children.
While some may prefer to spend time at home and with loved ones, others may appreciate spending their working hours in a peaceful, well-lit environment.
A clear break between work and private time
Connected to the previous point, having a place dedicated to work can also help workers establish boundaries and keep work from creeping into personal time. The office offers a strong and clear boundary to help separate work and private life.
Drawbacks of on-site work for workplace mental health
On the other hand, there are also some commonly recognized drawbacks to on-site work, which can include:
Rigid work hours
Not everyone thrives in the traditional 9-5 environment. Up to 95% of respondents, according to the Future Forum Pulse survey by Slack, desire flexibility in their work life.
People desire flexibility for many reasons, including managing their health, well-being, and medications. Forcing people to fit their work-day into an uncomfortable timeframe requires unreasonable effort. It can quickly spiral into tiredness, burnout, low motivation, and decreased productivity.
Some might enjoy a short commute as an extra buffer between work and private life. But as the time spent commuting increases, so does the dissatisfaction of commuters. The negative effects this has on mental health increase when long commutes are coupled with low job control.
And while long commutes are generally considered a direct stressor, which can seriously affect mental and physical health, there’s a whole slew of other variables that can compound these negative effects.
From the extra concentration needed to drive to external factors such as a flat tire, accident along the road, missed train connection, the time spent in gridlock, or standing in a crowded metro. These are all elements of a greater toll on mental health.
For many, the office is unlikely to be a truly satisfying place to be in. Noise-canceling headphones and free coffee are not nearly enough to make up for long commutes and rigid work schedules.
For every person that enjoys chatting with colleagues at their desk, there will be another that needs absolute silence to focus. For every person who enjoys their cubicle's privacy, someone wishes they could work near their pets or family.
Common stressors include:
- Time away from pets and family members
- Judgment and pressure from your boss staring over your shoulder
- Poor interpersonal relationships
- The feeling of wasting time
Pros of remote work for mental health
Equally, remote work has some generally recognized effects on work and remote workers.
Some positive effects are:
Better work-life balance
It’s possible to have a good work-life balance in any environment, and remote work does not guarantee it. But remote work does usually offer more control over one’s time. This is an important factor in arranging a balance that works for you. So no, remote work is not the cure to your work-life balance woes, but it’s a huge step in the right direction.
A similar consideration applies to flexibility. While flexibility is not exclusive to remote work, remote work usually comes with a certain amount of flexibility pre-installed. This is especially helpful for those who might find it difficult to assert their needs in a more traditional environment.
Better management of stress-inducing tasks at home
Even relatively small but necessary tasks such as doing the laundry, preparing dinner, or walking the dog can add up as stressors. This is especially when time to do them has to be carved out of an already hectic day, often at times that are not ideal.
Small tasks like laundry, dinner prep, and dog walking pile up and add to a person’s mental load, especially when they can’t check off these tasks because they’re at the office. A flexible and remote environment allows employees to blend these tasks into the day, at whatever moment works best. They can act as a handy break, too.
Breaks and microbreaks
Adding to what we just mentioned, remote work can also make taking breaks and microbreaks easier. We mentioned how daily household tasks can become a break from work. But a break could also mean a walk at the local park, a quick workout, or relaxing on the balcony in the sun.
Microbreaks make more sense at home, where it’s easier to pet the dog, than at work, where we might end up just sitting at our desk without anything to distract or entertain us.
Drawbacks of remote work for mental health
Potential negative effects, on the other hand, can include:
Mental health and ergonomics are more interwoven than you might think. High levels of stress and poor physical habits can manifest as pains, bad posture, and other embodied issues. These issues can then have an effect on the mental well-being of the individual. While this issue is always true, offices usually offer an environment in which ergonomic chairs, standing desks, and computer setups favor good posture and ergonomics.
This might not be true in a WFH environment, where people might lack that equipment or simply choose to work from the bed, or slouched on a couch.
Feelings of isolation
It can be easy to feel increasingly disconnected from the organization or other team members ,especially when the workforce is distributed over different time-zones or never have the opportunity to socialize outside of work-related topics. And social isolation, of course, can strongly influence mental well-being.
Remote work burnout
Remote workers are not immune from burnout. With fewer connections and a higher potential for isolation, it can be easier to slip into unhealthy behavior patterns while remote.
This becomes especially true when employees do not have clear boundaries between work and private life. Work can take up longer hours and become one neverending shift, only interrupted by occasional breaks. Without a social soundboard or clear guidance from the organization, the burden of recognizing and assessing burnout can be all on the shoulders of the remote worker.
Considerations to improve mental well-being
Interestingly, many of the issues listed when discussing remote work have to do with the disconnect between expectations and reality. The contrast between the desired expectations and unpleasant experiences of remote work often stems from an organizational level. For example, the expected benefits of flexible work on the employment and career opportunities of pregnant women, or new mothers, might be countered by pre-existing barriers relating to gender norms or traditional ideals of work organization.
This means that many of the obstacles remote workers face might not be inherently related to remote work but to the inability or unwillingness of organizations to change their approach to work and productivity to match the remote processes they have adopted.
So, building processes, and fostering habits that aim at reducing feelings of isolation and disconnection while also focusing on individual empowerment and well-being, is extremely important.
However, the most important step is to understand that adopting a remote or hybrid way of working is not just a matter of giving remote employees laptops with access to Slack. The culture must truly invest in employee well-being, happiness, and health for the transition to be successful.
So here are a few tips we have for you, should you be looking to make the switch.
- Determine remote work’s place within your culture and organization, and share it in a company handbook or culture manifesto
- Encourage and facilitate discussions and initiatives around mental well-being within the company while providing support and resources
- Encourage and promote self-care and healthy habits, such as taking regular breaks and meals
- Make sure your processes are as adaptable as possible so that each employee can work in the way that fits them best
- Set a well-being budget and encourage employees to make use of it
- Make sure the organization provides support in setting up a home office
- Monitor for new and existing stressors, such as unproductive virtual meetings, and take action promptly
- Give your teams the chance to talk about their home life, passions, and hobbies if they want to—virtual water coolers are perfect for this
- Empower employees to set boundaries for their work and take time off
Make your shift to remote work a breeze with Roots
At Roots, we strongly believe remote work will make the world a better place for workers. And we work hard to offer tools that can help you make the transition to remote work successful—all within the comfort of your Slack workspace.
The Roots Connections plugin, for example, will help you address feelings of isolation among your employees in an automated and customizable way. It gives your HR team more bandwidth to set up your company culture, priorities, and employee well-being milestones.
PTO is another plugin that will be extremely useful in your HR toolbox. It will enable your employees to request their well-deserved holidays and time-off directly in Slack, giving everyone full visibility of who is away and when and coverage options.
We know how important it is to monitor your employee’s well-being with regular check-ins and catch-ups, and we created the 1-on-1 plugin to make the process straightforward. This tool will help you schedule and structure your 1-on-1 meetings, give feedback, and always be there to support your team when needed.
Check out the full offer of tools at Roots, and start making your workplace healthier, safer, and more efficient.
With all this said, mental illness and mental healthcare are grave topics that affect many people and can heavily influence their lives. If you struggle or feel the need to talk, don’t rely solely on online blog posts for treatment. Contact your healthcare provider right away.