Remote Work and Mental Health: Discover the Pros and Cons of WFH
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The pandemic-related lockdowns and the 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 influencing strategies.
This post will discuss the pros and cons of remote and in-office work relating to 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. In most cases, employee mental well-being is influenced by many factors, from workload to social interactions, from the perceived value of what they do to salary and benefits.
While many variables are at play regarding employee mental health, it’s undeniable that the way work is organized is an important factor. The differences between on-site and remote work can be so radical and disruptive that they should be carefully considered when choosing how to structure work in any organization.
The mental health benefits of in-office work
On-site work has many issues and drawbacks. However, many advocates swear by the positive impact of socialization and in-person collaboration. Some of the most commonly accepted pros of traditional work include the following:
Opportunities for socialization
Generally speaking, we humans are social beings who benefit from interaction with others. And given the time we spend working, 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 demonstrated 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 young children.
While some may prefer working in the comfort of their home with loved ones nearby, others may appreciate spending their working hours in a purpose-made work environment.
A clear segregation between work and private time
A place dedicated to work can also help employees 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
While there are clear and recognized benefits to on-site work, there are also some commonly accepted drawbacks, which can include the following:
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 mental and physical health and general well-being. Forcing people to fit their workday into a rigid timeframe is outdated and can cause workers to 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 workers’ dissatisfaction—the negative effects this has on mental health increase when long commutes are coupled with low job control.
While long commutes are generally considered a direct stressor, which can seriously affect mental and physical health, a slew of other variables can compound these negative effects. The extra concentration needed to drive, the costs of fuel, and reduced sleep time to external factors such as a flat tire, an accident along the road, a missed train connection, time spent in gridlock, or standing in a crowded metro, are all likely to impact your mental and physical health to some degree.
For many, the office is unlikely to be a genuinely satisfying place. Noise-canceling headphones and free coffee are not nearly enough to make up for long commutes and rigid work schedules.
For everyone who enjoys chatting with colleagues at their desks, 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
Benefits of remote work on mental health
Equally, remote work has some generally recognized effects on the health and well-being of workers. These include the following:
Better work-life balance
While remote work does not guarantee a better work-life balance, it does provide workers with more control over their time than an office-based job.
With an in-office job, even relatively small but necessary tasks such as doing the laundry, preparing dinner, or walking the dog can add to a person’s mental load when you know they need to cram it all in after a busy workday.
A remote environment allows employees to blend these tasks into the day at whatever moment works best. They can even act as a handy break, too.
Remote work usually comes with a certain amount of flexibility pre-installed. This is especially helpful for those who find it difficult to assert their needs in a more traditional environment.
This flexibility makes taking breaks and microbreaks easier. Workers can take a walk in the local park, do a quick workout, pet their dog, or relax on the balcony or back garden.
Drawbacks of remote work on mental health
As we mentioned, remote work is not perfect. The potential negative effects include the following:
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 affecting your mental well-being.
While the same is true for in-office jobs, offices typically provide ergonomic chairs, standing desks, and computer set-ups that favor good posture and comfort.
Workers may lack the appropriate equipment in a home office set-up or choose to work from the bed or couch in a slouched position.
Feelings of isolation
Social isolation can strongly impact mental well-being. In a remote environment, it can be easy to feel disconnected from the organization or other team members, especially when the workforce is distributed over different time zones or doesn’t make the time to socialize outside of work-related meetings.
Check out our article, How to Avoid Feeling Lonely When Working from Home, for the best, tried-and-true tips.
Please note: Your mental health should always be your number one priority. If you’re struggling with your mental health and need support, reach out to someone you trust or contact your healthcare provider.
Remote work burnout
Remote workers are not immune from burnout. With fewer connections and a higher risk of isolation, it can be easier to slip into unhealthy behavior patterns.
Burnout can occur when workers do not set clear work and private life boundaries. They may work longer hours and take little breaks. Without a social soundboard or clear guidance from the organization, recognizing and assessing burnout can fall entirely on the shoulders of the remote worker.
Considerations to help improve mental well-being
Interestingly, many of the above issues are not a result of remote working alone. Often, these issues stem from a lack of support, education, and proactivity on an organizational level.
When a company goes remote, it must also change its approach to work and productivity to match the remote processes they have adopted. Building remote-friendly processes, nurturing culture, and fostering habits that help to reduce feelings of isolation and disconnection while also focusing on individual empowerment and well-being, is extremely important.
Here are a few tips for those implementing remote work:
- 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 a 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
Support the well-being of your workforce with Deel
With the Connections by Deel plugin, you can help prevent feelings of isolation among your workforce by launching virtual water cooler activities, interest groups, and meetup roulettes.
Our PTO plugin also allows teams to request well-deserved holidays and time off directly in Slack, giving everyone full visibility of who is away, when, and who's covering.
The 1-on-1 plugin is another helpful tool that ensures managers and their teams prioritize regular check-ins and 1-on-1 meetings.