The modern workplace has undergone a massive shift since 2020. COVID-19 further boosted many of the trends that already existed, including remote work. The results of what many now refer to as the “Great Work from Home Experiment” surprised many organizations. Many workers became more productive from their home offices, signaling that remote work could be a positive change across various industries.
In 2022, data from Pew Research Center showed that 59% of workers still worked remotely. Research uncovered a positive effect on companies’ bottom lines, with a larger available talent pool and lower administrative costs driving remote work policies.
Despite the benefits, a potential disadvantage for many workers has emerged in the years since the pandemic — the effects of remote work on mental health. This has opened the door to important conversations about remote work and mental illness, and available coping strategies to help remote workers achieve a better balance have emerged.
Remote Work and Mental Health
The growing availability of remote work schedules is a bit of a double-edged sword. For some people, the ability to work from home or whatever location they choose can have a positive impact on mental health. After all, remote work offers job accessibility that can help employees with anxiety or social anxiety, for example, by allowing them to work in environments where they feel comfortable.
In 2022, Owl Labs and Global Workplace Analytics conducted a survey on the topic. The results revealed that 52% of respondents would accept a salary reduction for the opportunity to continue working remotely. Another 62% said they were more productive while working remotely. Combined, these results suggest that remote work could improve job satisfaction. Additionally, the flexibility and option for an improved work-life balance can have a positive effect on mental exhaustion and stress levels.
On the flip side, research also showed that remote work can increase depression and anxiety for many employees. A joint study conducted by the Integrated Benefits Institute and Elevance Health revealed the potential downside of remote work. Among respondents, 64% of executives said their employees’ mental health declined, with 73% saying their employees felt isolated. Challenges related to separating personal and professional lives, an inundation of virtual meetings, and inadequate home office space seemed to fuel the struggle.
The Positive Side of Remote Work
On the business side of things, remote work can increase agility and operational resilience. It allows companies to pivot faster, improving the response to disruptions like public health emergencies and adverse weather. It also opens the door to a broader talent pool and can increase inclusion and diversity.
For employees, the benefits are multifaceted, as well. For example, in the wake of the pandemic, many employees demanded flexibility related to when, where, and how they completed their work. Remote work schedules often allow for this flexibility, which is among the chief benefits.
Remote work has largely reshaped what employees are looking for in employees. One of the chief benefits remote work offers is its flexibility in allowing workers to choose where and how they complete their work. In some cases, it also allows them to choose when they work. In addition to providing a sense of control over their schedules, this increases their ability to better cope with caregiving responsibilities. The rise of asynchronous work encourages employees to achieve a positive work-life balance and can support increased productivity.
Remote work gives employees greater control over how they work and the processes they use to achieve the desired results. By eliminating their commutes, employees achieved lower stress levels, lighter financial burdens, and more control over their time. A study conducted by Gartner revealed that increased autonomy boosts retention and performance by 2.3 times. Additionally, it decreases employee fatigue by 1.9 times.
Remote work is sought by many prospective employees, which benefits organizations by helping them attract talent. For workers, it also opens the door to more professional opportunities by eliminating or reducing geographic constraints. In doing so, it expands the pool of potential employers, allowing those with the right skills to match with companies no matter where they are located. You no longer need to live in a metropolitan area, for example, to find a lucrative position in a city-centric field you love. Remote work levels the playing field and makes it easier to move closer to family and friends or live in your dream destination.
The Mental Health Challenges of Remote Work
Despite the advantages of remote work, it also has potential drawbacks. To avoid remote work problems and improve mental health strategies for remote workers, it’s essential to consider and address the downside.
Isolation and Loneliness
Working from home doesn’t allow the spontaneous interactions with colleagues and coworkers that in-office jobs provide. For many remote workers, feelings of isolation and a loss of social connection can lead to distress. Buffer, a company that has been remote since 2010, conducted its 2023 State of Remote Work Survey, and the data showed that 33% of respondents didn’t leave their homes as frequently as they should. A 2022 report from Microsoft revealed that some people who work remotely felt socially isolated.
After all, by working from home you could potentially spend entire days without interacting with others. As a result, loneliness and feelings of isolation could increase and lead to anxiety and depression.
Working from home (or the local coffee shop or any other chosen location) can make it more difficult to draw the line between your personal and professional life. Being able to work whenever you want helps with juggling personal responsibilities, but it has also led to many people working longer hours. Some employees feel compelled to respond to emails on vacation, while others use their work breaks to complete household chores. When the boundaries blur and employees adopt an “always on” mentality, it can quickly lead to exhaustion and burnout.
Lack of Structure
Remote work skills are learned over time, yet many employees struggle to establish set routines. Without the structure that a traditional office and workday provides, employees may have difficulty with procrastination, which impacts productivity. This can also increase stress and anxiety, make setting boundaries more challenging, and ultimately lead to burnout and employee fatigue.
Coping Strategies for Remote Work-Related Mental Health Challenges
Once you understand the connection between remote work and mental illness, it becomes easier to take a proactive approach. A few ways to mitigate the negative consequences of working remotely include establishing firm boundaries and engaging in self-care rituals like keeping an entrepreneur journal. By taking action on your own behalf, you can feel more empowered, enjoy more of the benefits, and improve your stress management.
Establish a Routine
By replacing the structure of a traditional in-office workday with scheduled work hours and regular breaks, you can reduce stress and feeling overwhelmed while strengthening your boundaries. You might also consider creating a new routine to help signal the beginning and end of your day. For example, you could start your day with a steaming cup of coffee and reading a chapter of a good book, and you could end the day by shutting down your computer and going for a 10-minute walk. Creating your own routines and rituals can help your brain prepare for getting in and out of work mode.
Create a Dedicated Workspace
Another way to create the mental separation between work and home life is to have a designated area in which you work. Even if you don’t have space to dedicate solely to a home office, create a physical space you use exclusively for work. Doing this will make it easier to maintain your work-life balance and boundaries. It can also eliminate distractions and interruptions, making it convenient to take calls and join video meetings.
Creating a routine and designated workspace is a good start. Making self-care a part of your daily routine can also help reduce fatigue and burnout while supporting positive mental health. Ultimately, the best form of self-care depends on your own needs and lifestyle. For some people, that may mean engaging with a virtual community or taking specific steps to include social interactions as part of their routines. For others, taking time to journal and recharge may offer much needed rejuvenation. Try to get in tune with your body’s rhythm, working at the times you feel most productive.
Make sure you include ample break times in your schedule, which means allowing yourself to walk away from your desk or workspace for short periods. Don’t forget to prioritize some form of physical activity and nourishing meals to keep your energy up and stress levels in check.
Limit Screen Time
Research conducted by All About Vision revealed that remote workers spend an average of 13 hours per day looking at screens. Between working and time spent on smartphones or scrolling through social media, extended screen time can lead to headaches and eye strain. In addition to potentially damaging eyesight and impacting productivity, exposure to screens can also impact sleep cycles.
Take routine breaks during the day, using the 20-20-20 principle. For every 20 minutes of screen time, look away and focus on something 20 feet away or farther for a minimum of 20 seconds. Using blue light filters and making the conscious decision to turn your computer and other devices off at a certain point can also be helpful.
Get the Support You Need with Executive Coaching
Working remotely can be challenging without structure and support, but you never have to go it alone. With Your Next Act’s one-to-one executive coaching, you can transform your stress into greater motivation and enjoyment for the journey ahead. Call us at 518.583.7410 to learn more about the brighter future ahead.