Mental health challenges of working remotely


With all big transition periods, there are some people that can get left behind and need extra support to deal with the culture shifts. Understandably with office culture remaining largely unchanged since the mid-to-late 20th century after the second world war where developed nations settled down and began outsourcing factory work and shifting to the more ‘glamorous’ office workplace environment.

Now with the 2020 pandemic acting as a catalyst, a new culture shift has begun in our workplaces; the movement away from traditional in-person offices to hybrid and remote working. Hardware technology has been rapidly advancing year on year, and by 2020 technology was more powerful than ever, cheap enough to remain available to the everyman and portable. Software technology and fast broadband speeds have also started reaching every corner of the globe.

This allows for virtual collaboration tools to be usable across countries with little latency - opening up hiring possibilities that would have been impossible 20 years ago.  Such transition into remote working has become an inevitable part of our future. There are some challenges that we need to overcome in order for it to be a step forward instead of a step back.

With us currently being in a health crisis in the physical sense, it is easy to forget that there is also a mental health crisis gripping our country as well, exacerbated by the anxiety that COVID-19 has brought - the NHS’ mental health crisis line has received over 3 million calls during the pandemic.

So with people more vulnerable than ever, we need to ensure that employers and employees are aware of the mental health hurdles that can come along with working remotely. 

Feelings of Isolation

This is the most obvious concern that remote workers face. With the possibility of more time spent sitting at their home office alone, calling into work via a cheap virtual office that the employer rushed to set up, the employee may not be able to properly engage with their coworkers and struggle to get the basic levels of human interaction that they need. Feelings of isolation may not sprout up immediately but can increase over time.

This may happen as the person "gets used to" their situation and becomes more reclusive and less likely to reach out for help. The ongoing pandemic has amplified these feelings of isolation with periods of full lockdowns preventing the normal social interaction people have outside of work. Even outside of lockdowns general anxiety and pressure to reduce social contact to lower the virus transmission rate has had an impact on people. 

Therefore, it is important as an employer to put together a hybrid working plan that focuses on reducing the possible feelings of isolation and brings your remote workers into the workplace. Using a virtual workplace instead of a meeting software like Zoom might help your workers feel included. Here, they can then visibly see the people they are working alongside - whereas normally they’d be completely alone unless they've scheduled a meeting. 

Organizing pro-mental health events that your remote workers can join in like team bonding exercises can be another great way to remind these employees that they are an integral valued part of the team. Treating your employees equally is the key to ensuring that the remote workers don’t feel threatened about their place in the company. Regular quiz nights and surprise gifts (tasty chocolates) can let your employees know that they are being thought about. 

Also, it is important to remember that whilst remote employees choose to work at home that does not mean they won’t be up for meeting up in person every now and then for fun company events. 

Establishing Boundaries

Research published by InstantOffices establishes that the largest mental health concern of remote work employees is actually the inability to ‘unplug’. Whilst there are many benefits ranging from the increased comfort and productivity that homeworking gives some employees, it is still the idea of ‘bringing that work home’ that is a problem.

When working in person at an office or a retail store, there is a clear endpoint to when their job is finished and they can begin to turn off - clocking out and walking out of the doors, and driving home. Even in these workplaces ‘turning off’ can be a problem with work-related stresses rising steadily over the last 20 years according to a Labour Force Survey by the UK government.

Switching to work from home can make your job start feel more like ‘homework’, where the hours that you work and your free time begin to blur, as employees feel the need to get the work done no matter what. There are subconscious pressures in the office that encourage workers to stop working when they are supposed to.

The simple act of seeing their colleagues pack up and start to head out naturally inclines them to do the same, or maybe they have a train to catch and so they physically can’t stay any longer to get that little bit of work done. These processes are absent when you are at home alone.

When the time hits 5 pm at home there are no alarm bells no one else patting you on the back saying “see ya tomorrow”, and so it’s incredibly easy to stay seated and continue working, especially if you feel guilty about not being able to finish a piece of work as required. 

As employers, the way to tackle these issues is to foster a culture of respect between your employees and make sure they know that you would rather them finish on time and look after their mental health than have them work into the night to get the work done.

Do not encourage this behaviour either by emailing or calling them on their time off or near the end of the day, keep everything strictly within work hours so that your employees can better maintain a work-life balance. Break the stigma in your company by allowing them to speak to you candidly about these issues they are having, if the workload is too great grant them extra support rather than letting them struggle alone. 

The time boundary is not the only one to be wary of. In a physical sense, it can be difficult to detach yourself from work when your work environment is the same as the one you normally relax with. More often than not introverts are those that are attracted to the possibility of virtual coworking, and that also makes them more vulnerable to this issue.

As an introvert myself, I enjoy my downtime on my computer to relax and keep up with the world (as well as watching/bingeing Netflix), and this opens up an issue where I finish work and find myself wanting to go back to exactly where I was just sitting - however, I know that this is unhealthy.

To combat this issue I recommend, getting into the habit of having something that you look forward to that you can immediately start doing when you have finished work - taking myself for a walk to get some fresh air is something that I can do every day and look forward to. 

This allows you to set a boundary between finishing work and starting the rest of your day, helping you to switch off, so no more tossing and turning trying to sleep thinking about your workday. 

Being Considerate of Disabilities

Just as in person, it is important to make consideration for employees who have disabilities and may need extra support in certain aspects of the work environment. 

There are 700,000 people in the UK with autism (in 2018) making up around 1% of the population, and as revealed in an ONS publication only 22% of autistic adults are in “any kind of employment”. The transition to hybrid and remote working is a fantastic opportunity to properly include these valuable individuals into the workforce where they previously felt excluded whether directly or indirectly.

Audio and light sensory disorders can make the office environments with harsh lights and constant background noise immensely difficult to deal with and too hostile to realistically work in. Remote working lets people, who do suffer from these issues, work in their own optimal environment where they can control their personal space, bringing them to a level playing field where they aren't unfairly disadvantaged. 

A lot of people with invisible disabilities have been asking for accommodations that allow them to work from home for years even though people like Angela Lashbrook, a journalist with face-blindness find that once she was granted the appropriate accommodations they made

a positive difference in my ability to be a successful, confident journalist, and a happier person overall. 

Focusing on disabilities is not even needed to make the case that many people will naturally prefer a quieter home-based environment to high-stress office life. Introverted people and those who struggle with general social anxiety may not work as efficiently in an in-person environment. There is general agreement that ‘introverted’ people perform best when they can take occasional breaks away from people to recharge and have some downtime.

This becomes difficult in an office where introverts are under threat from micromanagement and co-workers trying to have small talk. New employees are especially vulnerable to these situations as the change in an environment already adds extra stressors and the pressure of meeting new people might stop the new person from using communal resources like the break room, leading them to overwork and burnout quickly.

However, as noted before remote work environment can also lead these people to become too reclusive and self-reliant if not enough effort is made by the employer.

Positives of Remote Work - Accessibility and Diversity

Remote work should not be represented as gloomy, there are many mental health benefits that it brings as stress is lifted off workers' shoulders and more agency is given to the employee. Online working increases flexibility in the workplace, as employees unlock more time in the day without the need to commute to a city.

Giving employees the choice to not have to come in cuts out commute times which average at nearly an hour a day, not including the increased preparation time that it brings. These extra hours let employees get on top of the personal things they have to deal with on a daily basis, reducing the stress that results from struggling to fit everything thing into the 7-day week.

Giving employees the liberty to control their own time also helps their mental well-being as they can easily work around certain things that a normal office job wouldn't allow - a remote working parent can pick their kids up from school easily without having to fret. Even if someone doesn’t have anything specific that will automatically fill their extra free time, it is more time that can be spent developing hobbies or getting exercise. It helps you to take care of your mental health work from home.

Being able to fit interesting activities into your day will make you more of a well-rounded person, improving areas of yourself that you don’t usually cover at work, an accountant learning how to paint and be more creative might just help them come up with new ideas in the future that can be used to improve the company. You don’t want to stifle your employees' personal growth, and their growth will directly benefit your company in the long run.

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