The effects of remote working on mental health
For many people before 2020, working from home would have been a dream job. However, now that just under half of the American workforce is still working remotely, some of those who once considered this opportunity a dream might be rethinking their opinions. While working from home often allows greater flexibility, less commute time and more freedom, it can also have some adverse effects too, including loneliness and burnout. Combine those two things with the stress of the pandemic, and the result is exactly what health institutions are reporting: an increase in mental health issues and challenges.
The real problem, though, is that while an end to the pandemic is in sight, remote working not so much. According to Upwork, 26.7% of Americans will still be working from home through the next year, and 22% will remain working remotely by 2025. If remote working, which is especially popular in the medical, customer service, sales and tech industries, is here to stay, those who will reap the benefits and face the challenges of it in the future, as well as their supervisors, need to understand how working remotely can affect mental health and what can be done to remedy it.
No matter how introverted you might think you are, daily interactions with other human beings affect our moods and how we feel about life. Studies have shown that relationships with others make us feel like a part of a community and give us a sense of belonging.
However, while our relationships (at least with the people with whom we have strong ties) don’t necessarily go away, our interactions with these people have been severely limited these past eight to ten months. Of course, some of that is not only due to remote working, but the fact that no one has really been able to go anywhere or do anything anyway.
Nevertheless, remote working does play a large role in that since for many people in the workforce, work takes up a lot of the day. When people work remotely, they have less human interaction throughout the day, which causes feelings of isolation and loneliness. When you work from home all day, sometimes you forget to even leave the house at all, which creates a vicious cycle of self-isolation.
And the thing is, loneliness is not just something that might be uncomfortable to deal with. It has long-lasting effects, and even increases mortality. One study found that social isolation, loneliness and living at home can increase one’s mortality rate by 29%, 26% and 32%, respectively.
Loneliness is a risky business and can be dangerous to one’s health in more ways than one. Supposedly, it can be “twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity,” a Forbes article quoted from research. It’s something that shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially as reports of loneliness only seem to increase as more and more people turn to remote working, whether to protect themselves against the coronavirus or because they are convinced that working from home has only benefits.
The other main concern with remote working is the increased likelihood of feeling burned out. A 2019 survey found that 82% of remote tech workers in the U.S. felt burnt out. What’s more, since COVID-19 began, those who are working from home are feeling more burned out than those who still work in the office.
One of the hard parts about working from home that no one tells people is that when you have your work in your place of residence, it’s hard to find an end to the day, because you can’t necessarily physically leave your work behind. Working from home makes it hard to draw a line between your personal life and your work life, and without the proper help or resources, it can be extremely difficult to find that balance.
Many remote workers have admitted that they are working longer hours than those who work in an office setting and they often feel like they are expected to contribute more. What’s worse, those employees who are experiencing burnout are taking off less time than usual and are not planning any time off for self-care, which leads to worse burnout.
The typical effects of burnout can go without saying—tiredness, feeling drained, lack of motivation—but there are some other symptoms of burnout and chronic stress that many might not know. These include conditions and illnesses like insomnia, heart disease, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.
These negative effects not only damage each individual’s mental and physical health, but they can also affect others. Increased sadness and irritability, another symptom of burnout, can negatively impact others who interact with someone who is burned out, and the emotional and intellectual exhaustion can affect the quality and quantity of work the employee puts out for the company.
While loneliness and burnout are two direct negative effects of working remotely, there are other conditions that are a result of either one or both of these consequences. One of them is depression.
According to a study published in September, the rate of depression in the United States has tripled since COVID-19 first took hold of the country. While this number takes into account all the different stressful aspects of COVID-19, one of the variables that demonstrated a higher risk for depression included exposure to other stressors including loneliness and lower social and economic resources. The study also showed that the rate of depression was particularly high for at-risk populations, including women and people with low incomes.
In other research, people who have been working remotely also reported higher levels of depression, often tied to isolation and mental exhaustion—both results of loneliness and burnout.
The consequences of depression have been explored often in recent years, and they are not uncommon from those mentioned in relation to loneliness and burnout. However, perhaps the worst effect of depression is the potential for suicide. A recent study found that suicide rates doubled among Black people during the pandemic, and according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, suicide is already the second-leading cause of death among people aged 10-34 and the tenth leading cause of death in the U.S. overall.
Another severe outcome caused by feelings of loneliness and burnout is substance abuse. In June, 40% of U.S. adults reported having trouble with mental health or substance use. Alcohol consumption increased significantly during the pandemic, and the use of drugs like cocaine, heroin, meth and non-prescribed fentanyl also showed steep increases. Other anecdotal reports suggest an increase in overdose deaths and drug-related emergency room visits.
Again, while much of this data does not specifically look at remote working’s influence on such conditions, it can be suggested because of the loneliness and burnout that working from home can cause. It is conditions like loneliness and burnout that can cause people to turn to unhealthy alternatives to cope.
Substance abuse often begins as a coping mechanism for stress, depression or other related conditions and gets exceedingly worse once addicted. It’s at this point that the use of alcohol or drugs turns from an unhealthy habit to legitimately debilitating one’s ability to work and complete tasks.
How to help
All these adverse effects of remote working can make working from home a risky decision. However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Especially if many companies are looking at continuing to offer remote working positions, it should be part of the employer’s job to consider the mental health risks of remote working and finding ways to support his or her employees in managing and maintaining their mental health. Not only does good mental health help people to lead a more fulfilling lives, but it also provides employers with more productive workers. In fact, depression alone costs the U.S. roughly $210.5 billion annually.
However, there is a way to lower that number. If employers are supportive and thoughtful toward their employees’ mental well-being, especially those who are working remotely, they’ll be able to have more content workers and thus, a better, more productive business.
Different things employers can consider to support their employees’ mental health include one-on-one check-ins with their employees, mental health time off and benefits and just being understanding when mental and/or emotional crises strike. Some companies have even created opportunities for virtual, non-work-related social interaction to provide their employees a break from those feelings of social isolation and loneliness.
There are many ways for businesses to get creative in how they address their employees’ mental well-being. The important thing is that they do indeed take more responsibility for it. With remote working on the rise, it is vital for businesses to take their employees’ mental health seriously and provide the necessary accommodations for their emotional wellness. While they might not be able to help in every aspect of their employees’ lives, finding ways to relieve at least some of the stress from work will make a huge impact on the status of mental health in the long run.