Research studies about remote working and its effects on mental health have explored several avenues and scenarios: it is a complex subject of study where many variables can have either a positive or negative effect on a remote worker’s mental health. This topic cannot be put neatly into a box and there is no universal answer that applies to any remote working situation.
For example, a comparative study published in 2020 found that remote working or working from home could be perceived either as a positive or negative experience depending on any challenges presented from the home situation, the ability to obtain proper support both professionally and personally, as well as the ability to be connected with one’s social circle. This study looked at a number of elements affecting mental health, from being overworked to the lack of clear separation between work and personal life. Some findings from comparing different studies included that having enough autonomy was perceived as a contributing factor to experience less exhaustion. In other words, as long as people’s roles are well defined and workers are trusted to simply get on with their job, the levels of stress tend to be lower and so is the likelihood to experience exhaustion.
Levels of stress can vary according to different industry sectors, type of role, as well as to socio-economic factors ranging from gender to caring responsibilities. This makes it difficult to draw over-arching conclusions on whether remote working is better or worse for mental health comparing to working in the office. Personal preferences based on favouring working in teams on a face-to-face basis may not be included in studies, however some surveys have started to explore them.
Factors That Affect Mental Health Positively in Remote Workers
According to the 2020 comparative study mentioned earlier, remote workers tend to experience higher levels of job satisfaction and lower levels of stress and exhaustion if their circumstances include the following factors:
- support and communication from their employer
- support and communication from their colleagues
- clarity in the boundaries between work and home life
- strong company policies against inequality and discrimination.
This means that mental well-being goes beyond personal responsibility and it needs to be safeguarded through adequate policies.
An Ipsos MORI survey in 2021 found that young people (including Generation Z and Millennials) in the UK had a preference for face-to-face interaction (between 50% and 60% of respondents) to be able to work effectively. 54% of Millennials surveyed shared that they felt that working from home had put additional pressure on their mental well-being.
Young people’s living conditions may not be ideal or conducive to working efficiently: people in their 20s and 30s may live in shared rented accommodation with limited personal space to set up as a home office.
Looking After Your Mental Health When Working Remotely
The Center for Workplace Mental Health, part of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation, published a report on maintaining good mental health while working remotely. While this report was specifically targeted at workers experiencing telecommuting for the first time after being based in a traditional office as a result of the 2020 pandemic, it contains useful advice for anyone who works from home or is location-independent.
The advice includes points such as keeping a regular routine with clear start times and finish times of the workday, having regular breaks, particularly to stretch, including daily exercise, even in short bursts, avoiding constant scrolling of social media and news sites, staying connected with friends and family. It also includes making time to practise some form of relaxation or at least some deep breathing to help calm the mind, as well as making time for hobbies.
The Black Dog Institute in Australia also highlights the importance of getting natural sunlight and fresh air each day to help reset the body’s own circadian rhythm, which regulates sleep and wakefulness. This is particularly important as getting enough sleep is vital to have enough energy during the day to perform at work.
The Health Service Executive in Ireland recommends limiting smoking and drinking as much as possible, as well as trying to avoid over-reliance on food to ensure there is a clear separation between emotions and eating (i.e., not reaching for snacks when you are stressed or bored).
The key to look after one’s mental health is to ensure there are enough breaks in the working day and to ask for help when necessary.