The COVID-19 pandemic gave rise to a new working model in which homes became offices, and sometimes even one’s bedroom became a workstation. Now almost two and a half years into the pandemic, many companies have adopted a hybrid model of work or have even returned to full-time in-office work. The return to in-person work has raised questions about its impact on employees’ mental health. Yet now some are saying that it is actually working from home that has led to mental health problems. So, which is it: is in-office work better for your mental health or is working from home?
Remote Work Can Be Beneficial
The pandemic increased mental health challenges such as depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders. These issues seemed to increase for people who were told to return to in-person work after having worked from home for a time, especially earlier in the pandemic. There was anxiety about catching COVID and passing it on to loved ones, and stress surrounding the loss of the benefits of remote work and having to re-adapt to a new routine.
Workers who were able to continue working from home, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy a variety of benefits that positively impacted their mental health. For instance, remote workers benefited from cutting out the stress of a commute. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average daily commute time in the U.S. is about 54 minutes. In Chicago, that number can rise to almost 70 minutes. Past research has connected negative mental health possibilities with traffic jam commuting. And anyone who has ridden the L knows that catching a train and dealing with overcrowding can be stressful, especially when the fear of COVID is still present. Remote work allows employees to bypass the hassle and mental toll that can come with daily travel.
Besides reducing stress, removing a commute gives workers more time. We all experience the feeling of needing an extra hour in the day to accomplish non-work tasks. The hour or more gained from cutting out a commute means employees have the flexibility to schedule medical appointments after work, to hit the gym, or simply to unwind at home. And added time is just as important in the morning. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the best way to fuel your cognitive strength is to establish a morning routine that minimizes rushing out the door. Remote work eliminates the extra time needed to pack a lunch or pick out an outfit that is presentable for the office or suitable for unexpected weather (those in the Midwest can relate). Having an extra hour before and after work can create the space needed to start the day renewed and productive.
The time saved by working remotely means less fatigue for employees and more productivity. It also means less taxing workplace interactions. Introverts who often struggle to maintain energy during social interactions may be the most affected by the return to in-person work. This doesn’t mean, however, that they necessarily want to be fully remote. In a survey conducted by Myers-Briggs Co., a high percentage of individuals who self-classified as introverted preferred a hybrid schedule. Surprisingly, 82% of self-classified extroverts also preferred the hybrid model, as opposed to fully in-person. Businesses must keep in mind the different personalities they employ and offer some balance in the work environment.
But perhaps more than every other benefit, remote workers have enjoyed the increased time they have to spend with family. Without a commute, many parents found they had increased energy they could spend on their children. Caretakers were actually able to find balance, as they could work and tend to their loved ones more or less at the same time.
It is important to note that remote work does not only benefit employees—companies also win when their workers are healthier! Employees in unhealthy workplaces are likely to experience higher stress and a loss of interest in their work. Such negativity can spread throughout a workplace, negatively affecting its culture. In contrast, healthier employees are more likely to be increasingly productive and engaged.
Remote Work Can Be Problematic
On the other hand, remote work isn’t unconditionally positive. In a survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2021, the majority of employees working remotely reported a decline in their mental health. Respondents cited isolation, loneliness, and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day as drawbacks to working from home.
Although staying home might be beneficial for introverts, it can spell misery for different kinds of personalities, especially strong extraverts. Not seeing one’s co-workers on a regular basis can leave one feeling cut off from the workplace and out of sorts. Over time, this can lead to loneliness, as well as a breakdown in communication and trust.
Collectively, we have learned through the pandemic that, for many in the workforce, work and home life have crossed paths so much as to almost lose their distinction. Many remote workers who previously could turn work off at 5 o’clock found that it suddenly became a challenge to create personal boundaries. Without the need to leave the office and head home, they could easily stay in the flow of a work project even after business hours, or feel the expectation to continue working. In other instances, the pressure to respond to emails and calls on off-hours increased.
Workers who rent often had a particularly difficult time. One study revealed that many renters did not have a dedicated workspace in their apartment, completely blurring the physical distinction between work and home. Hearing the pings of their work email or team chat from across the room left many remote workers feeling constantly “on.” The inability to draw clear lines between work and home life can quickly lead to burnout.
But individual workers weren’t the only ones negatively affected by remote work. Full-time remote teams experienced challenges communicating and collaborating with one another. The decrease in communication among teams led to an influx of virtual meetings, which at times could sap their energy. This reality was so widespread that the term “Zoom fatigue” has become commonplace. The lack of communication can also pose a danger to the work culture and team bonding. Less face time and more online communication has at times led to misunderstandings and misinterpretations. It is also easy to forget about members on the team who remain unseen. This can be a cause of concern for introverted individuals, and at times minority employees.
What Employers Can Do
In a recent employee survey conducted by JobSage, one in five employees report resigning from a position for the benefit of their mental health. And a large portion of the workforce reported that mental health benefits can be a determining factor weather they stay or leave a company
54% of employees report that their employer has become more accommodating to their mental health needs since the start of the pandemic, while 15% said less and 31% were unsure. However, only one in five said their employer has offered additional mental health services, down from 35% last year. These results imply that things may not be getting better.
So, what can employers do? They must critically weigh the possibilities available to their business and act in such a way as to recruit and retain top talent. This means listening to their workers’ concerns and having a plan in place for addressing mental health. Below are a few suggestions for what you can do as a business owner:
- Promote work-life balance. For example, when faced with a project requiring significant time and energy, consider building time off into the project plan. Presenting a large project with time carved out for self-care can help ease the initial anxiety your team may feel. And leaders should also take time to manage stress themselves. Modeling a healthy work-life balance and encouraging workers to do the same is one of the most effective ways to avoid burnout as a team.
- Offer flexible/hybrid scheduling. Such a schedule includes a reasonable mixture of remote and on-site work. This will look different depending on the nature of each workplace, but establishing a consistent hybrid schedule to maintain a natural routine is key. In some instances, allow your employees to work non-traditional hours and instead focus on project deadlines as a measurable. This will allow employees the freedom to complete the project at their own reasonable pace. You can also consider offering “summer hours” or “winter hours” to full-time on-site workers. Typically, these are certain periods during the year when employees are allowed to leave early on Fridays.
- Communicate often and honestly. Meet with your employees regularly to check in not only on work, but on how they are doing in general. Simply asking an employee if there is anything they need can be extremely impactful in showing you care, especially for employees who are more hesitant to ask for help. Communicating that certain deadlines are flexible can be a huge relief for an employee who is experiencing external factors that are delaying their work.
- Ensure that mental health coverage is included in your health insurance. A simple change to show your team that mental health is a priority is by offering health insurance plans that cover mental health services such as counseling. Seek plans offering online mental health programs that provide educational information or counseling services. You can also establish an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). Consider introducing the program from a non-stigmatized perspective by participating and making your participation known. Doing so may require vulnerability, but it also displays strength and can provide long-term positive results for your business.
- Develop a wellness program. Creating a wellness budget that focuses on expenses geared to mental health relief such as meditation classes, breath workshops, or other self-care remedies. Encourage employees to anonymously suggest selfcare activities to ensure inclusivity. In high pressure industries who experience high burnout rates rendering an onsite mental health therapist may be beneficial to revert an in office crisis.
Whether work is conducted from a traditional workplace or remotely, the pandemic has shown us that addressing mental health should be considered an essential priority in the workplace. As long as employers have a clear plan in place to respond to mental health concerns, remote work can be a powerful tool, aiding both employees and their employers to maintain health and productivity.
Angelia has provided legal support and team management to personal injury and employment law practices. She holds a B.A. in Psychology and is currently pursuing her master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at Roosevelt University. Her professional interests focus on cultivating work/life balance and business counseling for creating healthy workplaces.