A woman rubbing her eyes in exhaustion while sitting in front of a computer screen, representing burnout while remote working.
Image: © DimaBerlin/Stock.adobe.com

How can remote working affect employees’ mental health?

28 Jun 2023

Remote versus in-office working continues to be a battle among employers and employees. But Jenny Darmody questions whether or not the right problems are being addressed.

As we’re all acutely aware by now, the Covid-19 pandemic brought about a sudden and drastic shift in the way we work. Three years later, employees and companies alike are still trying to figure out how that change will progress.

While Big Tech was at the forefront of the remote working revolution, a strong U-turn appears to have since taken place, with many pointing to the value of office-based work.

Meanwhile, remote working advocates have continued to herald the importance of flexibility, decentralised workforces and hybrid working models.

But a lot of this centres around productivity, output and talent retention and other results-driven metrics – and this often comes into play when companies are trying to figure out how to do remote working the right way.

But an important element that needs to be included in the discussion is employees’ mental health and wellbeing when remote working.

Remote working challenges

There are a few issues that come with remote working that employers need to consider. The first is loneliness and isolation.

Loneliness at work had already been considered a problem. In 2017, former US surgeon general Dr Vivek Murthy wrote in the Harvard Business Review that up to 40pc of adults reported feeling lonely, which can cause a variety of problems such as depression and anxiety.

Now, remote working can mean being separated from daily social interactions that you might have had in the past. And with more people going back to the office, those still working from home in an empty house might not talk to someone else from one end of the day to the other.

There is also the danger of burnout. It’s important to remember that burnout can happen to both remote workers and in-office workers and it can happen for a number of reasons, not just by overworking.

But it is worth bearing in mind the unique challenges of remote working that can increase burnout such as difficulties disconnecting, digital presenteeism and isolation from colleagues.

Employers still have a duty of care to their employees and, for their remote workers, that might mean taking extra time to watch out for the signs of burnout or checking in more regularly on your team.

Mental health stigma

Unfortunately, another area of workplace wellbeing that still needs work is breaking down stigma around mental health.

Nicole Alvino, CEO and co-founder of Firstup, previously wrote about the need for managers to provide open lines of communication for employees to discuss their mental health and burnout concerns.

“Having candid conversations about mental health decreases the stigma and helps employees feel comfortable asking for help or time off.”

Echoing this, Roy Shelton, CEO of Connectus Group, said that mental health needs to be placed on an equal footing to physical health in the workplace.

“If you broke your arm or your leg, you’d go straight to A&E for treatment. Yet, too many people going through a mental health crisis at home or at work still feel afraid to tell their employer or their GP,” he said.

“It’s important companies take a lead in this area because often telling your boss can be the first step to making a change which helps set you on the path to recovery.”

Making remote working work

The problems that remote working can cause in terms of employee wellbeing are important to discuss, not to poke holes in remote working as a concept, but to highlight the areas that need fixing in order to do it right.

It’s important to remember that the solution to these problems is not to shut down remote working completely. That would be the equivalent of never exercising again because you had an injury.

But if employers truly want to make remote working work for the people who want and need it, they need to be aware of the challenges and address them within that setting, not simply shut the conversation down.

Furthermore, if employers do bring staff back to the office and find that certain issues have been solved by taking this action, it’s important not to ignore other issues that may subsequently arise, such as exhaustion from long commutes or disengagement because of a lack of flexibility.

Navigating the new world of work is no easy task for managers and company leaders, especially when different workers want different things and no one size will ever truly fit all. But at least by acknowledging and understanding the challenges, we can begin to try and fix them.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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