Are Home Offices Fueling A Mental Health Crisis?
Since the inception of assembly lines, a single work model has not had as much impact on global socioeconomics as the rise of telecommuting. From workforce equality, to environmental sustainability, to economic development, remote work has unprecedented opportunities to solve global crises… but it is also fueling a new one.
In the 2019 State of Remote Work report produced by Buffer, the thousands of remote workers surveyed rave about the work-life balance, schedule flexibility, and work performance, that being able to work offsite lends in their lives. However, when asked about the downsides of location flexibility, 49% of remote workers note that their biggest struggle is wellness-related. More specifically, 22% can’t unplug after work, 19% feel lonely, and 8% can’t stay motivated.
These statistics could have a number of subjective influencers, such as the management style of their boss, their local connection speed, their personality or even which organization tools are used. However, there is one dominant common thread that can’t be ignored: 84% of all remote workers are working from a home office.
The ability to work from anywhere has recently sparked the digital nomad movement in which professionals are able to travel the world, packing nothing but a laptop to keep them active in a part-time or full-time job. As glamorous as this might look on social media, the reality is that most remote workers are anxious to leave the time and distance of traveling during their commuting days, and instead just clock in from where they are already at.
Any remote worker will tell you that replacing suits with slippers is a liberating transition. However, it seems as though the confining corporate cubicles that we are so anxious to escape may actually be boosting our behavioral health.
Dr. Amy Cirbus, PhD, LMHC, LPC, and Manager of Clinical Quality at Talkspace, reports:
“Remote workers often experience symptoms of anxiety and depression at a higher rate than people commuting into traditional office spaces. Specifically, they report feelings of isolation and loneliness and high rates of worry about job performance and stability. Insomnia and sleep disturbance are common, along with increased fatigue, irritation, sadness and feelings of disconnection. Remote workers report a lack of concentration and focus that can compound and exacerbate these mental health challenges. It can lead to a loss of self-worth and a questioning of one’s abilities. Combined together, these symptoms can have a significant impact on job performance, job satisfaction and the efficiency of productive work.”
But why? If virtual professionals are claiming that work-life balance and lower stress convinced them to go remote, then where are these negative effects coming from? Hidden among the dream of flexibility and independence are these subtle dangers:
- The freedom of higher autonomy also results in a heavier operational load of self-management responsibilities including IT troubleshooting, time management, and task prioritization.
- A lack of environmental markers in career development (such as moving from a small cubicle into a large corner office) can prevent workers from recognizing progress and achievements. Over time, this can lead to concerns like career stagnancy or imposter syndrome.
- Freelancers (over 36% of the U.S. workforce) have the unique pressure of both finding work and producing it. This constant state of being in “the hustle” can contribute to sustained stress.
- Because the success of distributed teams is often measured by results, workers can be tempted (or pressured) to overwork to inflate their output. This can result in unpaid hours, lack of sleep, poor engagement in personal relationships, or mental burnout.
- The idyllic serenity of an uninterrupted home office environment easily translates into deeply focused work sessions, which is great for productivity, but terrible for ergonomic health. The distractions of coworkers and bustling office activity subconsciously prompt us to take break from our sedentary work often enough to maintain visual, auditory, mental and chiropractic health.
- Speaking of chiropractic health, without significant intention and investment, most home offices are not equipped with ergonomic seating options. Over time, a worker’s chin, shoulders, and back being in a compromised position can contribute to feelings of stress and depression.
- When workers are geographically isolated, they can easily be informationally isolated as well, which prevents access to the resources they need to complete tasks. Compromised efficiency can cause increased worry about job performance, team trust, feelings of safety in job security and a lack of confidence.
- Poorly defined physical boundaries between a worker’s personal life and professional life (such as working from bed) can lead to poorly defined boundaries in time and mental thought processes, causing a difficulty in “unplugging.”
Does this mean that the Remote Work Revolution is doomed to fail? Should we all return to our offices for the sake of our mental wellness? Like the natural selection of all permanent species, the key to success isn’t to revert, it’s to adapt. Instead of racing back to headquarters to cure your office FOMO, try these strategies to keep your mind and emotions sharp:
1. Invest in a home office
If you are going to spend almost 24 hours a day in a single environment, it should certainly be a place that inspires and supports you. Mentally trigger schedule boundaries between your personal and professional time by defining a dedicated space to work. Then, deck it out with ergonomic features like supportive seating, lifted screens, and over-ear headphones.
2. Diversify your interests
To strengthen confidence that isn’t defined by your work output, develop a sense of fulfillment outside of work. Stick to strict working hours, then contrast it with some exclusively personal and/or social time, such as participating in a group hobby, exploring local attractions as a family, or volunteering at a local organization.
3. Communicate transparently
Anyone who maintains a long-distance relationship with a loved one can testify that a connection is only as strong as your communication. No matter how introverted you may or may not be, avoid feeling isolated by building a variety of channels of support to discuss your life (both personal and professional) with. Virtual coworker meetups, starting a video chat thread with a coworker, or chatting with a mental health professional for advice are great places to start.
4. Increase movement
It’s dangerously easy to fall into a sedentary lifestyle when you live and work in the same few hundred square feet. To improve your mental, cardiovascular, visual and emotional health take breaks often during your work day, but not just a quick rabbit hole watching YouTube videos. For maximum benefit, step away from the screen and really get the blood moving with a short walk or workout.
5. Build a support network
Let’s face it, life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows, so design some umbrellas to use on the chance that a rain cloud shows up. Whether it be friends or fencing, figure out strategies that engage your soul and stimulate your brain, then integrate them into your life so they are easily accessible in times of need.
The short version is this: the government enforces thousands of occupational policies to keep you happy and healthy at work. When you create your own office, the importance of these regulations is not voided. But they are now your responsibility to design and enforce.
Invest in your work by investing in your self-care, which can be as easy as plugging a few jumping jacks and personal phone calls into your daily routine. “Research indicates that both exercise and connecting with others, even in short bursts, produces endorphins that boost mood, increase creativity and esteem, and decrease anxiety,” Dr. Cirbus encourages. “The key is the consistency. One afternoon walk or one lunch break with a colleague or friend won’t eliminate these mental health challenges. Making a daily commitment to healthy injections of well being on a regular basis is where the positive, lasting change occurs.”
Do you have strategies that strengthen your behavioral health while working remotely? Is there something in your office that keeps you feeling sharp and engaged? Share your tips with other virtual professionals around the world using the hashtag #happyhomeoffice, because apparently 49% of us need some advice.
With a background in virtual Operations Management, Laurel Farrer is the CEO of Distribute Consulting and founder of the Remote Work Association. As a global thought leader on the topic of remote work, she collaborates with the world's top remote-friendly companies to strengthen virtual communication, streamline digital processes, and develop long-distance management strategies. Additionally, she writes about remote work for Forbes, is a subject matter expert for business education curriculum, and advises international governments, educational institutions, and industry associations on how to share remote work resources with their audiences to fuel socio-economic progress.View Laurel Farrer’s other articles