working from home

Working from Home and Mental Health

Working from Home and Mental Health

Remember back in March of 2020 when we all thought we’d be back in the office in a few weeks? Two years later, some companies have returned to the office, but working from home is becoming a normal part of how we do business as a society. In fact, here at PEG, about 40% of the positions that we fill are remote.

This shift to working from home has significantly affected the mental health of remote workers – some positive, some negative. Thankfully, our society is becoming more open about discussing mental health, and it is front and center for both employees and employers these days.

  • The American Psychological Association (APA), with the help of The Harris Poll, conducted an online Work and Well-being survey of more than 2,000 working adults between April 22 and May 2, 2022, and uncovered a few interesting stats about working from home and mental health:
    33% of workers surveyed said they want the ability to work remotely, and 41% want flexible work hours.
  • 71% of workers believe that their employer is more concerned about employees’ mental health now than in the past.
  • Eight out of 10 U.S. workers say the way employers support their employees’ mental health will be an important consideration when they seek future job opportunities.

The biggest takeaways? Many people want the option to work from home, and managers and leaders are realizing that they need to address the impact work from home can have on employees’ mental health.

EFFECTS OF REMOTE WORK ON MENTAL HEALTH

Mental health and work are intertwined. Depending on the person, a remote work environment can be a good thing or a bad thing. While one person may thrive with the flexibility and autonomy working from home provides, others may struggle with the lack of structure and increased alone time. Let’s take a look at some pros and cons of working from home.

PROS OF WORKING FROM HOME

  • Better work/life balance
  • More time for family and personal life
  • No stressful commute
  • Comfort, peace, and quiet
  • Fewer interruptions and distractions from colleagues
  • The ability to structure your day in the way that best suits your work style, energy levels, and family needs
  • Freedom to relocate and live in a place that offers the type of lifestyle you want

This flexibility isn’t just a positive for employees, though. Executive coach and consultant Rebeka Garcia Cook explains, “For a company or organization, remote work gives employers access to a greater level of talent because they are no longer limited to people who live within a reasonable commuting distance. Your talent possibilities are now literally worldwide.”

Offering employees the flexibility of working from home gives them the freedom to meet family needs, be near an aging parent, fulfill a dream of living overseas, or even just move to a different neighborhood without having to worry about how much extra time they’ll spend sitting in traffic every day.

“This flexibility,” Garcia Cook adds, “also means good employee retention for the company. They haven’t lost a trusted and valued worker that they’ve had for ten years.”

For people with mental health concerns, caregivers, and professionals everywhere, flexible work options can help support efforts to improve mental health.

CONS OF WORKING FROM HOME

  • Lack of support and connection
  • Feelings of loneliness and isolation
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Communication with the team is more difficult
  • Easy to become unmotivated
  • Blurred boundaries can lead to burnout because it’s not as easy to unplug
  • Zoom fatigue is real

INTENTIONAL SOCIAL CONNECTION AND CLEAR COMMUNICATION HAVE THE MOST IMPACT ON WORKING FROM HOME AND MENTAL HEALTH

Fred Hencke, CEO of Segal, a benefits and HR consulting firm, suggests that the people who are thriving from home most likely have a good social support system and clear communication with their team.

“Having friends in the organization,” Hencke explains, “makes you feel like you belong and like you’re making a difference. There’s a sense of camaraderie when people depend on you, and you can depend on others. Communication is very closely tied to that. You can’t really have a successful work-from-home relationship if you’re confused about how things work, if you don’t have a sense of what the expectations are, if you don’t know the due dates for a project, or if you’re just feeling like you’re alone and don’t have someone to talk to about it all.”

There’s a social connection that comes with work, and when it doesn’t happen, it can be confusing and emotionally draining. Garcia Cook elaborates on this with a great illustration. “Think about a road with two ditches,” she says. “On one side is too much stress and overwhelm. On the other side is boredom and monotony. If you go too far either way, it will cause problems. It seems to be more difficult to find balance and stay in the middle when you are by yourself at work. You lose that stabilization from being in contact with others.”

Unspoken expectations and poor communication can lead to an information void in an isolated setting. As humans, we fill that void by creating a narrative that can go unchecked. “Our brains are wired for story,” Garcia Cook explains. “So, if you have an event which is simply data – this thing happened – and you have no additional outside information, the brain interprets it based solely on our life experiences. We create a story, and our story creates action. And oftentimes those stories are going to come with high emotions.”

When workers have solid social connections, they can avoid the worst-case scenario of that narrative by communicating and doing a quick check-in with a colleague or manager. With remote work, employers are finding that they need to make more of an effort to build social connections and establish clear communication.

Sarah Gunderson, Clinical Consultant at Segal, works closely with large organizations that are facing these issues. “One of the biggest struggles that I see with corporations,” she says, “is keeping a finger on the pulse of their employees. When you’re at the office, you can see who’s excited and enthusiastic for the day or who may be struggling. Working from home, organizations don’t have a direct view into their people, which makes it difficult to figure out what they can do to support their employees and foster the workplace culture.”

WHAT CAN REMOTE WORKERS DO TO TAKE CARE OF THEIR MENTAL HEALTH WHILE WORKING FROM HOME?

Address the Loneliness and Isolation
In the same way all humans need water, sleep, and oxygen, we also need social connections. Garcia Cook emphasizes how natural this is and that employees shouldn’t be embarrassed if they are struggling. “We have mirror neurons in our brain,” she explains, “and part of how people are created is to reflect those around us, mirroring one another’s body posture and facial expressions as a way of giving and receiving feedback and just being human. It’s how we’re made.”

Finding a connection at work is great, but finding it outside of work is equally important. It can be as simple as joining in on some neighborhood fun like a softball league, a pottery class, church, or a walking group. Getting social connections allows us to see the needs of others, but we get our needs recognized as well.

Create Structure
The flexibility and improved work/life balance that working from home provides is fantastic, but there’s also something to be said for structure and routine. If your company hasn’t designated any set working hours for you, you may benefit from creating your own schedule and – here’s the kicker – sticking to it.

Determine for yourself what is acceptable and then set clear boundaries. Maybe it’s no phone calls or texting after hours. Or letting people know you’ll only respond to emails at certain times of the day.

Organize your workspace in a quiet area and put things away when work is done. Turn off your computer, tuck paper and pens in a drawer, and clean off your desk. Simple things like this tell your brain that work is done, and it’s time to spend time with your family or binge-watch something on Netflix with your cat.

Ask for Help
Don’t be afraid or ashamed to reach out if you are struggling. Speak to a manager or an HR rep at your company. Meet with a therapist or tap into assistance offered by your organization. “Many companies have put behavioral health programs in place as part of their benefits,” Gunderson explains. “But sometimes employees don’t feel like they want to reach out, especially if they feel burnt out or they don’t have a great relationship with their manager. They may struggle to speak up when they’re overwhelmed or unhappy with their work. That’s a hard conversation to have, which is why I think a lot of that responsibility rests with the organization to make these programs widely available.”

Volunteer
Get involved with your community and meet like-minded people who are helping others. “Nothing lifts your spirits more than when you see a smile on the face of somebody you just helped,” says Hencke.

WHAT CAN EMPLOYERS DO TO SUPPORT EMPLOYEES WHO WORK REMOTELY?

In the end, it’s up to the organization to engage employees and try to prevent and alleviate burnout. Managers can help address these challenges by doing things like equipping workers with proper home office setups, helping employees maintain structure by setting aside times for meetings, and encouraging colleagues to engage with each other via frequent check-ins.

Meet Employees’ Needs for Social Connection
Companies have to be purposeful and intentional about recognizing and meeting employees’ need for human connection and interactions. Building and maintaining relationships is one of the most important things employers can do to help their people manage their mental health while working from home.

“I’ve seen some of the organizations we consult with bring people together in person every few months with the main goal being to build relationships and renew trust,” Gunderson says. “If you think about all the recruitment and retention issues that companies have been facing lately, it might be expensive to get people together all in one place, but you also might be saving money compared to the costs of recruiting new employees to replace the ones who don’t feel like they have relationships with their peers.”

Hencke points out, “I’ve noticed that the people who have the greatest success working from home had already developed in-person relationships with their peers and boss, like early in the pandemic.” But people who start their jobs remotely without the advantage of pre-existing relationships can still reach that same level of success. He adds, “It’s just a little bit more of a challenge because it’s hard to grow communication and relationships organically when you have fewer opportunities to walk by the water cooler and say hi to someone.”

Establish Clear Norms
Leadership can help people navigate working from home and prioritizing their mental health by creating workplace norms and communicating them clearly. Understand your employees’ preferred work styles and modes of communication, then set some standards around texts, emails, phone calls, meetings, etc.

Manage expectations around timeliness and response times. For example: “I only respond to emails in the afternoon, so don’t expect any response from me before 2:00.” Or “Please send a quick note to acknowledge that you received the spreadsheet I sent over.”

Since you can’t just pop your head over your cubicle wall with a quick question, communication in remote settings has to be so much clearer than if you were in the office. It is crucial that everyone understands the expectations from the beginning.

Provide Mental Health Benefits and Assistance Programs
Offer benefits and assistance programs to people who are struggling. This could be anything from business resource groups to professional counseling. It’s important to talk to your employees to help solve their problems and find a solution, bringing in HR when needed.

Take advantage of the benefits that are offered for managers and bosses as well. Having difficult conversations with employees can be tricky, and learning how to approach these situations is vital.

Gunderson suggests tapping into these programs to help figure out the best way to have those difficult conversations with your employee and get them the help they need. She says, “It may be as simple as off-loading some tasks because they’re overbooked, or it may be a little more complicated. But there are methods you can learn that will help you better lead them through whatever the situation is.”

Shift Your Mindset on Metrics
“Traditionally, organizations have measured input instead of output like days on the job, the number of hours worked, absences, etc.,” says Hencke. “But businesses whose employees work remotely would do well to shift to measuring output instead.”

He suggests looking at the quality of work versus quantity. For example, for a customer service rep, look at how many contacts they’ve made and how many satisfied customers they have. For an engineer, maybe it’s asking if the customer is happy with the design work and construction. Were there any issues along the way? How did they solve the problem?

Address Zoom Fatigue
Constant video conferencing isn’t helpful, and sometimes it isn’t even necessary. A recent survey found that 23% of employees rate their Zoom meeting exhaustion as “extremely fatigued.” According to Poly AI, 90% of the employees state they would benefit from having just one day of the week free of calls and meetings.

“Managers can create boundaries around Zoom meetings by limiting the number of meetings and designating certain days of the week as Zoom-free,” Hencke explains. “Unless it’s an emergency or absolutely required, just let your people get their work done.”

Prevention
The best thing an organization can do for the mental health of its employees working from home is prevention. Develop clear communication from the top down. Teach leaders and managers how to create a culture of well-being and support. Then continually refresh and reinforce those tactics. Have managers regularly check in with employees, ask how they’re doing, and how they’re managing their workload. Constant communication is essential to heading off misunderstandings and staying connected with remote workers.

FLEXIBILITY AND CREATIVITY ARE KEY TO SUPPORTING MENTAL HEALTH FOR REMOTE WORKERS

Companies are as diverse as the people who work for them. In this article, we’ve laid out some helpful guidelines, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution. What is successful for one organization could be a total flop for another one.

Gunderson points out, “You can’t look at a situation and say, ‘There are problems with working from home, and there are problems being in the office, so the solution is hybrid.’ That won’t work for everyone.”

Whatever solution you come up with has to be tailored to your specific workforce. “For example,” Gunderson explains, “if you have a mix of remote office workers, warehouse workers, and truck drivers, focusing only on remote workers means you’re only looking at a small slice of the organization.”

A company in that scenario might run into issues like the truck drivers or warehouse workers, who can’t work remotely, realize they aren’t getting the perks of the remote worker. They feel undervalued, becoming disgruntled and depressed. The company needs to take this into account and develop programs and benefits for the other two-thirds of their workforce and be transparent as they communicate the why and how of what they are doing.

We humans are full, multifaceted beings. So, taking a more holistic approach to well-being may be the way to go. “Companies can look at well-being more broadly than just mental health for remote workers,” Hencke explains. “They can also take into account physical fitness, physical health, emotional health, and financial health. Put those together to create a well-rounded program.”

The key is flexibility in meeting the needs of the remote worker, and when you’re able to do that, it allows for creativity. “Anytime you allow for creativity and flexibility in your business, you also allow for creativity and flexibility in your workers,” Garcia Cook emphasizes. “And when you do that, you make room for all sorts of possibilities that benefit both the employees and the business.”

For more insight into the ins and outs of employment, staffing, and recruiting, check out our articles and resources. Or if you have other questions, feel free to contact us.

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