While there are lots of benefits from working remotely, as explained in a previous Review article, it has its pitfalls, too. These include feelings of isolation, anxiety, and burnout.
“Many employees in the coming weeks may experience unanticipated mental health consequences from mandated remote work, and it is important to be cognisant of this reality,” writes Garen Staglin, co-founder and chair of mental health non-profit programme One Mind at Work, in a Forbes article. “Remote work is a common trend … many are already familiar with how the solitude of working remotely can impact mental health. For those who are accustomed to and appreciative of conventional ‘office life’ and a steady rate of social interactions at the office, the shift to remote work as a result of social distancing procedures during the Covid-19 pandemic might cause a surprising, even if relatively mild, deterioration of mental health.”
One of the main causes for concern, says Staglin, is the isolation. The State of remote work 2019 report, produced by social network software company Buffer, asked nearly 2,500 remote workers about the benefits and struggles that come with this arrangement. It finds that 19% of respondents report loneliness as the biggest struggle. Staglin writes, “Loneliness is most risky when it is chronic, which, for many who live alone, could become a temporary reality as more and more people are encouraged to stay home during the coronavirus pandemic.”
Staglin writes that maintaining relationships with co-workers and managers “is critical not only to work performance, but to emotional and mental wellness”.
Rosie Weatherley, a spokesperson for mental health charity Mind, is quoted in a BBC article by Kirstie Brewer. “Agree regular check-in times and feel connected to the people around you,” Weatherley suggests. Brewer adds that it is a good time to make sure you have the right phone numbers and email addresses for the people you care about, so you can stay connected.
Be aware of burnout
Staglin refers to a 2019 survey by cloud infrastructure company DigitalOcean that finds 82% of remote tech sector workers in the US feel burnt out, “with 52% reporting that they work longer hours than those in the office". He says that employees who are new to remote working should consider this “as they may feel compelled to work longer hours and prove that they can be productive from home”. This is echoed in a related statistic from the Buffer survey referred to previously, in which 22% of respondents say their biggest struggle with remote working is ‘unplugging after work’.
Workers could look at techniques to help deal with anxiety and worries. Brewer suggests using AnxietyUK’s ‘Apple’ technique:
- Acknowledge: notice and acknowledge the uncertainty as it comes to mind.
- Pause: don’t react as you normally do. Don’t react at all. Pause and breathe.
- Pull back: tell yourself this is just the worry talking, and this apparent need for certainty is not helpful and not necessary. It is only a thought or feeling. Don’t believe everything you think. Thoughts are not statements or facts.
- Let go: let go of the thought or feeling. It will pass. You don’t have to respond to them. You might imagine them floating away in a bubble or cloud.
- Explore: explore the present moment, because right now, in this moment, all is well. Notice your breathing and the sensations of your breathing. Notice the ground beneath you. Look around and notice what you see, what you hear, what you can touch, what you can smell. Right now. Then shift your focus of attention to something else – on what you need to do, on what you were doing before you noticed the worry, or do something else – mindfully with your full attention.
Make your home office a nice one
In an article for Ottawa Business Journal, Erin Blaskie, director of marketing for management tools app Fellow, shares how she has set up her working space to be one she loves working from.
“In normal times, I have a computer set up in our home office in the basement, but I don’t enjoy spending my working hours down there where the natural light is scarce. So, when I’m working from home for long periods of time, I set up shop on the dining room table … This may be difficult for phone calls though so it’s worth having a backup space to move to for calls – even if that means having them in your bathroom,” she writes.
Having natural light in your workspace can impact your mental health positively, too. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine on the ‘Impact of windows and daylight exposure on overall health and sleep quality of office workers’, “workplaces without windows have [a] significantly negative impact on workers … due to physical problems and vitality, as well as a marginal negative impact on workers' mental health compared to workplaces with windows”. The research acknowledges “several studies” that suggest that “both natural and artificial bright light, particularly in the morning, can improve significantly health outcomes such as depression, agitation, [and] sleep”.
If you’re struggling to access natural light in your workspace, taking a walk outside on your lunch break can also help.
Take a break from social media
Not only can social media be distracting to your working schedule, it could also be damaging to your mental health.
If you find the posts you are looking at distressing, try having breaks from social media and muting things that might damage your mental health. In Brewer’s BBC article she quotes Alison, a 24-year-old who has “health anxiety and feels compelled to stay informed” and research the current Covid-19 situation.
Alison says: “A month ago I was clicking on hashtags and seeing all this unverified conspiracy rubbish and it would make me really anxious and I would feel really hopeless and cry.” Brewer writes that now Alison is more careful about which social media profiles she visits and is avoiding exploring the hashtags on the topic. Brewer also recommends muting keywords that could be ‘triggering’ on Twitter and unfollow/mute accounts, and also mute WhatsApp groups if you find them too overwhelming.
What do you find helps ease your mind while working from home? Leave your comments below.