Remote working is not new, and there are many businesses that have implemented a successful remote working policy long before recent events made it the ubiquitous phenomena it is today.
However, the COVID pandemic has meant businesses that would have otherwise continued to work in an office environment have had to come to terms with and embrace an entirely new way of working and managing their teams, whether this is fully remote or through a hybrid system.
While there are undoubtedly numerous benefits of remote and hybrid working, with many office workers reluctant to return to the office full-time, growing numbers of employees have also experienced the challenges linked with working predominantly from home. For many, this style of working has had a direct impact on their wellbeing, and for many HR leaders, remote work has presented a unique set of challenges to overcome.
Effects on mental health
As the conversation around mental health at work continues to open up, the psychological effects of prolonged remote working on employees must also be considered.
A survey published by Nuffield Health reported that 80% of UK employees that worked from home felt that doing so negatively impacted their mental health. While remote working offers a greater degree of flexibility, as well as time and money saved on commuting, it also blurs the line between work and personal time, making it harder for many employees to set boundaries between where work ends, and relaxation begins.With more workers struggling to make a clear division between work and home life, and many working long hours as a result, stress and burnout are an ever-present risk.
The Nuffield survey also cited 36% of workers feeling increased pressure to respond quickly and be present at their computers all day, further contributing to feelings of stress and anxiety, and potentially exacerbating existing mental health issues.
One of the biggest problems facing remote workers, and one directly linked with mental health, is that of isolation and loneliness.
Work is where many people, especially those who live alone, have the bulk of their social interactions. While technologies such as Zoom and Teams offer communication platforms, they are poor substitutes for in-person interaction and the team dynamics often present in an office environment.
These vital “water-cooler” moments such as coffee breaks, or chatting with colleagues over lunch and socialising after work have all but been replaced with sitting alone in front of a screen for much of the day. This lack of office camaraderie further feeds into the problems of communication and collaboration remote workers face.
From an employer or HR perspective, these issues are particularly concerning, as the very nature of isolation means the symptoms can be difficult to detect if companies lack the ability to connect effectively with their employees beyond an occasional Zoom call.
The physical cost
Office workers have long faced the challenges of incorporating more movement and activity into their days, but the rise of remote working has undoubtedly compounded this issue.
A recent study on remote workers from the University of Plymouth found that 70% of respondents reported having a more sedentary lifestyle since they began working from home, with a third increasing their food and alcohol intake as a result. This is unsurprising when considering the opportunities for physical activity available to remote workers. The daily commute has been reduced to a short walk from the bedroom to the kitchen or home office, while going out for lunch with colleagues or walking over to a co-workers’ desk are no longer options.
The Royal Society for Public Health found that 46% of those working from home took less exercise, with 39% reporting the development of musculoskeletal problems as a result of working from home, or working in ill-suited conditions.
This lack of activity clearly poses health risks, but also negatively contributes to overall wellbeing. Exercise is a powerful way to reduce stress and boost mental health, requiring workers to step away from their computers even if it is for just a short while, and give themselves a breather from the stress and anxiety that can build up during the course of the workday.
As we enter a new era of remote and hybrid work, companies and HR leaders are looking for new ways they can support their disparate teams, and address some of these challenges.
Mental health and overall wellbeing of employees is starting to become a central and vital responsibility for businesses to address, and the impact of working remotely on staff’s mental and physical health must be properly considered.
Wellbeing managers must begin to foster a culture of social and professional interactions, and give their teams a sense of belonging to combat the problems of isolation, stress and loneliness, by providing staff with meaningful ways to connect and interact with each other.
Employee wellbeing, and in particular mental health, is a complex challenge. While there is certainly no “one size fits all” solution to individual staff working remotely, it is important that corporations begin to recognise the issues faced by their remote employees, and take steps to provide support and resources to combat these issues.
Paul Rhodes is the founder and creator of health, wellbeing and fundraising platform, WellGiving.