According to a 2021 poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy research organization, 53% of American adults have had their mental health negatively impacted because of stress linked to the pandemic. In the UK, the Centre for Mental Health expects half a million more people to experience poor mental health compared to a normal year, due to covid.
During this period, on and off restrictions on travel and social life left individuals feeling isolated and despondent; those working from home had many new pressures to deal with; and for key workers, the fear of catching the virus exacerbated anxiety.
Since many employers have experienced a long-term shift to remote working practices, tackling these mental health issues will be a key challenge for companies to overcome in the next few years.
How working from home affects mental health
The sudden shift to a remote work setup was surprisingly stressful for many employees, explains Dr Dominique Steiler, professor of people, organizations, and society at Grenoble School of Business. Dominique is also chair of Mindfulness, Well-Being at Work, and Economic Peace. His work involves supporting business leaders as they bring mental health and mindfulness initiatives into the workplace.
When the pandemic began, he observed a proliferation in workplace anxiety and depression. There are three ways working from home is damaging our mental health.
First, people seem to feel more alone without the necessary support they need, according to Dominique. The sudden lack of physical connection can leave workers feeling they have nowhere to turn when they feel stressed or anxious. It becomes more challenging to form the strong support network which is crucial for good mental health, Dominique emphasizes.
Then there's adapting to working from home, which can also contribute to an increased workload. There's the temptation to work longer hours, and for those who don't have a home office setup there's no disconnect between home and office life. Where do you draw the line between working from home and homeing from work?
Thirdly, the trend of back to back virtual meetings would not be possible in a physical office.
With fewer opportunities for informal catch-ups, many workers are spending more time in these meetings. As well as being a time drain, these video meetings can trigger fatigue and leave participants feeling—ironically—disconnected.
This issue is particularly acute during larger meetings, where the speaker is unable to see individual faces.
“In a physical room, you can pick up on people’s reactions, and see whether they are engaged,” says Dominique. “But online, this isn’t possible, and it can be difficult to perform your role as leader.
“It causes a sudden increase in your psychological and emotional workload.”
This all amounts to heightening stress and anxiety levels, which is bad for both long term employee wellbeing and company productivity. So, how can companies overcome it?
Mental health tips for working from home
To overcome these issues companies can make a few practical changes to the hybrid workplace. Introducing policies like requiring a ten-minute break between meetings, and implementing meeting-free days each month can help reduce the psychological pressure of being constantly online.
Scheduling smaller scale meetings where possible can also improve mental health, by giving participants more space to engage with their team and have their contributions personally acknowledged.
Helping employees maintain boundaries between their personal and professional lives is equally important—particularly for workers without a separate home office. To maintain this balance, the American Psychiatric Association’s Center for Workplace Mental Health recommends keeping a regular schedule, with planned breaks from screens.
To avoid isolation, it is also important for leaders to schedule time for regular one on one catch-ups with team members. They should also organize social events—in-person where possible, or through virtually.
Working from home mental health: the future
These simple changes could quickly boost mental health in the workplace. But Dominique believes that, in the long term, wider systemic change is needed. This needs to come from senior leadership, and form the basis of the values and attitudes of business leaders.
“The main aim of a company should not be to win a competition, but to be part of the social fabric and improve people’s lives,” says Dominique.
French metal working company, ARC-Industries, is a recent example of this. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the company designed and manufactured a contact-free hand sanitizer dispenser. During the pandemic, French hospitals requested a lot of these devices, and ARC-Industries saw a surge in demand for its product.
When a journalist asked the CEO, Romain de Tellier, whether he would increase prices in response to the unexpected demand, he said no.
“In my experience, this is a dramatically different way of thinking for a CEO,” says Dominique. “When employees see their CEO behaving that way, it’s positive for mental health.”
Business schools like Grenoble have a role to play in training leaders who can facilitate this kind of environment, he stresses. “If we want to improve mental wellbeing in companies, we have to totally transform the way we are educating people to be leaders.”
A drive to end working from home in 2023
Now that life has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the US and much of the world, some companies are revisiting flexible working patterns that employees have become so accustomed to.
Big Tech giant Amazon has reportedly been tracking its US employees work from home patterns, with staff being requested to commit to the company’s three-day policy, which was set in May 2023.
Echoing this push for more in-office days, Zoom has asked employees living within a 50 miles radius to work in the office at least two days a week.
This move for more in-person working comes as some businesses question whether remote work is having an adverse effect on business success.
A study by Microsoft in 2021 found that working from home impacted collaboration among its US employees in 2020, which is a cause for concern since collaboration fuels innovation.
On the other hand, research by McKinsey found that virtual work is fueling innovation, which could be linked to the idea that working from home allows for a more productive workforce and improved mental health among employees.
As conflicting viewpoints wage a battle on either side of the debate, only time will tell which model is best for shaping the future workplace and minimizing the impact on employee mental health.
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This article was updated in August 2023.