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How Working From Home Is Impacting Our Mental Health

Working from home has created new mental health challenges for employees, but with the right leadership they can be overcome

Thu May 16 2024

BusinessBecause
The covid pandemic had a profound impact on the way we work. 

The proliferation of remote and hybrid work compared to pre-pandemic rates has become a new normal for over half of US workers. The hybrid working model has seen a significant uptick since pandemic restrictions were lifted, whereby employees split their work week between home and the office. 

The shift to a hybrid model has come with mental health improvements for at least two-thirds of workers. Employees who have the freedom to choose when and where they work report feeling almost twice as likely to be motivated—according to new research by McKinsey.

However, this new mode of work brings with it unique challenges to employee wellbeing. With increased flexibility comes the potential for unhealthy hybrid habits, leading to a heightened sense of burnout for many working from home.

Since many employers have experienced a long-term shift to remote or hybrid working practices, tackling these mental health issues will be a key challenge for companies to overcome in the future.


How working from home affects mental health

The sudden shift to a remote work setup in 2020 was surprisingly stressful for many employees, explains Dr Dominique Steiler, senior 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.

With the rise of remote work since the pandemic, he observed an increase in workplace anxiety and depression.

While the hybrid model aims to bridge remote and in-person work, working from home can affect our mental health in three ways.

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First, people seem to feel more alone without the necessary support they need, according to Dominique. The reduced 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 sense of burnout. 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. In fact, almost a quarter of remote workers report struggling to unplug from work as their biggest challenge, with almost half claiming they work frequently outside of traditional work hours. Where do you draw the line between working from home and ‘homeing’ from work?

Thirdly, the trend of back to back virtual meetings causes heightened stress levels.

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 remote workplace. Introducing policies like requiring a ten-minute break between meetings, and scheduling meetings for in-office days where possible can help reduce the psychological pressure of being constantly online.

Scheduling smaller scale meetings where possible can give 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 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.


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 an example of this. In response to the 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 2024

Now that life has returned to pre-pandemic levels in the US and much of the world, some companies are revisiting hybrid 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, BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager, enforced a four-day mandatory office attendance policy since September 2023.

This move for more in-person working comes as some businesses question whether remote work is having an adverse effect on business success.

In a recent study by Nature, the scientific journal, teams proved to be more innovative when collaborating in-person.

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.


BB Insights draws on the expertise of world leading business school professors to cover the most important business topics of today.  


This article was updated in May 2024.

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