The Effects of Remote Working on Stress & Wellbeing
Remote working is becoming a very real way of life for more and more employees so we need to consider its impact. Within the last week alone, I’ve listened to a podcast with Louise Puddifoot, heard from my business coach about his company, Warpline, working-from-home between office moves, and have read a white paper by Nuffield Health on the topic. Here, I’ve summarised some of the key findings from the white paper, in addition to my own insights as a psychologist.
Remote working, where the home is the regular or main place of work, accounts for up to 20% of employees’ practice. This has increased by almost 28% over the ten years to 2018, due to the flexible nature of the labour market, developments in technology and government support such as the Right to Request Flexible Working. Yet remote working is not an easy option and it needs to be properly planned and managed. It requires considerable management, time and effort to make it work successfully.
Benefits to employees
Employees benefit in terms of
- being better able to manage their personal lives
- having greater autonomy in their work
- cutting their commuting costs and time.
[Home is where the work is: A new study of homeworking in ACAS – and beyond, 2013]
Benefits to employers
- reduced overheads
- being more attractive to new talented staff
- retaining staff loyalty so reducing employee turnover.
Besides the benefits, employers need to remember that they have a duty of care that includes mental health, and with work-related stress, depression and anxiety becoming an ‘epidemic’, according to The Health and Safety Executive, this is a key management role to get right.
Whether you’re in an office or home, people can experience challenges to their mental health, but working remotely adds different psychological factors. Nuffield Health has found that home working can negatively impact resilience, and the process of negotiating, managing and adapting to significant sources of stress. Remote workers can experience isolation, lack of personal contacts with colleagues and an inability to switch off in their personal time.
Avoiding ‘one size fits all’
Not all work is suitable for home-working. Where it does fit, clarity around the role, expectations and responsibility is essential.
Remote working also isn’t for everyone. ACAS has proposed that people are considered suitable when they are:
- are happy to spend long periods on their own. Previous experience of successfully working from home can be a helpful factor.
- are self-disciplined and self-motivated.
- have a resilient personality; they do not let setbacks get them down.
- confident in working without supervision.
- able to separate work from home life.
It is unsurprising then that the majority of remote workers are over the age of 40 as age and experience means they are more likely to fit into these ACAS standards.
Getting a balance
Studies have suggested that spending more than 2.5 days a week working away from the office has been associated with deterioration in the quality of co-worker relationships, with job satisfaction decreasing and plateauing after 15 hours. It is therefore worth exploring the balance of home-office working to support the development and maintenance of peer relationships.
Managers should agree working hours to limit stress and help the employee maintain a balance between their work and personal life. This should be in conjunction with a degree of autonomy for the employee to fit their home circumstances, which promotes wellbeing and investment in the company.
For remote working to be successful, the relationship between the employee and their manager has to be one of trust and confidence. When the home-worker is able to undertake family responsibilities or activities around their work, knowing that the work will get completed, it removes stress. Managers need to know that the employee will get the work done. Employees need to know that their manager keeps them in mind, provides them with equal opportunities, and shares their achievements.
When employees trust their manager, they are more engaged at work. This is particularly important for remote working. There needs to be space and honesty to discuss mistakes, challenges and support needed and this in creates positive attitudes and behaviour.
Many managers don’t have meaningful conversations with their team when sharing an office space so communication has to be high on the agenda for the managers of remote workers. How, when, and what does it look like? The simple guidelines I give managers is to check in regularly (weekly or fortnightly) for a quick chat to find out how the employee is, what’s going well, what’s challenging, and what support they’d like. When this discussion is authentic, genuine communication is opened up and potential issues can be dealt with before they become more significant.
Managers and employees should agree when and how they can contact each other, including in an emergency, and when face-to-face meetings are required. Video calls are more meaningful than voice-only calls as body language plays an important part in communication. When we can see each other, it helps us to connect. This is true, too, for team meetings. The more regularly a group of people communicates face-to-face, albeit using technology, the stronger their bond is likely to be.
The short, informal, chatty methods of communication, for example via apps and social media, between planned check-ins, helps to keep each other in mind. Think about interactions in the office – look to recreate some of this essential part of maintaining relationships with home-workers.
As for conversations about stress, wellbeing and mental health, managers and employees can find this difficult at the best of times, and this can be exasperated for remote workers who are susceptible to being ‘out of sight, out of mind’. Managers need training on how to best check in with their staff and how to identify and respond to mental health issues.
Over to you…
It can be difficult to assess and support employees’ health and wellbeing when staff work remotely but if you follow the advice provided here, you’ll be doing a great deal to invest in your team and in turn they will invest in you.
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Source: The effects of remote working on stress, wellbeing and productivity, Nuffield Health, 2019