Is remote work worse for wellbeing than people think?
They say remote and hybrid work is bad for employee mental well-being and leads to a sense of social isolation, meaninglessness, and lack of work/life boundaries. We should just all go back to office-centric work – or so claim many traditionalist business leaders and gurus. For example, Malcolm Gladwell said that there is a “core psychological truth, which is we want you to have a feeling of belonging and to feel necessary… I know it’s a hassle to come into the office, but if you’re just sitting in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to live?”
These office-centric traditionalists reference a number of prominent articles about the dangers of remote work for mental well-being. For example, an article in The Atlantic claimed that “aggravation from commuting is no match for the misery of loneliness, which can lead to depression, substance abuse, sedentary behavior, and relationship damage, among other ills.” An article in Forbes reported that over two-third of employees who work from home at least part of the time had trouble getting away from work at the end of the day. And Fast Company has a piece about how remote work can “exacerbate existing mental health issues” like depression and anxiety.
The trouble with such articles – and claims by traditionalist business leaders and gurus – stems from a sneaky misdirection. They decry the negative impact of remote and hybrid work for wellbeing. Yet they gloss over the damage to wellbeing caused by the alternative, namely office-centric work.
Remote Work Wellbeing According to Remote Workers
It’s like comparing remote and hybrid work to a state of leisure. Sure, people would feel less isolated if they could hang out and have a beer with their friends instead of working. They could take care of their existing mental health issues if they could visit a therapist. But that’s not in the cards. What’s in the cards is office-centric work. That means the frustration of a long commute to the office, sitting at your desk in an often-uncomfortable and oppressive open office for 8 hours, having a sad desk lunch and unhealthy snacks, and then even more frustration commuting back home.
So what happens when we remove bias and compare apples to apples? That’s when we need to hear from the horse’s mouth: namely, surveys of employees themselves, who experienced both in-office work before the pandemic, and hybrid and remote work after COVID struck.
Consider a 2022 survey by Cisco of 28,000 full-time employees around the globe. 78% of respondents say that remote and hybrid work improved their overall well-being: that applies to 83% of Millennials, 82% of Gen Z, 76% of Gen Z, and 66.3% of Baby Boomers. And 79% of respondents felt that working remotely improved their work-life balance, most keenly felt by Millennials (83%) followed by Gen Zers (80.3%), Gen X (77.4%), and Baby Boomers (69.5%).
Of the small number who report their work-life balance has not improved or even worsened, the number one reason, cited by over two-thirds, is due to the difficulty of disconnecting from work.
Much of that improvement stemmed from saving time due to not needing to commute and having a more flexible schedule: 64% saved at least four hours per week and 26% saved eight or more hours. What did they do with that extra time? The top choice of 44% was spending more time with family, friends and pets, which certainly helped address the problem of isolation from the workplace, while for 20%, the top choice for investing that extra time was in self-care. Indeed, 74% report that working from home improved their family relationships, and 51% strengthened their friendships. 82% report the ability to work from anywhere has made them happier, and 55% report that such work decreased their stress levels.
Other surveys back up Cisco’s findings. For example, a 2022 Future Forum survey compared knowledge workers who worked full-time in the office, in a hybrid modality, and fully remotely. It found that full-time in-office workers felt least satisfied with work-life balance, hybrid workers were in the middle, and fully remote workers felt most satisfied. The same distribution applied to questions about stress and/or anxiety. A mental health website called Tracking Happiness found in a 2022 survey of over 12,000 workers that fully remote employees report a happiness level about 20% greater than office-centric ones.
A CNBC survey from June 2022 found that 52% of fully remote workers say they are very satisfied with their jobs, compared with 47% of workers working fully from the office. And according to a late 2022 Gallup survey, 71% of respondents said that, compared to in-office work, hybrid work improves work-life balance and 58% report less burnout. When asked about burnout among workers who could work fully remotely, those who were fully office-centric had rates of burnout at 35% and engagement at 30%. By contrast, 37% of hybrid workers were engaged and 30% burnt out, while for remote workers, the percentage for engagement was 37% and burnout at 27%, further belying the myth about remote work burnout.
Academic peer-reviewed research provides further support. Consider a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health of bank workers who worked on the same tasks of advising customers either remotely or in-person. It found that fully remote workers experienced higher meaningfulness, self-actualization, happiness, and commitment than in-person workers. Another study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, reported that hybrid workers, compared to office-centric ones, experienced higher satisfaction with work and had 35% better retention.
Burnout and Remote Work Wellbeing
What about the supposed burnout crisis associated with remote work? Indeed, burnout is a concern. A survey by Deloitte finds that 77% of workers experienced burnout at their current job. Gallup came up with a slightly lower number of 67% in its survey. Clearly, it’s a problem, but guess what? Both of those surveys are from 2018, long before the era of widespread remote work.
By contrast, an April 2021 McKinsey survey found that 54% of those in the US, and 49% of those globally, reported feeling burnout. A September 2021 survey by The Hartford reported 61% burnout. Given that we had much more fully remote or hybrid work in the pandemic, arguably full or part-time remote opportunities decreased burnout, not increased it. Indeed, that finding aligns with the earlier surveys and peer-reviewed research suggesting remote and hybrid work improves wellbeing.
Still, burnout is a real problem for hybrid and remote workers, as it is for in-office workers. Employers need to offer mental health benefits with online options to help employees address these challenges.
Setting Boundaries and Expectations to Improve Remote Work Wellbeing
While overall being better for wellbeing, remote and hybrid work does have specific disadvantages around work-life separation. To address work-life issues, I advise my clients who I helped make the transition to hybrid and remote work to establish norms and policies focused on clear expectations and setting boundaries.
Some people expect their Slack or Microsoft Teams messages to be answered within an hour, while others check Slack once a day. Some believe email requires a response within three hours, and others feel three days is fine.
As a result of such uncertainty and lack of clarity about what’s appropriate, too many people feel uncomfortable disconnecting and not replying to messages or doing work tasks after hours. That might stem from a fear of not meeting their boss’s expectations or not wanting to let their colleagues down.
To solve this problem, companies need to establish and incentivize clear expectations and boundaries. Develop policies and norms around response times for different channels of communication and clarify the work/life boundaries for your employees.
Let me clarify: by work/life boundaries, I’m not necessarily saying employees should never work outside of the regular work hours established for that employee. But you might create an expectation that it happens no more often than once a week, barring an emergency. Thus, if such work after hours systematically happens more often outside of emergency situations, there’s a problem that you will need to address.
Moreover, for working at home and collaborating with others, there’s an unhealthy expectation that once you start your workday in your home office chair, and that you’ll work continuously while sitting there (except for your lunch break). That’s not how things work in the office, which has physical and mental breaks built in throughout the day. You took 5-10 minutes to walk from one meeting to another, or you went to get your copies from the printer and chatted with a coworker on the way.
Those and similar physical and mental breaks, research shows, decrease burnout, improve productivity, and reduce mistakes. That’s why companies should strongly encourage employees to take at least a 10-minute break every hour during remote work. At least half of those breaks should involve physical activity, such as stretching or walking around, to counteract the dangerous effects of prolonged sitting. Other breaks should be restorative mental activities, such as meditation, brief naps, or whatever else feels restorative to you.
To facilitate such breaks, my clients such as the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute shortened hour-long meetings to 50 minutes and half-hour meetings to 25 minutes, to give everyone a mental and physical break and transition time.
You can get the vast majority of what you usually do in an hour-long meeting done in 50 minutes, just remember to start wrapping up at the 40-minute mark, and at the 20-minute mark for meetings that last 25 minutes. Very few people will be reluctant to have shorter meetings.
After that works out, move to other aspects of setting boundaries and expectations that facilitate work/life balance. Doing so will require help team members get on the same page and reduce conflicts and tensions. After that, once your group feels the benefits of such changes, you can implement activities that have more of a ramp-up.
By setting clear expectations and boundaries, you’ll address the biggest challenge for wellbeing for remote and hybrid work: work/life boundaries. As for other issues, the research clearly shows that overall remote and hybrid workers have better wellbeing and lower burnout than in-office workers working in the same roles.
Is remote work worse for wellbeing than people think?