What are the impacts of remote working to employee wellbeing?
Wellbeing isn't just about mental health. Although it does account for a huge portion of the conversations and actions around workplace wellbeing. And for good reason too. Poor mental health has been steadily on the rise for the past decade. And with the rise of flexible working, what affect does remote working in particular have on our wellbeing?
According to Gallup reports, nearly 42% of US adults showed symptoms of anxiety and depression last year. Globally, this rose to 7 in 10 adults who reported struggling. But mental health isn't the only aspect of wellbeing that employers need to worry about.
The UK's Office for National Statistics (ONS) and The What Works Well Centre Wellbeing provided the official definition by which all wellbeing activities are measure against is:
Wellbeing, put simply, is about "how we are doing" as individuals, communities and as a nation and how sustainable this is for the future.
The ONS go on to list 10 broad dimensions which have been shown to matter most to people in the UK. These factors make up the main stepping stones on which wellbeing rest. Of these 10, the three that are directly relatable to the workplace. These aspects of wellbeing are that of physical health, mental health, and financial health. These three dimensions will be our focus within this blog post. But please note that there are many more areas we can all look at when aiming to improve our wellbeing.
The impact of poor workplace wellbeing in the UK
Occupational health & staff wellbeing are, of course, a huge focus in the UK. This is due in no small part to the scale of issue caused when staff aren't feeling their best. The rate of days lost for work-related ill health increased from 2019 to 2020.
The Labour Force Survey reported 38.8 million days lost to work-related ill health specifically. And that's not factoring in non-fatal work-related injury or non-work-related sickness. LFS found that the leading causes of days lost were stress, depression, anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders.
On the financial health side of things, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) released a report in 2017. It highlighted the impact money-based concerns can have on employee wellbeing and productivity. The FCA found that 49% of UK workers fear they will not be able to retire due to the state of their personal finances. On top of that, 1 in 3 lost sleep at least once a week due to concerns about money. Obviously, a feeling of "I'll have to work until I die" isn't going to do much for workplace motivation. And, clearly, a loss of sleep can only be bad news for productivity. In fact, the FCA found 90% of employers agreed that their employee's financial concerns had a significant impact on workplace performance.
Mental wellbeing and remote work: the pros
Like most things in life, there are certainly pros and some potential cons for mental wellbeing when working from home. We'll start with the benefits, the first one being the great potential remote working has for reducing personal stress.
Let's face it, the morning (and often evening) commute isn't much fun. Being helplessly trapped in traffic watching the minutes tick by. Worrying about just how late you are going to be, and how your boss will react. Let's face it, that's nobody's ideal start to the day.
Now imagine getting out of bed and having a cup of coffee. You get to see the kids off to school, or take your dog for a walk. Then you just settle into your quiet home office to start your day. Sounds much better right?
Well, according to a landslide majority of remote workers in 2022, the answer is yes. In line with previous years, 97% of remote workers surveyed by Buffer would recommend the practice to someone else. An identical proportion want to work remotely to some extent until they retire.
- Almost two thirds describe their experience as "very positive."
- 29% describe it as "somewhat positive."
- But what's really incredible is that only 1% have any negativity towards it whatsoever!
So, why is remote work so popular?
Well, for one thing, it gives workers much more control over their day. It cuts out their commute, and enables them to have more-or-less total autonomy. A remote worker can set the start of their day, lunches, afternoon breaks and finish times. They can plan around school runs, doctors' appointments, a quick run or even an hour in the gym. This reduction in conflict is again a key way to reduce stress.
So, on the whole, giving your people the ability to work remotely is an effective way of making them much happier at work. Working remotely isn't for everyone, but you might be surprised at just how many people can benefit from it.
Mental wellbeing and remote working: the cons
However, there are potential drawbacks to remote working that if not managed could be detrimental to an employee's mental wellbeing. One of the biggest areas for concern is a lack of socialisation leading to feelings of loneliness and perceived alienation.
Remote work can be isolating
The lack of face-to-face time can make it trickier for remote workers to properly engage. And poor engagement means people are less likely to communicate effectively with managers and colleagues. It could even become an excuse not to. Yet research has shown there are great benefits attached to being able to discuss work projects.
But working remotely often means working in isolation, leaving employees to feel like they need to deal with problems alone. Regular trips into the office, weekly check-ins (such as those championed by the Weekly10 platform) that give all employees an appropriate platform to raise issues. They can highlight their own successes, or simply shout out to peers who have gone above and beyond. They could even take some time working at the office to connect with the business. These are all effective ways to remedy this particular issue.
Remote workers get treated with suspicion
Another issue is that of overcompensation. The feeling of guilt many remote workers report feeling that they get to work from home when others do not. Research by LogMeIn found 46% of remote work employees feel pressure to prove they are actually working when at home.
This included being more responsive on email (36%) and working longer hours (23%). In small measures, this can be a good thing. But the lack of ability to switch off and continual want to prove oneself to an employer or peers could actually lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety.
Setting boundaries is essential. Be firm about the hours you work. Have a separate room (or even space) in which you carry out your work duties. These things can help create separation when it's time to sign off for the day. Weekly10's OKR/goal tracking functionality can serve as a frequently updated record of the work you are completing. So, no more need to worry about proving yourself, or calling an employee to see how much work they are getting through.
Physical wellbeing and remote working
When it comes to physical wellbeing, there are a series of benefits to life as a digital nomad, including:
Working from home means your own kitchen is available to you throughout the working day. So, you're able to prepare healthy food whenever you feel like it. Working as part of a large team means someone is almost always celebrating a birthday. Or someone brought sweets back from holiday or simply felt like a big hit of sugar.
Then there's the fact you don't always have time to get a healthy or particularly nice lunch. We've all made do with a supermarket meal deal during crunch time. Working from home eliminates the temptation of that 3 pm doughnut or a second breakfast pastry.
Research by CoSo Cloud found that 42% of all remote workers believe they eat healthier when away from the office.
You have more time for self-care
The time saved from daily commuting, getting ready for work and squeezing daily chores into lunch hours means more time in the day for exercise. That includes the healthy eating we've already mentioned. But without all the trappings of an office-based job, there's more leeway do things like go to the gym.
Of course, this one's pretty based in personal habit. Just because you have the chance to exercise more doesn't mean you'll take it.
You get more sleep
The vast majority of people don't live right next door to where they work. Plus, as mentioned previously, the average daily commute to and from work is almost 1 hour. By the time you factor in all the getting ready you might be getting up 2 hours before work starts.
Remote working means that some of that time can be claimed back. That could potentially go towards some extra zzz's, which is essential for staying mentally and physically on the ball.
You are less sick
It's not rocket science. Eat better, do more exercise and get more sleep. These are the things that actually your health, and will keep you fighting fit.
Then there's the improvement in stress levels. And to be fair, the fact one downside to the socialisation within an office-based environment is the easier spread of germs. So, essentially, remote working has a great impact on how healthy you are across a year!
A 2016 Gallup survey found that extreme commuters travelling for 2+ hours a day often develop recurring neck and back issues. So remote work can also keep these sorts of long-term complaints at bay.
Financial wellbeing and remote working
Working remotely saves employees money! Or does it?
A 2019 survey found that UK employees are spending £1.8 billion a year on train tickets. That equates to more than £2,600 per person. And that's not even considering bus tickets, taxi fare, or petrol costs for those of us who drive.
Any amount saved from that frankly astronomical figure is much needed. That money can go towards retirement, savings, mortgage payments and such. This can really ease the stresses and burdens money has on many of us. Some of the obvious costs where savings can be made by moving to a remote work life are:
- Fuel, parking fees, vehicle maintenance, car insurance
- Train and bus fares
How the cost of living crisis affects financial wellbeing
Yes, there may be some additional fees associated with working from home. Broadband bills, heating and electricity, and office hardware, for example. And with the ever rising cost of utilities and bills, employees may very well need to weigh up pros and cons of the financial vs flexibility benefits of remote working.
We must acknowledge potential pitfalls. But, even so, we feel the potential wellbeing benefits of a culture of remote working are too good to ignore. Sure, some issues could arise. We haven't even touched upon staff having the option to abuse the freedoms working from home affords, or the costs of setting up a distributed workforce. But there's a clear connection between remote working and employee wellbeing.
But the clear boosts to employee mental, physical and financial wellbeing should make remote work an appetising notion to employees and employers alike.
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