Working from home (WFH) may sound like a dream – but it was the nightmarish situation of the pandemic Covid-19 that forced the adoption of remote work across the globe. In Singapore, this began when the government called for a ‘Circuit Breaker’ to be implemented in early 2020, which required citizens to stay at home and avoid going out unnecessarily. Workplaces had to adapt, rolling out remote work policies and guidance on the fly.
It’s been three years since WFH has been introduced, and has turned into a topic of contention between companies and their workforce. Unsurprisingly, WFH has been embraced by employees, given the freedom and flexibility it offers. Yet, despite the obvious benefits that WFH has, remote work does have a toll on our mental health too. We’ll explore both the negative and positive impacts that remote work has, and what we can do to support better mental health in our working lives.
The Perks of Remote Work
According to a study conducted by economists from the International Monetary Fund, over 70% of Singaporean workers prefer remote work; or a hybrid work model, that allows them to shuffle between the office and their homes. And why not? WFH offers many benefits, including:
For one, we know how crowded public transport can get during rush hour. Take a look at the faces of any commuter, and you’re sure to spot the signs of annoyance or discomfort. Cutting out this busy commute when one does remote work is already an easy win to boost a person’s mood. Add the convenience of working in a space that we’re most comfortable in, and it’s easy to see why a WFH arrangement is a delightful experience.
Flexibility and Autonomy
WFH also offers greater independence over our own schedules. When we’re in the office, there is an unspoken pressure to be constantly productive, and to be seen doing work. This can be a psychological burden, as it’s only natural that we take breaks within the day, no matter how much of a good worker we are. By being away from the office, we can feel more in control of our own schedules – able to decide when or how we want to finish our work, regardless of what the bosses may think.
The Problems with Remote Work
Despite how great remote work may seemingly be, it can also take a toll on our mental health. In fact, some studies have shown that remote work has been associated with increased anxiety and depression symptoms compared to being in the office. These could be due to the following reasons:
Loneliness and Isolation
Human beings are innately social creatures. We do need a certain level of social interaction in our daily lives. Remote work – particularly if it’s a fully remote role – reduces the opportunity to interact with our colleagues. Think of the casual chats at the pantry, or the random invitations to have dinner after work. All of these chance encounters are harder to replicate when communicating over an office messaging platform. This can lead to feelings of loneliness after a prolonged WFH period, with no time spent in the office.
Additionally, given that we’re away from our colleagues, it’s common for one to feel isolated from their company and the larger corporate mission. This can create greater feelings of frustration with one’s work, as you may feel more disconnected from what you’re doing. All of these negative emotions may result in greater job dissatisfaction.
Blurred Boundaries on Work-Life Balance
Another pressing problem is the blurred boundaries between work and rest. Typically, we use the commute to work as time to transit between different parts of our day; working from home doesn’t allow such mechanisms to help us structure our routine. As your work environment has become your default living environment, it can be hard to separate time between ‘working’ and ‘resting’ – and this problem is exacerbated if you don’t have a different room (such as a study room) to do your work in.
Moreover, some companies may expect their employees to be ‘always on’; the assumption being that if they are at ‘home’ (i.e. their workspace), they can pick up calls or complete tasks, anytime necessary. All of this can create a toxic environment, that leads to burnout and high levels of stress.
What can we do about Remote Work
For better or for worse, the genie is now out of the bottle. Having gone through 2 – 3 years of working remotely, it’s proven that WFH can be a viable option for companies, without experiencing a sharp drop in productivity. It’ll be difficult for companies to mandate an entirely in-office arrangement, as employees have come to expect a certain level of freedom and autonomy.
Given that it’s likely that WFH arrangements are here to stay, we should figure out ways to support our mental health while doing remote work.
Establish a dedicated workspace
If the layout of your home allows for it, you should have a dedicated space for work – one that is away from where you usually relax or unwind. Ideally, a study room or a spare room could double as your office; but that may be hard to set up, if you’re not staying alone or are still staying with your family. A workaround would be to only work in a specific space at home; for example, at your dining table, on a different seat from where you usually take your meals.
The reason for creating a separate working area is that it helps your brain to establish clearer boundaries between work and play. Once you leave this ‘work area’ – just like how you would leave the office at the end of the day –, it’s a subtle mental cue to yourself that work is over and that you should switch out of ‘work mode’.
Create a structured routine
Another strategy to manage boundary setting would be to establish a structured routine for yourself, and stick with it. Have a clear time for when you would start work and end your day, and try not to answer any work-related messages or emails outside of these defined hours – even if you’re near your phone or laptop when you receive any of these notifications.
Within your routine, you can even try time-blocking, which is a popular productivity technique that is known to help with managing workload. You may find that these clear structures help you become more focused during working hours, and can help you with managing any work-related stress as well.
Companies will also need to play a part in creating a mental health-friendly WFH environment for their employees. To start with, it’s important that they have clear remote working policies; so that employees know what is expected of them, if they do opt for WFH arrangements. The emphasis should be to let employees know they will not be penalised (nor seen as ‘slacking off’) even if they’re working from home. This creates a culture of trust within the company, which can go a long way in creating a good workplace environment.
Encourage open communication between teams
Open and effective communication is key when it comes to remote working. If there are no existing mechanisms in place, companies should try to create structures that support easy communication between teams. This includes both work-related communication, but also the social element within friendly offices. Consider organising team-bonding activities, or designating time within the work calendar for employees to meet each other – whether it’s physically or over the screen.
All of this will help to combat any feelings of isolation or loneliness that remote workers may experience, and serves to bring all employees closer together.
Ultimately, there’s no escaping remote working, not as the pace of technology develops and we become a more digital nation. It is indeed important that we don’t work against it, but set up structures that will help employees thrive within these new work arrangements.
Your company may already have shifted permanently towards a more hybrid-like arrangement; and if you find yourself struggling with managing your mental health in this new environment, know that you can reach out to us for support. Make an appointment with any of our therapists, and get advice and help with work-related stressors,
An experienced health & wellness writer, I am a story-teller at heart. For me, writing is a way of weaving together the little details that make our existence meaningful and significant into a beautiful, larger story.