Ideas in Motion

Working from Home and Mental Health

Nov 12, 2020 6:45:00 AM

Working from home has become a popular option for many Americans. About 43% of workers regularly telework at least part of the time. An additional 25 – 30% of employees have had to work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are obvious benefits to working from home. One of those is increased productivity. A recent study found that remote employees work 1.4 more days per month than their office-based peers, resulting in more than three additional work weeks annually. Telework also cuts or eliminates commuting time and associated expenses. It also can allow workers more flexibility throughout the day, possibly fewer distractions, and a healthier lifestyle. However, there are some potentially serious side effects on employees’ mental health.

Humans are pack creatures, clearly social, and dependent upon cooperation and solidarity in modern society. Some researchers believe that relationships are a “biological need” and vital to human well-being and survival. The isolation measures in place to contain the spread of the Coronavirus, however, have led many to experience loneliness as we remain at home and “socially distance” when we do go out. In some cases, loneliness can cause depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, suicide, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease. Older Americans are more susceptible to loneliness due to factors such as retirement, loss of spouse, empty nest, and age-related illnesses. Also at higher risk are single people, divorced people, and people living alone. Isolation may cause depression, aggressive behavior, passive attitude, poor quality sleep, cognitive decline, altered memory, and poor self-care/neglect. Experts have found that the impacts of loneliness and isolation vary by age.  People 18–49 years can struggle to focus or eat more, while children and young adolescents may experience more cognitive, behavioral, and/or emotional difficulties.

In fact, a recent survey by Chubb of employees working from home due to the pandemic revealed that Americans, irrespective of income level, have serious concerns about their financial well-being. While productivity and hours worked are up, many believe that maintaining a work-life balance during telework is difficult, as is managing distractions from children and pets. In addition, working from home increases the risk of cyberattacks (1 in 10 wealthy respondents have been the victim of a cyberattack while working remotely), 2 in 5 workers reported new pain or increased pain in their shoulders, back, or wrists from non-ergonomic home work stations, and significant numbers of employees are eating more and snacking more. All of these stress-inducing things, in turn, tend to cause our bodies to produce stress hormones that hijack our brain function to retard or stymie learning, memory, attention span, and the ability to focus. When we are distracted by stress in our lives, our mind reacts defensively and leads us to default to learned responses that can be inappropriate depending on the circumstances.

So, what can remote workers do to combat isolation and loneliness? One important step is to stay in “virtual” touch with people by using technology. If you can, share pictures and update with family, friends, and colleagues with apps like, Zoom, Skype, WhatsApp, Facetime and Slack. Engage in group chats. Even a simple audio cell phone call can help people feel more connected. Plan home-based activities and projects to keep your mind occupied such as reading, engaging in a hobby, or learning a new language. Set goals and deadlines for these. Plan and structure your day to allow for some repeatable patterns. Keep busy. Look after your physical and mental health. One excellent way to do that is by meditating.

There are many types of meditation. Most of them, however, have 4 common elements: (1) a quiet, distraction-free location; (2) a comfortable position; (3) a focus of attention on a word or words, an object, or breathing; and (4) an “open attitude” (that is, letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them). One of the most popular types is mindfulness, which is active meditation whereby we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without believing that there is a right way or wrong way to think and feel in a given moment. Though its roots are in Buddhist Philosophy, secular mindfulness gained popularity, in part, through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979.

Thousands of studies have documented the physical and mental health benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to improve physical health by relieving stress, treating heart disease, lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties. Psychologists and psychiatrists also recommend the technique to treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some research even suggests that meditation can change the brain and body to promote healthy behaviors.

Without a doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most disruptive situations that many of us have faced. It demands that we adapt and adopt. One of the most challenging adaptations has been working from home. As we begin to understand the potential physical and emotional impacts, we can adopt measures to reduce the feelings of isolation and loneliness to eliminate or lessen their impact on out mental and physical health.

Bill Link

Written by Bill Link