Wellbeing and remote work has a complex relationship.
For some people, remote work is good for wellbeing. Remote work typically provides autonomy, which can positively influence wellbeing (and the opposite, high degrees of control, is a potential cause of work related stress). Some employees are able to use the time that they would have spent commuting or being in an office for activities that support their health and wellbeing, such as exercise or eating well. Commuting in general has been associated with stress, reduced life satisfaction (especially in the case of long commutes and commutes on public transport in particular) and high financial costs. Since the pandemic enforced shift to remote work, many surveys have reported improved wellbeing as a positive outcome. It’s a key reason behind the strong preference to retain remote work in the future.
This experience however is far from universal. Whilst some people benefit, others find that remote work leads to blurred boundaries, work life conflict, work intensification, longer working days, reduced work life balance and isolation. For those that have a poor homework station, there is physical wellbeing to throw into the mix. And then finally, the wellbeing impact of digital, screen based, electronic notification driven work. Zoom fatigue isn’t just an internet joke – research has established it to be very real.
Why is there such variation in experiences and outcomes? Well, it’s complicated.
There’s a lot of research into remote work and wellbeing, and it provides a mixed picture of benefits and challenges, good and bad. It has been associated with positive emotions, job satisfaction, autonomy and reduced levels of emotional exhaustion. Somewhat paradoxically, it has also been associated with reduced social support, longer working hours, anxiety about career prospects and work intensification.
Some of these differences are likely to be down to personal factors – preferences and style. The work life balance literature suggests that in terms of our boundaries, we range on a spectrum from integrators (happy with few boundaries, relaxed when work spills over into home) and separators – people who really need a clear line between work and home for their mental health. Age, sex and seniority are often at play here too. Women when they work flexibly tend to mix it with more domestic labour and childcare. Younger people are more likely to be in housing that doesn’t allow them to create a comfy home office. There are people that thrive when working with others, and others that prefer to work alone. The introverts and the extroverts if you will – and you can probably figure out for yourself which of these will (potentially) find the more isolating nature of remote work a problem. All of these personal factors matter when considering the impact of working from home.
Some of the influence of remote work on wellbeing is related to organisational factors. The manager and their behaviour and style. The organisational culture – especially in terms of what is considered acceptable or what is likely to get you promoted (or not). The support provided (or not), job design or working practices.
The remote work question is further complicated by the fact that wellbeing means different things to different people. There are many different definitions of wellbeing. Some focus on mental, physical or social health. Others consider flourishing, bouncebackability, or happiness and pleasure (the hedonic tradition). The eudemonic approach (which we can trace back as far as Aristotle) in contrast focuses on self-actualisation and meaning. I think this is what the young people call ‘living your best life’. Wellbeing is so very personal. What enables it or detracts from it, varies from individual to individual.
Whilst remote work is nothing new, hybrid at scale most definitely is. This will raise new questions about wellbeing, and organisations will need to pay close attention to how we make hybrid healthy. When looking to the future we also need to consider how much has changed. Will the remote work of the future – which is set to largely be hybrid (part-remote) – change now that we all have the tech and mostly know how to use it, it is more common, we have learned new ways of working, managers are more skilled……. Only time, and future research, will tell.
Key questions about wellbeing and remote work include:
- What are the wellbeing benefits and challenges of hybrid work – and how (if at all) do they differ from the remote work that took place before the pandemic?
- How does the level of hybridity (days remote v time in the workplace) impact upon wellbeing at work?
- Is there a wellbeing sweet-spot – a workplace to remote ratio that provides wellbeing benefits without the detractors?
- Where (fully) remote work has been found to lead to poor wellbeing outcomes, can this be moderated by being in the physical workplace some of the time? If so, how often do people need to be in the workplace?
- What can employees do for themselves to support wellbeing when working remotely – and what are the skills and knowledge that enable them to do so?
- What can organisations do to support healthy hybrid work? What do managers need to know? What work practices do we need to establish?
It is quite possible that there is no ‘one size fits all’ answer. The challenge for leaders and HR professionals therefore, will be to translate this complex picture into practical actions that organisations can take, so that we can aim to ensure hybrid is a force for wellbeing – and will not simply update old problems for the hybrid era.
The good news is, this is the subject for my doctoral research. I’ll update with more information in four years…..