Is Working from Home Good or Bad for Our Health?
Just over two years ago, many of us were suddenly forced to work from home. We had no choice. We had to make it work. We had to turn our kitchen counter/bedroom/living room/spare room into our new working space. We had to find a way to balance and juggle our personal and professional lives from the same place. We had to buy new office furniture and figure out how to use Zoom.... and some of us thrived (we found that our mental health and wellbeing improved, we had a better work-life balance and we were much more productive).... but some of us struggled (we felt lonely and bored, found ourselves eating/drinking to cope and felt a lack of purpose). So is working from home actually good or bad for our health?
Over the past year, many organisations have adopted hybrid working policies, which give employees some level of control over how much they work-from-home (WFH) and work-from-the-office (WFO). It is important that these policies are flexible enough to accommodate a range of different preferences on WFH vs WFO. This is because, whether WFH will help or harm someone's health, will depend upon lots of factors including: their personality type; their life and living circumstances; how far away from the office they live; their working and thinking style; and their tendency towards introversion or extroversion. Here are some of the ways in which WFH can either help or harm health depending upon an individual's unique circumstances:
WAYS WFH CAN BOOST OUR HEALTH
The Charity Mind reports that “There are many benefits to hybrid working with employees reporting a better work-life balance, more leisure time (from not having to commute) and improved job satisfaction". Here are some of the ways in which more time WFH could be beneficial to someone's health:
We may have more time to focus on health and wellbeing
Many people WFH may have found that their health and wellbeing has improved as: (i) they no longer have to wake up so early to commute into work and so can get more good-quality sleep; (ii) they are able to cook meals and nutritious foods in their own kitchen; (iii) the time they save on commuting and random office chats, can create more time to exercise/meditate and to spend in nature; (iv) they have more time with family and their loved ones and feel more connected to them; and (v) they aren't exposed to office gossip/bullying and feel safer in their working environment.
We may experience more autonomy
WFH means that we don't feel under someone's constant watch. We feel more in control of and in turn more responsible for our time. This can in turn boost our mental health and wellbeing.
We may be more productive with more quiet/alone-time
Many people can be much more productive whilst working from home and this in turn can be good for their mental health. Office environments tend to be well suited to individuals with more extroverted personality types. However, those who need quieter spaces or more reflective opportunities to work at their best, are likely to thrive when given the space and time to work alone. Those who need more alone-time to thrive are also likely to feel better psychologically when given more freedom to work from home.
Those juggling careers with taking care of children/parents/pets may achieve a better balance
For those with children (or elderly parents or pets) it can be difficult to juggle and balance caring for others with professional life. Often it will feel as though either personal or professional life is being sacrificed for the other. However WFH presents a wonderful opportunity for many people to achieve more balance in their lives this can in turn boost their mental health.
We can create more meaningful interactions with colleagues
Often the interactions we have with colleagues in the office are very casual and unplanned. This casual chit-chat can sometimes turn into office gossip/bitching and worse, things such as harassment and bullying (it is very common but also unhelpful for people to want to bond over talking about/gossiping about other people). However, if we are only seeing colleagues once a week or occasionally, we can be much more intentional and positive about our interactions with others. These intentional interactions can be positive opportunities to share ideas/ thoughts/ plans and to talk about meaningful and uplifting things rather than to just gossip about other people. This in turn creates a much safer and healthier work environment for all.
WFH can support people through life challenges/ transitions
Having the opportunity to work from home also truly promotes diversity and inclusion as it allows people to enjoy the safety, privacy and the comfort of their own home whilst going through different life transitions or stages. People that may benefit from more time working at home can include: new parents that want to spend time with their baby or young child; a woman dealing with the morning sickness from pregnancy; someone struggling through a divorce or house move; a woman going trying to manage all of the injections and medications of fertility treatment; a woman suffering with hot flashes from the menopause; or someone that has experienced a bereavement. Giving people the comfort and safety of working from home (and perhaps the opportunity to be closer to medical doctors/ family/ friends in these difficult times) can really support their mental health and wellbeing.
WAYS WFH CAN NEGATIVELY AFFECT OUR HEALTH
A 2022 Deloitte report has shown that 28% of employees have either left in 2021 or are planning to leave their jobs in 2022, with 61% citing poor mental health as the reason they are leaving - “Burnout among employees, such as feelings of exhaustion, mental distance from the job and reduced job performance, have been more evident during the pandemic”. Here are some of the ways that WFH can negatively affect health:
You may end up feeling more lonely
In a poll of 1000 workers by Silicon Reef, 73% thought employers should do more to manage loneliness for flexible and remote staff. One of the problems of WFH, especially for those that are single, live alone or whose partner/flatmates go into an office, is that it can cause loneliness. Often we get a sense of community from our workplace and we need those connections and that sense of community for our mental wellbeing. Introverted individuals may actually be at more risk of this. Whilst someone that is more extroverted is naturally likely to realise that they need connection and to seek this human-connection out, someone introverted may just feel more comfortable staying at home. However, if they don't then have any interactions with anyone throughout the day/week, long-term this could negatively affect their mental health. Often someone with more introverted tendencies will have to push themselves to have interactions with others but will feel much better after they do so.
You may end up getting burnt-out
A Deloitte report published in 2020 has flagged an increase in “leavism”, commenting that “employees are unable to disconnect from work due to an increased use of technology, contributing to burnout”. WFH often means spending a lot of time in front of screens. We may have all of our meetings via Zoom instead of face-to-face, we write emails and reports staring at the screen, when we take breaks we look at our phones and ipads instead of having chats with colleagues and when we end the day, we find ourselves watching TV. All of this screen-time can lead to burn-out if we aren't taking sufficient breaks. Also WFH can mean that we don't draw clear enough boundaries between our personal and professional lives. We may be tempted to reply to emails at 9pm because our work laptop is on our dining table, the first thing that we may do when we wake up in the morning is to look at our work phone and we may find ourselves working over the weekend because Saturday doesn't feel that different to Tuesday. Over-working and burn-out are two real risks to our health from WFH.
You may miss structure and routine and your health and wellbeing may suffer as a result
Often one of the benefits of going into an office is that it gives us some structure and routine. Our bodies love routine and this routine can be very good for our health too. For example, our bodies thrive when we sleep and wake up at the same time each day, when we eat at similar times each day and when we are building in time for rest/relaxation each day. However, without the routine of going to the office you may find yourself, waking up and sleeping at different times, snacking throughout the day and not taking any breaks from work.
You may doubt yourself more and the voice of imposter syndrome may surface
As humans we like to have the validation and approval of those within our tribe. However, when we are WFH, we may have less interactions with colleagues/ supervisors/ bosses and therefore we may get less feedback/validation from those we work with. This could in turn cause us to doubt ourselves and our abilities more and have a negative impact on our mental health.
You may end up being more sedentary
Often going into an office involves some travelling/walking/standing. Once you are in an office you may also walk around to see colleagues during the day, stand whilst giving a presentation, walk to take a lunch break... basically there can be a lot of natural movement when working from the office, whereas WFH can mean being a lot more sedentary.
SO WHAT DOES THIS ALL MEAN?
One thing that is clear is that there is no straightforward answer as to whether working from home is good or bad for our health. In fact, for some, it will be very good for their health and for others it will be very bad. This is where organisations that have a standardised/fixed policy around how often people are able to work from home, are missing a chance to be truly inclusive. A standardised policy forcing people to work from the office most days of the week may harm those that are more introverted, those that need quiet reflective time to thrive, those parents trying to juggle childcare with their jobs or those going through life challenges such as fertility treatment or the menopause. A standardised policy forcing people to work from home may harm those that are more extroverted, those that live alone or in a busy home where it is hard to concentrate, those that need supervision from and interaction with colleagues to thrive or those that find it hard to deal with lots of screen-time.
Being truly inclusive is accepting that everyone is different and hopefully organisations will take this into account in giving people more autonomy and freedom to do what is best for them in deciding how much they want to WFO and how much they want to WFH. As you decide whether you want to spend more time WFH or WFO perhaps it is helpful to focus on which of these options is truly most beneficial for your long-term mental health and wellbeing.
“We like to give people the freedom to work where they want, safe in the knowledge that they have the drive and expertise to perform excellently, whether they are at their desk or in their kitchen. Yours truly has never worked out of an office, and never will.” – Richard Branson