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They say that remote and hybrid work is bad for employees’ mental well-being and leads to a feeling of social isolation, meaninglessness and lack of boundaries between work and private life. So we should all go back to office-oriented work – or so much traditionalist business leaders and gurus would have us believe.
For example, Malcolm Gladwell said: there’s a “core psychological truth, which is that we want you to feel like you belong and that you need you… I know it’s a hassle to get to the office, but if you’re just in your pajamas in your bedroom, is that the work life you want to lead?”
These office-oriented traditionalists support their claims by citing a number of prominent articles and studies on the dangers of remote work to mental wellbeing. For example, a article in The Atlantic claimed that “exacerbation of commuting is no match for the misery of loneliness.” A study of the American Psychiatric Association reported that more than two-thirds of workers who work from home at least part of the time struggled to get away from work at the end of the day. And another article discussed how working remotely can exacerbate stress.
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The problem with such articles (and studies) stems from a sneaky deception. They condemn the negative impact of remote and hybrid work on well-being, but they obscure the harm to well-being caused by the alternative, office-oriented working. That means the frustration of a long commute to the office, sitting at your desk in a often uncomfortable and oppressive open office before 8am, a sad lunch on the desk and unhealthy snacks and then commuting home even more frustration.
So what happens when we compare apples to apples? That’s when we need to hear it from the horse’s mouth: namely, surveys of employees themselves who work both in the office before the pandemic and hybrid and telecommuting after Covid-19 hit.
Consider a 2022 questionnaire by Cisco from 28,000 full-time employees worldwide. 78% of respondents say that remote and hybrid working have improved their overall well-being. And 79% of respondents believed that remote work improved work-life balance. 74% report that working from home improved their family relationships and 51% strengthened their friendships, allaying concerns about isolation. 82% say the ability to work anywhere has made them happier, and 55% say such work has lowered their stress levels.
Other studies support Cisco’s findings. For example a future forum in 2022 questionnaire compared knowledge workers who worked full-time in the office, in a hybrid modality and completely remotely. It was found that full-time office workers were the least satisfied with work-life balance, mid-term hybrid workers and full-time home workers were the most satisfied. The same distribution applied to questions about stress and/or anxiety. According to a Gallup in late 2022 questionnaireOf those who could work completely remotely, those who were fully office-oriented had a 35% burnout rate and a 30% engagement rate. In contrast, 37% of hybrid workers were engaged and 30% had burnout, while for homeworkers the percentage for engagement was 37% and burnout was 27%. This further belies the myth about remote burnout.
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Academic peer-reviewed research provides further support. Consider a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health of bank employees working on the same tasks as advising customers remotely or in person. It was found that employees who worked completely remotely experienced more meaning, self-actualization, happiness and engagement than in-person employees. Another studypublished by the National Bureau of Economic Research, compared to office-oriented workers, hybrid workers reported greater job satisfaction and 35% better retention.
What about the alleged burnout crisis associated with remote working? Burnout is indeed a concern. A Deloitte study shows that: 77% of employees experience burnout in their current job. A questionnaire by Gallup came in with a slightly lower number of 67%. It’s clearly a problem, but guess what? Both studies date back to 2018, long before the era of widespread remote work.
In contrast, a McKinsey from April 2021 questionnaire found that 54% of those in the US, and 49% of those worldwide, reported feeling burnt out. a September 2021 questionnaire by The Hartford 61% reported burnout. Given that we had much more full-time or hybrid work during the pandemic, arguably full or part-time remote capabilities have reduced, not increased, burnout. Indeed, that finding is consistent with the previous surveys and peer-reviewed research suggesting that remote and hybrid working improve well-being.
Yet burnout is a real problem for hybrid and home workers, as it is for office workers. Employers must offer mental health benefits with: fully remote options to help employees meet these challenges.
In addition, remote and hybrid working are generally better for well-being, but have specific drawbacks related to work-life separation. To address work-life issues, I advise my clients, whom I have helped make the switch to hybrid and remote working, to establish standards and policies aimed at clear expectations and setting boundaries.
Related: It Could Be a Business Mistake to Go Back to the Office
Some people expect their Slack or Microsoft Teams messages to be answered within an hour, while others check Slack once a day. Some believe that email should be answered within three hours, and others believe that three days is fine.
Due to such uncertainty and lack of clarity about what is appropriate, too many people feel uncomfortable disconnecting and not responding to messages or performing work tasks outside of office hours. This can stem from a fear of not meeting their boss’s expectations or not wanting to let their colleagues down.
To solve this problem, companies need to establish and encourage clear expectations and boundaries. Develop response time policies and standards for different communication channels and clarify work/life boundaries for your employees.
Let me clarify: in terms of work-life boundaries, I’m not necessarily saying that employees should never work outside of the regular working hours set for that employee. But you might expect it to happen no more than once a week, barring an emergency.
By setting clear expectations and boundaries, you are addressing the biggest wellbeing challenge for remote and hybrid work: work-life boundaries. As for other problems, the Research clearly shows that, in general, remote and hybrid workers have better well-being and less burnout than office workers who work in the same roles.