Much has been said in the last year and a half about the radical changes that the global pandemic has brought to working arrangements. Lockdowns forced many Australians to experience what it was like to work from home for the first time, including all the positives and negatives that came with it.
Although lockdowns still persist, Australia has started to look to the future of workplace arrangements. As is well known, the evidence points to the idea that working from home (at least some days each week) will be the new norm for many Australians.
But a big question that is not yet settled is how this new norm will affect the mental health of Australian workers. A major pre-pandemic report from the Australian Productivity Commission found that mental health costs Australia around $200 billion each year. So, it’s worth considering how changed working arrangements will affect this.
In this article, we have a look at the central concerns that working from home poses for the mental well-being of Australians. But we balance these concerns out with a consideration of how organisational flexibility can safeguard employee satisfaction and boost productivity.
In the old days (a year and a half ago), there were a handful of well-known factors affecting office mental health. Safe Work Australia highlighted the three major causes of workplace mental health claims as:
While these are all still major factors for workplace mental health, there are now some new considerations on the table.
The most obvious impact that working remotely has on mental health is that it can make workers feel very isolated. A UK survey undertaken by the Royal Society for Public Health found that 67% of those working from home because of Covid-19 said they felt disconnected from their coworkers.
This kind of disconnection can be all the more difficult when considering that a good chunk of the population already suffered from stress related to their work. Trying to meet the same difficult deadlines or get on top of client expectations from a lonely home office or kitchen table can seem a lot more daunting.
Another major impact of working remotely is that the line between work life and home life can become a lot harder to distinguish. It’s critical that we are able to mentally separate ourselves from our work so that we can ‘switch off’ and force our brains to think about something else. If you wrap up the workday by shifting five metres to the couch to watch a movie, your brain never really leaves the office.
The American Sleep Association has pointed out that working from your bed is a massive problem for this exact reason. When you work in bed, your brain starts to associate that space with work. So, when you try to go to sleep at night, your brain thinks it’s in the office and is therefore working overtime.
So, even if you close your laptop at the kitchen table and shift to the sofa, your brain can remain in an alert state, making it harder for you to reach a state of relaxation.
There are also a number of secondary mental health impacts that can arise from working at home. One of the biggest ones is that sleep can be disturbed.
For instance, an International Labor Organization research report suggests that 42% of people working remotely report waking up repeatedly during the night. That compares with 29% of those working in the office full-time. This comes back to the idea of not being able to properly switch off when there is no clear divide between work and home.
Also, many workers have reported that they are doing less exercise since switching to remote working arrangements. The Royal Society for Public Health report mentioned above also found that a massive 46% of home workers were exercising less. This might have something to do with people not walking to work or transport, but it also might be a flow-on effect of the general sedentariness that at-home workers can experience. Either way, we all know that not exercising can be devastating for mental health.
There is a range of points of contact you have if you are experiencing mental health difficulties when working from home. For instance, you can access a lot of free 24/7 support lines from institutions like Lifeline and Beyond Blue.
But beyond these immediate support lines, the Australian government has also invested a lot of money into its mental health support infrastructure. For example, it is allowing for bulk-billing of phone and video consultations with mental health professionals for many Australians. You can find the government’s full range of support services and health advice at the dedicated Head to Health website.
But you should remember, as well, that you can often find mental health support a lot closer to home. Obviously, your friends and family can be a great resource. If you’re not getting much social interaction because you are working from home, it can be a good idea to set up regular meetings with these people so that you feel connected. Even a daily 15-minute walk with a neighbour around the local park can have a profound impact on the way you feel. So, try and be proactive in setting up those informal mental health support networks.
Last, but definitely not least, you should also view your employer as a major source of mental health support. Companies are now hyper-aware of mental health concerns—partly because they have a duty of care to protect their workers, and partly because they know poor mental health has a big impact on productivity. Your employer has the power to make all sorts of organisational changes that can help you and your colleagues, such as using technology to create more virtual interaction and facilitating more physical meet-ups.
Remote work and mental health is no simple equation. On the one hand, we’re all made up differently, so we all have varying responses to a remote working setup. But also, not all remote working setups are the same. So, let’s break the issue down into the different possible scenarios of spending all or some of the workweek at home.
After the remote-working boom of the height of the pandemic, most Australians are no longer working from home full-time. Prior to the pandemic, around 4% of Australians worked full-time from home, but in March of this year, that number was sitting at 12%. This may be out of choice, but it may also be a result of many businesses realising they can cut costs by not keeping a physical office. Given the potential health impacts we’ve outlined above, this strategy might be dangerous for employee wellbeing and company productivity.
On the other hand, flexible working and mental health seem to be two terms that fit together nicely. Many workers now appreciate the opportunity to spend at least some of the workweek at home because it allows them, for example, to care for children and save time and money on commuting.
But the key here is flexibility because not all workers stand to benefit from working from home. Also, even those that do benefit from working from home may not benefit from doing it all the time.
Hot-desking and mental health are also two terms that work together nicely, primarily because hot-desking is specifically designed to fight the effects of employee isolation. Hot-desking has the effect of getting workers out of the physical isolation of offices and cubicles, as well as the mental isolation of solitary work practices. In short, it promotes more collaboration, more face-to-face contact, and a more vibrant workplace culture.
Particularly if workers are being flexible with their work-home scheduling, hot-desking can complement that nicely by providing organisational flexibility when people do come into work.
Lastly, we have the traditional full-time office setup. For many companies, this will remain the gold standard of operations because, with everyone in one place, communications can often happen faster and more easily. But for many workers, this will also remain the gold standard of workplace arrangements in terms of mental health because it assures them more social interaction and a stronger divide between work life and home life.
What we’ve seen, then, is that the relationship between remote work and mental health is a complicated one. There are both positive and negative impacts of working from home. On the plus side, working from home allows things like:
On the flip side, working from home can cause:
Ultimately, the key for workplaces going forward is going to be flexibility in balancing organisational needs and the personal needs and preferences of employees. What we know is that employee mental wellbeing is a key ingredient of any successful business, and the pandemic has put a spotlight on the way in which workplace arrangements can affect that. Having a plan for implementing a flexible or hybrid work model is something most modern businesses must consider, and there is no one-size-fits-all model - but several informative guides exist to provide insights on what might be right for you.
We’re in a moment of change, so it’s the perfect time to be talking about what improvements can be made.
When it comes to mental health, we really can’t afford to not listen.