Over the past two years, the entire employee landscape has changed. Employees moved from a traditional nine to five workday to a more flexible model. I personally can wake up on an island in the Caribbean and work the same as I would in Manhattan. I can pick my son up from school and take a meeting in the park while he plays. And I can do laundry and prep dinner on my lunch break.
But working remotely also has its downsides. As humans, we crave routine and each other. Remote work lacks both important components.
Remote work impacts us differently depending on our life circumstances, says Ziv Cohen, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. For single individuals, those who live alone and those who don’t have family nearby, working remotely can be isolating. For those who are by themselves too often during the workday, Cohen says it can lead to increased levels of stress, depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
“We have a lot of research to show that isolation creates stress. It results in elevated cortisol levels even when we feel calm and relaxed,” Cohen says.
The Downside of Remote Work
Thanks to the flexibility, remote workers who live with family can spend more time with them. But the loss of work and life boundaries has still resulted in some negative consequences.
“Many feel like they’re working more than ever before because there’s no barrier between work life and home life,” Cohen says.
There’s also the basic human need for touch. Shaking hands and other forms of human connection lack in a remote workplace. According to Cohen, this can also create stress. Research has shown that the intimacy of an in-person conversation, for example, can result in a rush of feel-good hormones. For people who don’t have an extensive social life outside of work, they don’t meet these basic needs. This is true for those who work long hours and don’t have time outside of the office for social connections.
And according to Cohen, work quality deteriorates when employees face mental health challenges. Cognitive performance decreases because your brain can often shut down as a result of anxiety, making it difficult to access memories.
“Anxiety as a result of isolation can have a crippling effect on cognition and creativity,” says Cohen.
How to Stay Sane
Cohen says that employers need to be more mindful of creating boundaries outside of the office. Contacting employees at all hours of the day isn’t sustainable and it imbalances the employee psyche. Workplace culture, he says, needs to shift. There should be time to socialize outside of the office, especially if you’re working alone all day.
“There shouldn’t be the expectation that employees are going to work so late into the evenings,” he says.
Over the course of the pandemic, we learned to adapt both to remote work and a hybrid model of working from home at least a few days a week, says Gregory Scott Brown, a psychiatrist and author of The Self-Healing Mind. But even if you’re not going into the office each day, you still need the routine that comes with an office job.
“Set an alarm and wake up at the same time each day. Take a lunch break as you would at the office,” says Brown.
Make sure exercise is built into each day in whatever form you’re able to fit it in and keep substance use in check. Alcohol and drug use can have a huge impact on both your happiness and your work performance. Brown says that working remotely is about setting boundaries and trying to avoid working late at night or on the weekends.
“You don’t want Saturday to end up feeling like Wednesday,” he says.
Successful remote work means intentionally keeping balance and structure embedded into your days, says Brown. You can have a healthy remote-work life, but you need to make sure you’re including the big R’s: Rest and routine, the two most important aspects of staying sane in your home office.