The best part of remote work, from a mental health perspective, may be the commute.
An hourlong slog to and from work pleases no one, and it is perhaps the largest negative associated with the nation’s gradual return to the office as the pandemic wanes.
Nearly 30 percent of all work remains remote in the United States, the legacy of a workplace revolution that swept in with the COVID-19 pandemic and transformed the nation’s daily routine.
Survey after survey shows that Americans love remote work. One Gallup poll found that only 6 percent of Americans would prefer to work in an office fulltime, given the choice.
But that doesn’t mean remote work is good for us.
The mental health implications of telework is a relatively new field of study. And that makes sense, given that only 5 percent of American work took place remotely before the pandemic.
“There aren’t really experts in it. This is all new,” said Eric Elbogen, a professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University. “There are just so many questions we still don’t know the answers to.”
What we do know, loud and clear, is what Americans think about working from home.
One 2022 global survey of 12,500 people by the Tracking Happiness website found a direct correlation between remote work and happiness. Workers who toiled fulltime in an office rated their happiness the lowest: 5.9 on a 10-point scale, on average. For fully remote workers, the happiness rating jumped to 7 out of 10.
In a global 2022 survey of 28,000 workers, Cisco found that an overwhelming 79 percent of employees felt remote work had improved the all-important work-life balance. More than 80 percent said the ability to work from anywhere made them happier.
Pressed for specifics, workers say remote work brings flexibility: greater autonomy over how to allocate time between work and non-work, when to start the day, when to end it, when to walk the dog, when to hit the home gym, when to nap.
“Remote work is associated with greater feelings of control,” said Tammy Allen, distinguished university professor in psychology at the University of South Florida. “And that’s really powerful, because it’s one of the fundamental human needs, that we have some kind of control over our lives.”
Even more than control, perhaps, remote work is about time. In the Cisco survey, two-thirds of workers said remote work saved them four or more hours a week.
Thus, Allen and others contend, the single best thing about remote work is probably the absence of a time-consuming commute.
“And I think most people miss that,” said Gleb Tsipursky, CEO of the hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of a recent book on hybrid and remote work.
On top of the wasted time, “we have extensive research showing that the commute is the most stressful part of the day,” Tsipursky said. “It’s the time you’re the most likely to get into an accident, to be hurt, to die.”
In the Tracking Happiness survey, happiness ratings declined steadily with longer commutes. Workers who commute more than 90 minutes are half as happy, on average, as those who commute 10 minutes or less.
Reclaimed commuting time looms as a factor in each of the top five “positive impacts” of remote work cited by Gallup respondents: improved work-life balance, more efficient use of time, freedom to choose when and where one works, less work burnout and higher productivity.
Beyond the commute, remote work is a potential game-changer for millions of Americans who have experienced prejudice, harassment or microaggressions at work.
Telework may give a transgender worker the freedom to choose whether and when to disclose their gender identity to colleagues. Obese workers can avoid weight-based discrimination by working remotely.
“People of color prefer working remotely,” research suggests, “because they’re less subject to aggression, microaggression,” Allen said.
But remote work is not a panacea. The limited body of scholarly research on telework has unearthed myriad potential mental health concerns.
Remember Zoom fatigue? Remote work unleashed a marathon of videoconferencing in 2020, triggering a soul-numbing wave of anxiety, social isolation and emotional exhaustion.
A meta-analysis of telework studies by Canadian researchers in 2022 found several potential psychological perils associated with remote work.
Summarizing past research on telework, the Canadian study found that remote workers “experienced poorer sleep quality, had more issues with relaxation, felt greater irritability, and experienced more tension” than office workers.
While survey respondents may believe telework improves work-life balance, the Canadians found remote workers struggle to maintain it, especially when they have no dedicated home office or when they work in homes filled with people.
Millennials and Generation Z are happiest working remotely, according to multiple surveys. Older Americans, those in Generation X and the baby boom generation, see less value in working from home, although workers in every generation see a net gain in well-being.
“For those of us who have been working for a long time, our whole experience, our entire working life, has involved personal interactions,” Elbogen said. “It includes those verbal and nonverbal components that are lost on Zoom.”
Many Americans struggled with remote work at the pandemic’s start, when Zoom culture was thrust upon the nation. Most workers, and most companies, didn’t know how to handle the sudden transition to a remote office.
“At first, people were not eating healthy meals, they were not taking breaks, they didn’t have good physical setups in their offices,” said Mary Czerwinski, a partner research manager at Microsoft.
“We saw stress levels peak at the beginning, just because people’s work setups weren’t good. People were having physical ailments, because they didn’t have good chairs or desks. Some people were doing meetings in the bathtub.”
Microsoft paid for workers to outfit their home offices, initiated “meeting-free days” and scheduled break time between the meetings. “That helped a lot,” Czerwinski said.
Cisco, the networking giant, responded to COVID-era mental-health concerns with weekly check-ins.
“Employees go in and say, ‘I loved doing this this week; I hated doing this this week,’” said Mike Droubay, Cisco vice president of human resources. The check-ins existed before COVID but had been inconsistent.
One fundamental challenge in the remote work boom was that most workers didn’t have a choice: The pandemic marooned them in their homes.
Time revealed that some workers thrived in virtual work, while others suffered. Introverts tend to like remote work, research suggests, while extroverts prefer the office. Remote work tends to strengthen relationships to family and friends. Office work fortifies bonds with coworkers.
Loneliness is a real danger in telework, researchers say, especially for people who live alone and those who crave the social fabric of an office. This week, the nation’s surgeon general took the unusual step of declaring a loneliness epidemic.
“The extent that that is connected to remote work is uncertain,” Allen said, pointing to a need for more research.