The Psychological Impact of Remote Work

In recent years, the landscape of work has undergone a significant transformation with the rise of remote working. Enabled by advancements in technology and embraced by countless organizations, remote work has become common practice for many professionals worldwide. While remote working has been shown to offer numerous benefits, such as enhanced productivity, creativity & flexibility, and increased job satisfaction (Battisti et al. 2022), it also brings forth a range of psychological impacts that deserve careful examination. Indistinct boundaries between employees’ work and personal lives, an inability to ‘switch off,’ social isolation, and loneliness have all been observed in the literature on remote work (Soga et al., 2022). In this article, we take a closer look at these barriers to employee wellbeing and make recommendations for leaders to overcome them. 


Perceptions of being ‘constantly available’ in the age of remote work pose a significant challenge to psychological wellbeing. Studies have shown that even something as simple as the sound made when receiving a work-related push notification heightens attentional switches in the brain (Uther et al., 2020), thereby disrupting individuals’ perceived balance between their work and non-work role. Receiving an alert while we carry out existing work tasks disrupts and diverts our attention; thereby requiring cognitive resources to hold either the unfinished work task or interruption in working memory. This can have particularly detrimental impacts on neurodiverse individuals, whose capacity to invoke recovery processes to adjust to task switching is already reduced. Auditory alerts which signal work related messages feed into a heightened state of psychological arousal in the long term, creating a potentially vicious cycle of fatigue and hypervigilance (Uther et al., 2020). Combined with the societal pressure associated with the expectation of constant availability, this presents a dangerous model of stress and burnout if alerts are not managed. The adoption of clear and consistent organisational guidance related to technology use and expectations of availability may give workers more clarity and reduce anxiety associated with the need to feel ‘always on’.’ 


Social isolation and loneliness have been identified as key challenges faced by remote workers. In an online poll of 11,383 workers across 24 countries, 62% of respondents said that they found remote working socially isolating, and 50% feared that remote working could harm their chances of a promotion (Reaney, 2012). The informal impromptu conversations that colleagues and managers alike have the opportunity to engage in while at the office are important for strengthening workplace relationships. Out of all communication methods available to employees (e.g., telephone, e-mail, instant messaging etc.) employees reported that face-to-face interaction is most important for maintaining workplace friendships (Sia, Pedersen, Gallagher, & Kopaneva, 2014). The argument has also been made that fully remote workers also do not benefit from the social comparison effect that is provided by being with others (Mann et al., 2000). Essentially, this view suggests that humans use each other as social barometers – looking to others to give ourselves an idea of how we should be behaving. Without this, employees lack external references to evaluate their own performance against. This can pose a particular challenge with new hires who, if working remotely, lack any reference within the existing corporate culture with which to measure themselves against.


Given, then, that remote working poses such challenges to workers, how can these risks be mitigated? Throughout the literature, one point has become apparent: organizational-level changes are the most powerful when it comes to bolstering employee wellness, particularly in terms of prevention behaviours (Moen et al., 2011). It is not enough to simply change the workplace to one of remote working to reap the benefits of such a structure. Implementing an effective model of remote working requires organizational and managerial transformation. Battisti et al. (2022) claim that the perceived increase in negative behavioural syndromes associated with remote working, such as overwork, burnout, and stress caused by technology is due to poor management.


In terms of the blurred distinction between employees’ work and personal lives, specific guidance should be provided on when a remote worker’s obligations begin and end. In January 2021, a majority of EU politicians backed a legislative initiative to develop a Europe-wide directive on the ‘right to disconnect,’ formalizing policy on after-hours use of technology for work-related communications. This is hardly unprecedented: as early as 2012, Volkswagen blocked certain staff from accessing emails from the evening time until morning to enforce mandatory downtime. However, this is not a one-size-fits-all recommendation – organizational level changes must promote real flexibility in terms of employees’ control over the timing of their work, rather than implementing accommodations that leave existing work-time arrangements intact (Moen et al. 2011). Workers can supplement this at the individual level by establishing clear boundaries in terms of their schedule, expectations, and physical working space. A study from Stanford University found that 51% of American remote workers were working from either their bedroom or a communal area (Lufkin, 2022). As well as running the risk of not providing sufficient ergonomic support, working from a bedroom or couch also diminishes the psychological distinction between our work and home lives. While the onus of repsonsibility still lies at the organizational level, individuals can take these steps to more clearly define their boundaries while working remotely.


Organizational level changes to combat social isolation and loneliness are perhaps more difficult to foster. On the one hand, companies may make use of virtual spaces and platforms where their employees can connect, share ideas, and engage in casual conversations. On the other, this may simply add to the technostress problem employees face by adding another barrage of notifications and communications they feel required to check throughout the workday. At a base level, the most important way companies and managers can combat loneliness in the remote workers is to schedule regular communications with them. This is particularly important for new hires, who could benefit greatly from peer support and mentoring programs throughout their onboarding to introduce them to the corporate culture and create a sense of belonging. A Harvard Business School project found that ‘virtual water coolers’ (videoconference sessions for small groups of interns and a senior manager) improved organizational commitment among the interns involved, which in turn leads to higher job performance and career outcomes. Fostering a sense of community which travels all the way down from executives to interns is what allows us to create positive corporate culture and a sense of belonging which combats loneliness in remote workers.


In summary, remote work has psychological impacts relating to disrupting and blurring the distinction in the work-life balance, feeding into a dangerous cycle of hypervigilance and fatigue as employees are unable to ‘switch off.’ Working remotely can also cause employees to become socially isolated, removed from the corporate culture, and disengaged, leading to poorer career outcomes. At the bottom line, it has been demonstrated that organizational-level change is required to mitigate these risks – with the onus of responsibility being on the company and its managers to establish a working model which reaps the benefits of remote work, while avoiding its pitfalls and protecting the wellbeing of their employees.





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