The Coming Mental Health Crisis as Remote Working Surges
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Freelance and remote work has its benefits. But it has downsides too.
Wake up. Check your email. Put on a business shirt and whatever pants you have lying around — nobody’s going to see them on Zoom. Prepare for another day of not seeing anybody.
It’s a routine that’s become familiar to millions around the world who are suddenly working from home due to coronavirus-spurred lockdowns. But the trend toward working from wherever was already surging — an Owl Labs study on remote work last year found that 30 percent of respondents globally work remotely full time, and nearly two-thirds do it sometimes. Meanwhile, 28 percent of the American workforce is full-time freelance, according to a 2019 Freelancers Union report. The sudden ubiquity of working from home due to coronavirus is expected to have far-reaching effects even after the pandemic passes, as some businesses decide they prefer not to pay for office space, and employees take a pass on commuting.
Data on the mental health toll of those who work at home versus those who work in offices is still scanty. But a survey of U.K. workers comparing those who work in offices to freelancers who don’t, yet perform similar work, found that:
Freelancers were 86 percent more likely than office workers to self-report depression.
The research was conducted by office supply company Viking and surveyed 1,500 people, equal numbers of freelancers and office workers. Thirty percent of office workers said they suffered from depression, compared to 56 percent of freelancers. More than 6 in 10 freelancers said their work made them lonely, and they were also far more likely to report stress due to work than their office-based counterparts.
It’s about to affect a whole lot more people. Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, has been studying remote work trends and providing workplace strategy advice to employers for more than a decade. She predicts 25 to 30 million U.S. employees will regularly work from home within the next two years, even though before the coronavirus crisis only 5 million worked from home half the time or more.
Freelance and remote work is often touted as a mental health benefit. Freelancers are their own bosses, they work when they want to, and even those with contracts who work remotely get to avoid the stress of commuting or putting on shoes.
“People are like: ‘I’m going to quit my job, yeah! I’m going to be my own boss,’” says Jenny Stallard, 42, a freelance lifestyle journalist in the U.K. who founded the blog Freelance Feels to discuss the burden on herself and her peers. “But you’re not your own boss and you often have three or four bosses at once.”
And working from home itself can be depressing, as you may have discovered in recent weeks. It’s not just the pandemic anxiety or having to be around your family more than you want to be — conditions that presumably have an end date. Instead, workers often find themselves isolated, forgetting to leave the house and unable to switch off at the end of the day without the obvious cutoff point that something like physically leaving the office provides.
Tom Miller is the CEO of ClearForce, an organization that specializes in identifying employee stress and high-risk behavior, and he believes that business owners play an important role in ensuring an employee’s well-being, especially during the pandemic where employees working remotely may be socially isolated, financially insecure and stressed out. “Executives, managers and team leaders need to take concrete steps to address employee well-being while also protecting the organization from new forms of insider risk,” he says.
According to Miller, even outside the context of coronavirus and depression, organizations have to take responsibility for keeping tabs on employees to determine whether they’ve become disengaged or overly stressed. While good mental health practices look different for different people, companies and co-workers should look out for remote workers and try to stay connected despite the distance, even if going for a coffee together isn’t on the table.
Still, remote work’s benefits may outweigh the detriments. The 2020 State of Remote Work report from Buffer found that 98 percent of the remote workers surveyed never wanted to go back to office life. Still, 20 percent said their biggest struggle with the lifestyle was loneliness, and another 20 percent said it was communicating and collaborating with others. Natalie Franke organizes community events for freelancers through the business she cofounded, the Rising Tide Society, and says it’s key to lean into nonwork relationships to help yourself unplug sometimes. One of the other benefits of remote work is you can often take half an hour for a stroll outside or to exercise in your living room to boost endorphins when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
Or you could take a tip from Stallard, who says when you’re not feeling like exercise, you can always — away from prying eyes — “play a little George Michael and dance around the kitchen.”