The Covid-19 pandemic gave employees who otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to work remotely the work-from-home lifestyle experience. Many fell in love, opting to continue from home if given the chance. Others returned to the office, but the desire for hybrid or remote work has remained strong. Internet searches for “hybrid jobs” or “remote work” abound as employers struggle to either draw the workforce back to the office or find a way to adapt to the new environment.
“Does a remote or hybrid schedule lead to healthier and happier employees?” is at the forefront of the employer’s decision to opt for or out of participation in remote work. The answer is more complex than you might think.
The benefits of working remotely are evident. Employees experience less commuter stress, save money on vehicle maintenance, fuel, or public transportation, and enjoy more time at home for family and personal interests. TrackingHappiness found that working remotely increases employee happiness by as much as 20%, with millennials reaping the most benefits.
Similarly, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that remote workers who are given the flexibility to pursue their interests, adjust their schedules for work-life balance, and work under flexible conditions are more satisfied.
What are the cons?
These highly sought-after working arrangements do come with their fair share of pitfalls. According to the Integrated Benefits Institute, fully remote workers have a 40% increase in their rate of depression or anxiety symptoms, with hybrid employees suffering a 38% increase. Why? Feelings of isolation, particularly for employees who thrive on personal connections, majorly contribute to these symptoms. Additionally, patients with ongoing mental health challenges who would otherwise access on-site mental health services may have lost their support upon the retreat to their home office. This, paired with poor management and a lack of boundaries, can leave employees feeling dejected.
United Healthcare has published a great resource on deciphering between depression and sadness. Sharing this resource with your employees may be beneficial.
As employees continue to request and seek out hybrid and remote positions, what can employers do to create a working environment that promotes health and happiness?
Creating a healthy remote work environment is the first step. Let’s look at five ways employers can do this.
First and foremost, offer flexibility to your workers and let them choose where to work if possible. Extroverts and those who don’t have a separate office space in their home might prefer the office setting. For introverts, working from the comfort of their own space might be the best option. Employees crave this flexibility in both their workplace location and hours worked.
OFFER REMOTE BENEFITS
For employees missing out on on-site benefits, consider offering remote benefits. For instance, employees who previously saw an in-person counselor may benefit from virtual visits. If remote visits aren’t possible, coordinating in-person workdays when the benefits are available is a great second-best option.
Interactive, virtual meetings where remote workers connect and collaborate in real-time keep employees engaged even from afar. In addition, opportunities to meet and mingle in person are beneficial. Quarterly staff meetings or training are a great way to get everyone together in person and keep them connected.
Employers must avoid micro-managing their employees. While allowing your workforce the freedom to work at their own pace, on their own time, and in their own space may feel counterintuitive, it’s likely beneficial when done correctly. Micro-management style policies leave employees feeling untrusted by the employer and, therefore, unappreciated. Drop the strict guidelines and give your employees the freedom to be their best.
Respect and encourage boundaries by the employee. Often, working remotely blurs the boundary between work and home, leading to longer hours, burnout, and a sense of resentment. Avoid this by respecting the employee’s time off. Keep communication within normal working hours; if you must contact your employee during off-hours, keep it brief.
Creating a healthy work environment is only half the battle. Keeping employees healthy at home also includes educating your workforce on how to do so. Threats to the employee’s health posed by remote work include stress, poor eating habits, dehydration, isolation, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor posture.
Keep your employees informed by making discussions about these topics a regular occurrence.
Working from home combines work life’s stresses with home life’s pressures and can create a very overwhelming situation. There are several tips you can share with your employees to avoid this.
- Create and maintain a schedule that works for you. Schedule breaks, meal times, and start and end times like at the office. Avoid “hopping on just to check email” before bed or taking phone calls outside of working hours if not required. Conversely, schedule household and family responsibilities for after-work hours so they can receive your whole focus during that time.
- Maintain childcare. The U.S. Department of Labor released a report in January 2023 that found that many families struggle to afford childcare. It’s a massive expense, sometimes outdoing the average family’s mortgage. It’s no wonder remote employees consider keeping the kids home with them as they work. Unfortunately, these attempts only add to the challenge of work-life balance. While flexible employers may allow children in the home office, employees should maintain childcare, giving full attention to work during working hours.
- Create a dedicated workspace. While it may require some adjustments, a dedicated workspace ensures the employee can close the door behind them and focus on the task at hand. Family hours will remain family hours while working hours remain working hours.
- Kaiser Permanente recommends using guided meditation, gratitude practices, and breathing exercises to decrease stress during the workday.
EAT HEALTHY & HYDRATE
Those who work remotely enjoy the added benefit of having a full kitchen. Enjoying healthy dinner leftovers or putting together a healthy lunch is no problem. Why, then, did a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information find that during the Covid-19 Lockdown, over half of remote workers gained an unhealthy amount of weight? Stress from working remotely and the availability of meals leads to a propensity for eating more than usual. Remote workers will often resort to snacking when they need a break. Workers also tend to become more dehydrated during the workday. Share the following recommendations with your workforce to keep them eating and drinking in a healthy way throughout the day.
- Purchase healthy lunch items and snacks when grocery shopping. Many remote employees will skip purchasing “lunch” foods as they attempt to squeeze the ever-expanding grocery budgets by vowing to eat leftovers from dinner. Unfortunately, this leads to more snacking on highly-processed, convenient foods such as chips and crackers.
- Prepare healthy snacks ahead of time so they are easy to grab. For instance, a small mason jar filled with cut veggies is easy to grab when hunger hits.
- Avoid eating at the desk. Eating while staring at any screen, including a phone, tv, or computer, leads to mindless consumption and over-indulgence. Instead, take time to sit and enjoy the food. Make it a point to enjoy the food’s scent, flavor, and texture rather than just gobbling it down.
- Keep a bottle of water (with a lid in case of spills) near your desk. Drink throughout the day, creating goals of finishing and refilling at dedicated times.
When working remotely, employees rarely need to get up and out of the house, leading to a sharp decline in their activity level. For some, this leads to a total lack of motivation to get moving, but employees must prioritize exercise to maintain their health. Not only will this benefit their physical health, but their mental health as well. One way to encourage activity is to take “movement breaks” during virtual team meetings. During the session, instruct all employees to get up and move however they please, as long as it is safe and appropriate. Another option is to create challenges where employees track their walking or exercising distances or hours for a chance to win a prize. Remember to encourage sun safety if your employees are heading outside.
Anthem has published a great guide to getting moving at home here.
Google “remote employee,” and you’ll find dozens of photos of smiling professionals reclined on their couches as they work on their laptops. While the picture elicits a feeling of freedom and comfort, the reality is that working anywhere other than a proper desk with a suitable chair is dangerous for the employee’s health. The NYPost coined the term “Huntchback of Work from Home” to describe the physical changes that occur in remote workers who don’t have a dedicated workspace. Furniture@Work created a 3D model of what those remote workers might look like after years of poor posture. “Anna” is hunched forward with swollen eyes and cramped fingers. It’s not a pleasant sight.
What can be done? Proper workspace. Employees must have an adequate workspace setup in their homes to foster good health as they embrace the remote lifestyle. Employers can encourage employees to do this verbally and by offering financial incentives.
Isolation when working from home can be a major challenge. For some employees, it’s a dream. Introverts tend to enjoy a lifestyle of minimal human interaction, instead gaining a sense of peace and calm when left to their own devices. Their productivity and creativity may increase exponentially when isolated. Extroverted individuals, however, need human interaction regularly; without it, they may become despondent and depressed, decreasing their overall productivity and negatively affecting their health. Employers can take a 3-step approach to battling the isolation situation.
Step 1: Identify your worker’s personality type. TED offers an easy-to-use quiz that each employee can take to identify their personality type.
Step 2: Encourage each worker to interact according to their personality type. Extroverted employees might jump at the chance to return to the office or work a Hybrid schedule. Introverted employees may show no interest.
Step 3: Offer interactive work meetings that allow employees to participate as much or as little as they’d like.
Remote work isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Employers must adjust their policies and practices to fit the ever-changing landscape of this work style, ensuring their employees remain healthy and productive in the future.
Tammy McKinney, RN, creator of HelpfulHospiceNurse, is a healthcare writer and seasoned registered nurse. With experience in acute care, long-term care, rehabilitation, drug & alcohol, and hospice & palliative care, she combines her medical understanding with her love for writing to educate and inform the public on various health-related topics. You can view a snippet of her portfolio here or contact her directly on LinkedIn.