Remote Work and Mental Health: A Toolkit for Better Balance and Increased Productivity

10/08/20217 min read
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June Bell
Correspondent for
June Bell is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The National Law Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and HR Magazine.
Remote Work and Mental Health: A Toolkit for Better Balance and Increased Productivity

Unlike workers who must brave a commute and spend their days in an office, remote workers have more control over their schedules and their environments. But working from home can bring its own challenges, including feelings of isolation and disconnection. Managers of remote workers can help ensure the continued well-being of their team by understanding how to recognize, prevent, and manage those mental health challenges.

First, the good news: Remote and hybrid work arrangements have been adopted by millions of people, with many saying they are more productive and happier than they were in an office full time. Remote workers surveyed by Buffer in 2019 said their favorite benefits were flexible schedules and the ability to work from any location, including their homes. A recent two-year study of 800,000 employees at Fortune 500 companies found that remote workers reported stable to increased productivity levels. A Stanford University study backs that claim, citing a 13% increase in productivity for remote workers.

It’s not all good news, however. That same Buffer study of 2,500 remote workers also found that their biggest struggle was clocking out at the end of the day, a challenge cited by 22% of respondents. A close second, at 19%, was loneliness.

Remote workers may have a harder time than their in-office colleagues creating clear boundaries between work and home, says Cathleen Swody, an organizational psychologist and executive coach who has advised Fortune 500 companies, including Citigroup and Pfizer, and is a partner at consultancy firm Thrive Leadership in Hartford, Connecticut. She tells that without daily trips from home to office and then back again, the workday is less defined. Remote workers also don’t typically have colleagues who stop by to invite them out for lunch or a walk. Remove the delineators of work and rest, and workers may find themselves spending too much time at their desks.

“People continue to work past the point of diminishing returns,” Swody says. “Working 15 minutes longer is not going to save the day.” Overwork can manifest itself in mistakes or lack of prioritization, with folks continuing to work just because it’s there, not necessarily because it needs to be done, she says. She likens workers’ stamina to a laptop battery: Both run down if they’re never recharged.

Exhaustion is one of the dimensions of the World Health Organization’s 2019 definition of burnout. The others are: reduced efficiency at work, feelings of negativity, and “increased mental distance from one’s job.” How often workers report those feelings is significant, and exhaustion alone shouldn’t be equated with burnout, says Christina Maslach, Professor Emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on burnout. Maslach is one of the authors of The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It and a creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, lauded in Harvard Business Review as “the first scientifically developed measure of burnout.”

Burnout, Maslach tells, is an equal-opportunity phenomenon that affects introverts and extroverts, men and women, parents and childless people, workers who are remote and on-site, and new employees and veteran workers.

Predictors of burnout fall into six major categories of mismatch between the worker and their job. Managers of remote workers should look for imbalances in the following areas:

  • Workload, especially when remote workers don't have the resources they need to comfortably work from their home office.
  • Control, especially where workers have little discretion to make decisions.
  • Feedback, particularly in roles where there’s a lack of positive feedback.
  • Community, including insufficient backing from colleagues, vendors, managers, and leadership.
  • Fairness, especially when it comes to discrepancies in the recognition awarded to in-office versus remote employees.
  • Values and meaning, for example, when people feel the work they’re doing doesn’t matter, or they face insurmountable barriers due to race, gender, or sexual orientation.

Even one area of mismatch between a worker and a job can prompt feelings of burnout, Maslach says.

To understand the susceptibility of your remote team for burnout, take our quiz and offer the following tools to reduce their risk.

Beware that these issues are systemic workplace problems, not distinct worker issues, Maslach cautions. “Burnout tells you more about what’s going on in the workplace than about the individual people in that workplace,” she says. Expecting workers to manage those stressors solely by taking better care of themselves puts the onus on them, she notes, and does nothing to push employers to address larger problematic workplace issues.

Managers of remote workers can encourage them to mitigate the potential for burnout with the following strategies:

Give workers a manageable workload and control over their schedules. Remote employees are adept at managing their time and their assignments, and that freedom is a key reason they prefer remote work. But even a flexible schedule can be overcrowded when multiple deadlines loom or far-flung teams need to schedule meetings outside a colleague’s typical work schedule.

Leaders can help by taking note of whether team members who are typically punctual become chronically late to meetings. “Managers can look out for their people when they start to notice unusual patterns,” Swody says. Chronic lateness at meetings or missing deadlines can be indicators of overwhelm. Managers can step in to more equitably distribute work and ask workers what kind of support they need.

Provide positive feedback. Salary alone can’t take the place of recognition and appreciation for a job well done. “Some people work in environments where the best thing that can happen to them is nothing bad,” Maslach says. “There aren’t any disasters, but nothing good happens.”

Pay and bonuses are meaningful incentives, but leaders should also be generous with praise and quick to express gratitude for great ideas, teamwork, and projects that make it across the finish line. People appreciate recognition, Maslach notes.

Foster a healthy workplace community. Toxic behavior can occur even when teams work remotely. Bullying and unresolved conflicts cause stress and exhaustion that can deplete workers’ motivation and energy, Maslach says.

When relationships are frayed and conflicts loom, managers and leaders need to help resolve problems. Everyone needs to receive a clear message that harassment, bullying, and offensive behavior have no place in a work environment, even when work is remote. In the ideal workplace, team members feel a sense of community and connection that encourages them to thrive and be engaged.

Advocate for fairness. Promotions, recognition, and bonuses must be based on merit and accomplishments, not favoritism or politics. Rules and policies need to be clear and fair in terms of who gets the next opportunity or a special assignment, says Maslach.

She advised a company where fairness was “a hot issue” for team members. When they were given the freedom to reimagine the criteria for a distinguished service award, they felt better about their employer and their jobs. “They were more positive about the control they had at work because they’d actually made a difference,” Maslach says.

Help create meaningful work. People enjoy their work because of what they can achieve, the benefits they bring to other people, and the feeling that they’re making the world a little bit better, Maslach says.

That sense of purpose and mission can be present in any field when teammates understand how their work serves a greater good.

Ask for—and then implement—team members’ suggestions about how to make work better. Making a list isn’t enough, Maslach says. Real change happens when managers are open to trying the ideas. Reducing feelings of disconnect could be as simple as creating small cohorts of colleagues who regularly meet online to socialize, she says.

Remote workers who want to remain engaged and inspired by their jobs are more likely to thrive when they have a manager who helps them recognize the signs of exhaustion and burnout, and takes steps to keep them at bay. Those steps might include changing roles, taking a vacation, or discussing strategies to reduce an overwhelming workload or relentless schedule. Doing so could lower the occurrence of mental health issues in your workforce and help you avoid unnecessary attrition—something every company can and should get behind in the era of The Great Resignation.

June Bell
Correspondent for
June Bell is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The National Law Journal, The San Francisco Chronicle, and HR Magazine.