Mental Health and Its Impact on Productivity: A Remote Work Perspective
We would have been billionaires if we had been paid a penny every time we used the word "remote" over the past four years. But since the pandemic, it's probably the first time that the world is settling a bit into how to approach work.
A Gallup survey suggests that the number of monthly remote workdays in the US has settled at 3.8 days, up from the pre-pandemic 2.4 days average. In 2020, i.e., when the pandemic started, this number soared to 5.8. Elsewhere, McKinsey's analysis outlines that office attendance has relatively stabilised but remains 30% lower than pre-pandemic days. In fact, a different McKinsey study revealed that about 32% of organisations already have an updated and well-documented playbook that defines how they work.
Indeed, remote and hybrid work cultures have become the norm. Companies have seen profits surge due to lower accommodation costs, while employees have had more time to themselves alongside their jobs.
But it's not wise to oversimplify or generalise the profound relationship between an employee's mental health and remote work. The relationship is, in fact, profound and complex with many variables influencing how a person feels and how companies can address and improve productivity.
For the purpose of this article, we shed light on the relationship between mental health and productivity, the challenges endured, and the ways to improve this relationship — all while focusing on the remote work ecosystem.
The Connection Between Mental Health and Productivity in Remote Working Context
There are a few key indicators that suggest good mental health within any work environment. These include, but are not limited to:
- There are a few key indicators that suggest good mental health within any work environment. These include, but are not limited to:
- The ability to effectively manage work and personal life
- Minimal stress associated with work-related activities
- Feeling motivated and satisfied with the responsibilities at hand
- Manageable workloads and ability to effectively delegate
- Learning mindset and continuous progression throughout the course of the job
- Sense of belongingness and inclusion
A host of literature over the past few decades has been dedicated to accommodating an environment that supports all these indicators and makes lives easy for employees. The idea is to make them feel wanted so they can better engage and be productive. However, it's an altogether different thing to establish best practices in line with this chain of thought when the workforce is remotely distributed across the world.
But even before establishing best practices, companies need to understand the interplay between mental health and productivity. The answer to that isn't as straightforward.
Consider this: in 2021, researchers conducted a survey of 1285 remote workers from Latin America to understand perceived stress, work satisfaction, engagement, productivity, and more in a remote setting. They noted that the remote environments increased stress and reduced work-life balance but increased overall productivity. This is ideally opposed to what we might presume when we think about the proportionality between mental health and productivity.
Another study surveyed more than 3000 office workers and conceptualised the differences in mental health and productivity before and after the pandemic. Researchers leveraged factors like sleep disturbance, overtime work, demographics, social support, etc., to better understand the impact of the remote working culture. The results revealed that physical stress increased as well as presenteeism since workers were also engaged in work activities when they were sick. A direct relationship was observed between this heightened work engagement and decreased productivity.
But there's another side to the coin that runs the mainstream narrative, and understandably so. For instance, a survey found that 72% of European workers prefer working remotely since it helps them maintain work-life balance. Workers in Finland (74%), Germany (73%), and the UK (72%) are supporters of the idea that remote working is, in fact, more advantageous than the pitfalls it brings along. In fact, 61% of workers directly relate the flexible remote working culture to higher individual productivity. They feel that they're better off when working in the environment that they prefer, and rightly so.
The Benefits of Remote Work on Mental Health
Ideally, there are all sorts of angles that can be explored when talking about mental health and productivity in a remote work setting. That's predominantly because this relationship is hardly linear. It's multifaceted and constitutes:
- Individual differences in terms of needs and preferences
- Different perceptions of work-life balance and integration
- Different expectations on the social interaction end
- Distinct level of support offered by organisations across levels
- Distinct home environments and working conditions
But there are definitely a lot of benefits that complement the inclination towards a remote work setting. These include:
Flexibility and Reduced Commuting Stress
Studies suggest that remote workers can save about $4000 in yearly expenses on commute. That's a big up when we consider the rising fuel costs, the ever-increasing need to have insurance, and more. Not to forget the stress associated with managing time when travelling back and forth from the office.
Some enterprises also offer flexible timing, so employees don't have stringent policies to adhere to when it comes to completing a certain amount of work hours. The focus is more on getting the projects completed on time while sustaining high standards. That serves well to amplify engagement and motivation.
Improved Work-life Balance
Some studies, even before the pandemic, have indicated that remote working has a close relationship with the reduction of work-family conflicts — possibly because people can save time and spend it with their family doing the things they like. Of course, as we discussed above, the comprehension of work-life balance and integration differs for everyone, but there's certainly room for a host of advantages here.
Access To a Supportive Environment
There's a big "If" attached to this benefit because it depends on how the organisation perceives and approaches remote work, how coherent are they in their policies and plans to accommodating a distributed workforce, and how much they want to invest in human resources and technologies like productivity monitoring tools to make remote work a success.
But if all things are in place, organisations can prevent quiet quitting, burnout, and slow churn. They can forge successful employee relationships and engage them through and through in the enterprise's growth.
Challenges to Mental Health in Remote Work
The challenges are expected because remote work might not suit everyone's life needs and preferences. For example:
- People can experience social isolation and loneliness, especially when they're not with their families and not as socially active as their peers.
- Burnout and overwork can become a common practice, with employers expecting workers to be at their work desks for a relatively extended portion of the day. This negates the idea that remote work saves time because the time saved is actually exploited as an opportunity to demand extra work.
- Lack of boundaries between work and personal life can transpire. Again, the idea of flexibility and independence becomes a peril because some people might consider it to be an opportunity to be in constant contact with their peers.
Strategies to Mitigate These Challenges
We've had conversations with a host of executives across industries to better comprehend what works for them when they're implementing measures to enhance workplace productivity and engagement. They've used CleverControl in a variety of ways to address a variety of concerns, including scenarios that have totally unprecedented courtesy of remote settings. But through these conversations, we've realised that a well-thought-out plan constituting personalised strategies can spell success with a remote setup.
Here's how to go about it:
Draft Policies in Alliance with Expectations
Expectations run both ways. For instance, an employer has productivity expectations, while an employee could look for support and inclusiveness. Survey all the stakeholders and document the key aspects that your policies should revolve around. These can include work hours, communication protocols, flexible timings, etc.
Leverage a Productivity Monitoring Tool
The technological infrastructure to support a remote working culture could be substantial. For instance, it could entail a focus on audiovisual solutions like videoconferencing software, AI-powered employee support and HR products, etc. But what's integral to making sure that the policies you have outlined are being adhered to is ensuring that you're monitoring productivity metrics granularly. A productivity monitoring tool like CleverControl could be your best friend here for multiple reasons:
- You can define work patterns better by observing productivity drops
- You can ensure that remote workstations are safe from any internal threats or unauthorised access
- You can take proactive action on policy changes to accommodate newer project requirements
Concentrate Heavily on Well-Being and Mental-Health
Are the employees getting the requisite support in their domain? Are they getting counselling services? Are they being encouraged by their managers while working through rather sophisticated projects? Is their micromanagement that needs to be curbed?
Ask these questions by running anonymous surveys to better understand workplace dynamics that otherwise go unnoticed and impact mental health.
Bring in Performance Metrics, Feedback Loops, and Learning Opportunities
A productivity monitoring tool can give you profound insights into performance highs and drops. Based on that, create a plan for offering continuous and progressive feedback. This is also an opportunity to introduce learning opportunities. An excellent way to go about that is to implement a comprehensive learning management system (LMS) that supports gamification, social learning, and microlearning.
Facilitate In-Person Interactions
Remote work doesn't mean that you never have to meet. In fact, organising occasional in-person meetups or retreats can work wonders.
Consider this: a company noticed a significant performance drop after Christmas last year. They were using CleverControl to record active and inactive times and found that employees were struggling to get on track in January after the holiday season. So, at the end of the month, they implemented a policy that the team would meet once every month to discuss growth, learning opportunities, project status, etc., and once every month casually. After a quarter, they recorded a 10% increase in active time. After surveying what changed, they revealed that employees felt more accountable and motivated after having a few in-person interactions.
In a Nutshell
Working remotely can be a boon or bane for an organisation. Oversimplifying the benefits and challenges of this setup and how it influences mental health and productivity is a recipe for disaster. As such, employees must ensure they are granularly assessing every enterprise need and proceeding according to a set plan.
The above-mentioned strategies would work well as a rudimentary basis for your action plan.