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Dr. Brynna Connor, MD
Dr. Brynna Connor
Healthcare Ambassador at NorthWestPharmacy.com

Mental Health

Can Working From Home Negatively Affect Your Mental Health?

April 21, 2021

In the era of COVID-19, many of us have discovered what it is like to be a remote worker. Our working days often look very different than they used to. In many cases, these changes can have a negative effect on mental health.

Experts predict that many jobs will remain remote after the effects of COVID-19 begin to disappear. In one mid-pandemic survey, more than 80% of employers said they were considering offering more work-from-home options even after the pandemic ended. If there is a chance that you will continue to work from home for some time, it may help to know how to set up your work environment and routines to better protect your mental health.

It’s Not Just You: Working From Home Can Be Stressful

As many as 3 out of 4 workers in the U.S. have reported feeling stressed during COVID-19. And research from before the pandemic began has found that remote workers tend to feel more stressed than those who work on-site.

Stress can come with many symptoms. The following signs may indicate that your stress levels are high:

  • Feelings of nervousness or uncertainty
  • Feelings of sadness or depression
  • Tiredness
  • Feelings of anger or irritability
  • Low motivation levels
  • Difficulties with paying attention
  • Sleeping problems

There are several things that can be adding to workplace stress during COVID-19. Many people have additional duties, both at work and at home. Some people may not have all of the tools they need to get their job done from their house. Additionally, changes in routine, uncertainty about the future, and worries about health concerns all add up to more stress.

Sometimes, you only experience stress for a short period of time, such as when you’re in a new, scary, or dangerous situation. This is known as acute stress, and is normal – it’s the body’s way of keeping us safe. However, when stress lasts long-term, it can become a problem. This type of stress, called chronic stress, can lead to negative effects on mental and emotional health.

Mental Effects of Stress

If your brain is feeling foggy or if it seems like you just can’t get things done like you used to, there’s a good reason. High levels of chronic stress can cause memory problems. Stressed people are also more likely to have low energy levels and difficulty focusing. Increased stress also leads to more serious mental health problems. Nearly a third of telecommuters say they have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic. People are also increasingly turning to drugs and alcohol to cope.

When stress remains a constant presence hovering in our minds, it can cause burnout. People who are burned out have very negative feelings about work. They often feel very exhausted, distance themselves from work or from coworkers, and don’t get as much done. Burnout is a real diagnosis and one that I continue to see in my medical practice in the last 14 months. Burnout affects the way the brain works. People who feel burned out have a harder time remembering things and paying attention. On the other hand, some research has found that when people feel better about working from home, they are less likely to feel burned out. Finding ways to make telecommuting more enjoyable may help protect your mental health.

Impacts on Physical Health

People who experience long-term chronic stress are also more likely to have various physical health problems. These can include:

Stress can also negatively affect sleep, which can in turn cause additional health problems. Among people who have started working from home due to COVID-19, at least half report that they aren’t getting as much sleep as they used to.

The Benefits of Working From Home

Although working remotely can be stressful in some ways, it may help to know that setting up in a home office can positively affect your mental health too. If you’ve been working at home for over a year, you may not be remembering all the stressful parts of your previous in-person role.

No Commuting

The average commute time for Americans was at an all-time high before the pandemic hit. Spending a lot of time in the car every day can increase stress levels, leading to negative effects on physical and mental health:

Staying at home during your workday may mean that you avoid stressful traffic, have more social time, and get more sleep.

Productivity Boosts

Some research shows that when people work from home, they get more done. Additionally, the vast majority of employers have said that productivity has increased during COVID-19. Believe it or not, you may be doing better at your job now than you were when you were going into the office.

Other Benefits

Working from home may help you save money. You aren’t paying as much for commute-related expenses, and eating lunch at home is usually cheaper than buying lunch at work. Additionally, you could move to a more affordable location and work from there. If you plan your schedule right, you could also have more time for other non-work activities like exercise or hobbies. Many people enjoy their jobs more when they can do them from home.

Mental Health Solutions for Remote Workers

Telecommuting can be both a relief from stress and a source of it. If you restructure your working day and make the most of working from home, you may end up feeling better about your job and having less mental health worries.

Create a Separate Work Environment

Trying to resist temptation and avoid distractions wears down your mental energy, which can make you feel more stressed at work. Take a look around your home workspace. What catches your eye? A cluttered desk, television, or nearby smartphone may be a constant source of distraction. Separate yourself from temptation as much as possible while working. This separation is crucial so that you can close the door to work, both figuratively and literally, after your workday is complete.

Eliminate Multitasking

Research shows that people who multitask more often are actually worse at it! If you’re trying to do multiple things at once, you may not be doing as good a job as you think you are.

Workers in one survey spent an average of 40% of their day multitasking by communicating with coworkers while trying to accomplish other tasks. Technology like Microsoft Teams and Slack makes it possible to work from home, but also provides another source of distraction. Studies have found that people who are regularly messaging while they work take longer to get things done. Try to avoid checking these apps while in the middle of a big project, or schedule time to catch up on messages once every couple of hours.

Work Smarter By Using Your Body’s Internal Clock

Different processes within the mind and the body follow a pattern called a circadian rhythm or a biological “clock.” At different times of day, things like alertness, digestion, and body temperature naturally change. You likely feel more energetic and focused during specific times. One study found that students were likely to get better grades during morning classes, while another found that test scores improved after lunch.

Try noting how you feel at different times each day, or track your activities with a time-tracking website or app. When you look back at what you accomplished over multiple days, you might see a pattern. What time of day do you usually get the most done? Try scheduling tasks that require a lot of focus during times of higher energy and productivity. Then, plan to check email or take meetings when your amount of focus is lower. If you seem to hit a slump at the same time each day, try taking a break right before you usually reach that point.

Stick to a Set Work Schedule

Does avoiding a daily commute mean you have more free time? Not always. A pre-pandemic study found that people who telecommute work an average of 3 hours more per week. During COVID-19, the length of the average workday increased further. More work may equal more stress.

Try to set consistent work hours each day. If possible, choose a start time and end time to your workday, and make sure to also schedule in some break periods to give your brain a chance to recharge. Sticking to a schedule can help give you a stronger sense of control.

One of the major reasons people have been working longer during the pandemic is that they spend more time on email. Try taking your work email off of your smartphone and only answering it during working hours. If you sometimes need to respond to email during the evening, designate one small block of time for checking your messages and stay out of your inbox for the rest of your non-working day.

Once your workday is done, it’s time to distract your brain. Try building a habit of doing a certain ritual once you’re finished each day. This can help signal to your brain that work is done and it’s time to switch gears. Engaging in a more passive activity like watching TV makes it easy for work-related thoughts to creep in. Instead, try activities that require your full attention. Picking up a new hobby, planning some social time with a loved one, or cooking a fun dinner can help you leave your work behind and fully enjoy your free time.

Move Your Body

Sitting all day is bad for your health. It increases risk of many different health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Even if you regularly schedule exercise sessions outside of work, it doesn’t undo all of the damage of sitting down for the remainder of the day.

Make time for movement throughout the workday. Do a couple of stretches during a 5-minute break or take a 15-minute walk around the block. Try not to remain in your seat for large blocks of time. I often tell my patients to take a short break every hour if sitting at a computer. Your eyes will also thank you, since computer work causes strain to the eyes.

Get Some Sunlight

Going on a walk is a great step, but location matters too. Some studies have found that there is a difference between walking around in the city and spending time in nature. In a city setting, there is more chaos – honking cars and bright billboards are calling out for your attention. However, when you take a walk through a more natural setting, your brain gets a chance to reset and you can improve your ability to focus. Other research has found that walking through nature lowers anxiety levels and improves your mood. Find a park nearby to spend some time in, or schedule time on the weekends to immerse yourself in a natural environment.

Stay Socially Connected

Telecommuting often means that you’re spending a lot of the day on your own. Make sure you’re engaging in social time, both inside and outside of work. Take a bit of time during your workday to check in with coworkers. During work breaks, message a friend or family member. Outside of work, spend some quality time playing with your kids, or plan a visit or phone call to catch up with a loved one. Making time for social activities can boost your sense of belonging, improve self-esteem, and provide an outlet for giving and receiving support.

Balancing Responsibilities at Home

When you work from home, it may seem like it should be easier to keep up with your roles around the house, but the opposite is often the case. Work and home stress can easily bleed together, with one set of jobs distracting you from finishing the other.

Women are particularly facing difficulties in this area. 44% of women and only 14% of men say they are the only one in their household with childcare duties. Women are also more likely to feel under pressure, exhausted, or burned out at work. Overall, many parents are finding it very difficult to work from home while also overseeing their children’s online schooling.

Work with your family or housemates to find a solution that works for everyone. Try to lessen the amount that you multitask by setting up a schedule with your spouse to divide childcare or pet-related responsibilities. Make sure you’re devoting some time to the kids, but also set aside time where you’re only thinking about work. Have your spouse or another family member keep an eye on the kids, even if just for an hour or two. Try to set boundaries to protect this time – it’s okay to say "no" sometimes.

Remember That This is Temporary

Yes, remote workers have reported higher levels of stress during the pandemic – but so have on-site workers. A great deal of the stress that people are feeling right now is not just due to working conditions. Living through a global pandemic has meant that many of us are dealing with health concerns, isolation from loved ones, financial difficulties, and new routines. These other factors all add to our stress levels, making working from home seem especially difficult right now. It’s possible that once the number of COVID-19 infections drops and regulations are lifted, some of these other stressors may improve. Working from home may become more enjoyable once the effects of the pandemic lessen.

Know When to Ask For Help

Long-term stress can easily turn into more serious mental health problems. If you are constantly feeling overwhelmed or are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression, talking to a healthcare professional may help. Bring up these feelings at your next appointment with your primary care provider, or seek out a psychiatrist, therapist, or counselor. Many different websites and apps now also offer virtual counseling sessions. Talking to a professional can help you further learn how to manage stress and improve mental health.

Conclusion

Despite the possibility of added stress, most people like to work from home at least some of the time. In one recent survey, nearly 3 out of 4 people said that in the future, they hoped to be able to split their time between working at home and working in the office.

There are many strategies that can help you lessen stress while remote working. Even though you may have been working from home for over a year now, it’s possible that you still haven’t found a good routine or an effective work-life balance. Continuing to use trial and error to find potential solutions may help you protect your mental health.

Articles authored by Dr. Connor are intended to facilitate awareness about health and wellness matters generally and are not a substitute for professional medical attention or advice from your own healthcare practitioner, which is dependent on your detailed personal medical condition and history. You should always speak with your own qualified healthcare practitioner about any information in any articles you may read here before choosing to act or not act upon such information.