Americans are working from home in record numbers. Before the pandemic, one in 67 jobs was reportedly remote; today one in seven is—and, when nearly 50 percent of U.S. workers say they would take a pay cut in order to work from home, according to a November 2021 article in U.S.A. Today, that proportion of the workforce may increase even more.
We wanted to know what, if anything, this new trend might mean for stress levels and mental health, so we conducted a survey and invited FHE Health Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Beau A. Nelson to share his take on the results. What follow are some of the more eye-opening highlights from the quiz, along with that analysis from Dr. Nelson.
Stress and Mental Health When Work Is at Home – Examples of Quiz Questions
200 men and women took our quiz. The majority were between the ages of 26 and 45. They answered questions like the following:
- Do you feel you have lost motivation or passion for your work since working from home?
- How would you rate your daily stress (both today and before the events of 2020)?
- Do you feel you’ve been working outside of normal hours since you’ve been working from home?
We also asked respondents to rate their level of agreement or disagreement with statements such as:
- I’ve noticed an increase in anxiety, depression or sleeping problems since working from home.
- I’ve noticed a negative change in my mental health since working from home.
- My use of alcohol or substances has increased since working from home.
There were some true and false questions on the quiz as well, like:
- I’ve had a panic attack in the last year.
- I spend more than five hours a day on my Smartphone.
- I wake up at night thinking of work.
- I often eat in the same space where I work.
Key Takeaways from the Quiz? An Expert’s Answers
The quiz revealed some interesting findings. One key takeaway for Dr. Nelson was the fact that people who work from home reported working longer hours in their job. For example, an overwhelming number of respondents said they work more than eight hours a day. This finding seems to align with data from other studies, Dr. Nelson said. He cited a 2020 survey of 2,800 remote workers, 45 percent of whom said they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before.
Working longer hours may be related to a bigger workload. 52.5 percent of our respondents said they agree or strongly agree that their workload has increased since they began working from home. Meanwhile, 68 percent said they agree or strongly agree that they are working outside of normal hours since they’ve been working from home.
Such findings suggest that work-life balance can be elusive for those who work from home, but this challenge is also not new. Here is how Dr. Nelson put it:
Even before the pandemic, working from home presented a unique series of challenges … For some time, we’ve known that working at home presents challenges that most people do not recognize. Work-from-home employees need to address issues regarding communication, work-life balance, relationship-related changes, the stress of multiple commitments, and work-related demands.
All of this is a lot when you are already affected by environmental and societal changes, and this data set shows that in an already trying time with the pandemic, financial issues, school and family disruptions, and the like, there are going to be real challenges—working from home is not easier, nor is it a cure-all for human stresses.
Quiz Findings That Are Cause for Concern?
Our quiz found that a greater proportion of women than of men are adversely impacted by the stresses of work-from-home stress.
“The reporting that women are struggling more raises concerns,” Dr. Nelson said. “Traditionally we know that women are more likely to be primary caregivers, whether to children or older adults in the family. They are also more likely to be the head of household in divorced couples with children. In addition, there is the problem of always taking care of others and then thinking that you can handle it—until you cannot—and that could bring on a crisis.”
That said, while women are more predisposed to stress because of the multiple roles that they fill, they are also “more likely to reach out for mental health services and to utilize relationship supports such as friends and families,” Dr. Nelson said. “So, recognizing the tipping point is important, as well as women making self-care a priority and being aware of their own needs.”
How to Understand Work-From-Home Stress and What Makes It Unique?
It can be tempting, when interpreting data about stress and working from home, to draw a “cause-and-effect” relationship between the two. Dr. Nelson cautioned against that. A safer conclusion, based on the data, “is really the effect of multiple stressors and factors … Keeping things in context is very important. There are a variety of variables at play in life, and in some ways, working from home may be a protective factor for feeling even worse or more stressed.”
Dr. Nelson gave the example of having children at home when school is closed: “A parent might have difficulty juggling the workday when working from home, but what would be the stress level if they had to arrange childcare while working in the office? That could possibly create more stress.”
In other words, “We just do not have the data to show the positive effects of being at home and working. I think this is important, as the stress people may be experiencing is not just from working at home.”
Dr. Nelson qualified this last statement by referencing the “research that shows that people who work from home feel pressure to work longer hours, are often not able to shut off work, have lost the routines of daily living, and are dealing with multiple disruptions every day … All in all, these are factors that may need to be addressed if working from home (and that may not be part of a traditional workday at the office).”
Negative Changes in Mental Health But Still Prefer Working from Home?
What might it mean that a vast majority of respondents said they had noticed negative changes in their mental health since working at home, including increased anxiety, depression, and sleep problems—yet a vast majority also said they “enjoy working from home” and would quit if they were asked to end their remote work? Dr. Nelson viewed the negative changes in mental health as less a reflection of work-at-home stress than of a global trend during the pandemic (“higher rates of substance abuse and negative moods like depression and anxiety” that “the world as a whole” is experiencing).
From this perspective, “working from home may be a protective factor rather than a negative,” which, Dr. Nelson mused, might help to explain the strong preference to “not want to return to an office setting.” Here is how he explained that reasoning:
There is a balance between the positive of being at home and working and stresses that currently exist in the world and the negatives of being in an office and the stresses that brings on. From this point of view, those who have an opportunity to work from home generally see it as a positive, as a perk, and as a good thing. The negative moods may not then be linked directly to working from home, but rather the life that someone has, with all the other variables of finances, relationship, family, work, and other responsibilities. Simply put, people are not getting happier in our world—they are more stressed—but working at home is not the culprit for social ills.
Healthy Work-from-Home Habits – Eating in the Same Space Where You Work?
More than twice as many people who took our quiz said they eat in the same space that they work. We asked Dr. Nelson for advice for those who have no choice but to eat in the same space where they work.
“Here we want to focus on how we eat, not where we eat,” he said. “For a long time, human beings have lived in huts and one-room enclosures, and this is not a life-defeating behavior. A Western mindset, based on what we think is needed (like a five-bedroom house with 2000+ square feet, etc.) is not actually ideal. In fact, in large spaces humans isolate and have less meaningful social interactions … So, from a scientific standpoint, there is not much to this as a difficulty.”
The more important consideration, according to Dr. Nelson, is whether you view it as bad or have trouble separating yourself from work during a lunch break. He recommended disconnecting from work and focusing on eating, taking a break, or including some quiet time in the day for your mental health.
Tips for Managing a Bigger Workload and More Work-Life Balance
If there were one over-arching theme that summed up our quiz findings, it would be the problem of work-life balance. While “this is not something new with working from home,” “it seems to be becoming more and more of a problem,” Dr. Nelson observed, continuing:
Overall, we have poor balance in our lives. This comes out when a big event hits. Most people are living paycheck to paycheck, and financial stresses are huge. Workers are seeing prices climb but not salaries. Routines are disrupted. Employers are not well-tuned to their employees, and access to behavioral health services is limited at best—so stress is really not surprising.
As for how to achieve work-life balance? Dr. Nelson was quick to dispense of the notion that there is a “quick fix.” Instead, “work-life balance is both a thinking and a doing issue … Workload management is about time management, effectiveness, and knowing yourself. To be able to do this, you first need to take care of the basics of self-care: Getting restful sleep, eating healthy, exercising, having healthy ways to cope with stress, and having supports and fun in your life; these all help to keep us at our best.” Dr. Nelson also said that communicating with one’s manager and team can be helpful when one’s workload is high.
Ultimately, work-life balance is “an individual choice, based on many factors.” One person’s stress threshold will look different from another’s, and whereas the body and mind can often rally for deadlines under acute stress, “chronic stress over a long period of time … is just too much.”
When to Seek Therapy or Treatment
There are those for whom the stress of working from home may come as a shock. They may feel overwhelmed despite practicing many of the self-care tips suggested above. In these cases, when is it time to seek therapy?
“You do not have to be in a crisis situation such as binge drinking or having suicidal thoughts, in order to see a therapist,” Dr. Nelson said. He compared “therapy with a trusted and competent professional” to massage “as self-care for stressed and tired muscles” (only in this case therapy is like massage for the mind).
“Ask yourself if things are getting better or worse, or if a problem is not resolving and could use the help of additional resources.” Other times when it may be worth considering therapy:
- “If you are struggling with problems and feel you do not have adequate support”
- “If you realize that you need to develop skills and are struggling for answers to your life issues”
- “To help you get back on track, whether the symptoms are small or large”
- And “if you are really at the end of the proverbial rope and just cannot get past a problem”
In the end, work from home may not be the cause of poorer mental and behavioral health outcomes. What these quiz findings do suggest, however, is that self-care and work-life balance remain just as important for full-time remote employees as for anyone else in the workforce.
Is work stress causing anxiety, depression, or drug or alcohol issues? FHE Health may be able to help. Call us today at 1-844-529-4571 to explore treatment options.