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Is remote working fuelling a loneliness epidemic?

Alongside feelings of disconnection from others, remote work poses a real threat to work-life balance. Remote workers are essentially consolidating their place of work with their place of rest, reducing the idea of home as a safe space; a place where we switch off from work-related responsibilities.

If there was a positive to come from the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be that it encouraged us to re-evaluate the ways in which we work. It has been estimated that 5.6 million people worked from home in 2020: 17.4% of the UK workforce. Many of us flocked to our laptops from our gardens so we could bask in the sun and work at the same time, making a large proportion of UK workers never want to look back. We are starting to make it out of the woods now, and we are seeing our idea of “normality” return after a long two years. This doesn’t mean that it has returned to the identical nature of what it once was, however, because we appear to have made some of (what were supposed to be) temporary changes, permanent. This includes our collective approaches to hybrid, flexible and remote working.

With the four-day working week being trialled across 70 British companies and 3,300 workers, and calls for more hybrid and flexible working opportunities, the one method that doesn’t appear to be operating as well as we’d thought is full-time remote work. Amid growing concerns about loneliness in remote workers, it is also proving to be a real threat to work-life balance and contributing to a lack of trust between managers and employees.

The Loneliness Epidemic
During what seemed like a lifetime of countless lockdowns and social distancing rules, the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a loneliness epidemic. According to the Office for National Statistics, many areas reported high rates of loneliness and poor mental health. In 2020, 2.6 million adults declared that they felt lonely “often” or “always”, with this increasing to 3.7 million by 2021. Some were spending less time with family and friends, whereas others were spending long periods of time with zero human contact or social interaction which, of course, is a recipe for poor mental health.

According to one report that observed the link between COVID-19 and rates of loneliness in particular, areas with a high concentration of young people, unemployment, and low incomes were most at risk. Adults who lived alone or had a pre-existing mental health condition were also highly susceptible to loneliness. With this in mind, it is certainly possible that one of the reasons why remote working is proving to be unsuccessful is because it is not providing UK workers with the opportunity to recover from the long periods spent in isolation from others.

The Importance of Socialisation
Humans are a sociable species. Psychologists have long identified the desire to feel connected to others as a basic human need, and interpersonal relationships have a significant impact on our mental health, health behaviour, physical health, and mortality risk (Umberson & Montez, 2010). This is because our physiological systems are highly responsive to positive social interactions. They are essential to every aspect of our health, and research has demonstrated that having strong support networks and community bonds fosters both our physical and emotional health. Without it, we are at risk of a variety of physical and mental conditions like high blood pressure, cognitive decline, and depression.

Going to work is a great source of social interaction. Research has demonstrated that relationships with co-workers are one of the top drivers of employee engagement, along with cultivating teamwork and reducing the risk of depression and high blood pressure. We spend more time at work than anywhere else, and for this reason, remote workers are at risk of spending large amounts of time alone. In a survey of 2000 UK and US remote workers, a large proportion felt disproportionately isolated from others, and believed that working from home was negatively impacting their ability to build relationships and sustain social connections both in and outside work. 67% of workers aged 18-34 stated that since working remotely, they have found it harder to make friends and maintain relationships with work colleagues. 71% felt that their work colleagues had become distant, and 54% attributed remote working as the main cause for drifting apart. It was also found that the social element to work was more important to younger workers, who tend to be more sociable overall. When asked about how they would feel about working remotely on a permanent basis, 81% of younger workers expressed genuine concerns about loneliness. This is because younger generations are more inclined to go out and socialise than older generations (who tend to have more family-oriented responsibilities), which perhaps explains why the social element to work is less of a contending factor when it comes to job appeal in workers aged over 35.

The Work-Life Balance
Alongside feelings of disconnection from others, remote work poses a real threat to work-life balance. Remote workers are essentially consolidating their place of work with their place of rest, reducing the idea of home as a safe space; a place where we switch off from work-related responsibilities. Research has shown that commuting to work improves work-life balance, and many workers use their daily commute to switch on and off from work. Remote work removes the tangible boundaries that separate the home from the workplace, which can then make it difficult to compartmentalize different parts of life.

Physical barriers make it easier for the brain to make mental separations. By working in an office, for example, the environment is altered to alert the worker’s brain that their responsibilities need to shift as soon as they enter the workplace, therefore facilitating the work-life balance. In one study that examined the positive effects on employees who returned to the workplace during the pandemic, almost half (48%) of workers experienced improved mental health, while 46% saw an improvement in work-life balance. A good work-life balance has further been shown to reduce stress levels, boost productivity, increase feelings of self-control.

Lack of Trust in Manager-Employee Relationships
Remote work can further lead to a lack of trust between managers and employees. One survey discovered that 66% of employers do not trust their staff to work remotely, and this was despite only 20% reporting a decrease in productivity since moving to remote working.

A lack of trust from managers can have detrimental impacts for employees. Not only can managers project their anxieties onto their employees, but they can also apply an increased pressure for remote workers to be available all the time which can force work-life balance into further turmoil. On the other hand, if remote workers feel like their managers don’t trust them, it can put a strain on their working relationship as the employee may start to develop feelings of reluctance and resentment. It is important for managers to recognise that remote management is entirely different to face-to-face management. If a company is considering moving to a hybrid or fully remote work model, all managers should be trained in how to manage remote workers including how to monitor performance levels.

Increased Risk of Insomnia
Remote work has been linked to an increased risk of insomnia. By blurring the lines between the workplace and place of rest, it makes it difficult for brains to exit “work mode” and enter “sleep mode”. A study conducted by the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) explored the connection between remote work and insomnia, and found that 42% of people who consistently worked from home suffered from insomnia, in comparison to only 29% of individuals who worked from their employer’s premises. There have been various suggestions to explain the connection between insomnia and remote work, including the increased exposure to the blue light of computer screens. In an online poll, it was discovered that remote workers spend around 13 hours a day staring at a screen; two-hours more than people who work on-site. A contributing factor to this may be because all in-person meetings must also be moved online. In addition, remote workers are more likely to develop a propensity for going to bed late. This is because early wakeups and daily commutes are removed, so remote workers are more likely to forgo regular sleep times and develop unhealthy sleeping patterns.

Hybrid Work Models: The Way Forward?
According to the Office for National Statistics, the percentage of people working exclusively from work fell from 22% to 14% from February to May 2022. In the same period, the proportion of hybrid workers has increased from 13% to 24%. This is another major indicator that full-time remote work is becoming increasingly unpopular.

Hybrid work models offer a blend of in-office and remote work and are likely to become permanent fixtures of how we work. Various studies have shown that hybrid working models offer the “best of both worlds” by contributing to a better work-life balance, a greater ability to focus, saved commuting times and costs and higher levels of motivation. Not only do hybrid work models offer benefits for employees, but they also offer advantages for companies by reducing estate and facilities costs.

In an abovementioned survey, remote workers were asked about the benefits they would look for if they were to move to a new role. Hybrid working was listed as a top priority for all workers, with more than a third (38%) seeking this type of set-up. Flexible working hours were also seen as desirable by 42% of remote workers. Another survey discovered that 57% of managers believe that investing in flexible/ hybrid working models is essential to attracting and retaining talent.

Tackling Loneliness
Working exclusively from home can be a very lonely life, especially for those who also live alone. Loneliness can develop into a range of psychiatric disorders such as depression, alcohol abuse, insomnia, and cognitive decline so it is important for employers to conduct regular wellbeing checks on their remote workers. If remote work is having a detrimental impact on the mental health of an employee, an Employee Assistance Programme (EAP) or Management Referral may be required.

There are various ways to alleviate the negative impacts of full-time work. It is recommended for remote workers to get outdoors regularly to acquire frequent doses of fresh air and vitamin D. Not only will this prevent the feeling of being stuck inside all day, but it will also do wonders for mental wellbeing. Mixing up workspaces also has various benefits. This may be working from a coffee shop, a library or the home of a friend who is also working remotely. One of the best medicines for loneliness is to be near people, even if the remote worker is not directly interacting with them.

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