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Remote work & mental health: 7 tips for work–life balance

 

Working from home, according to studies, does not reduce productivity. However, as many of us continue to work from home during the pandemic, we lack interaction with colleagues, and we feel under greater pressure. Developments over the past year have begged the question: is working from home here to stay? 

Today, technology makes it easier than ever to work from home. This has become particularly evident during the Covid-19 pandemic: many companies have successfully managed to send the majority of their employees home to work. Of course, working from home is not a new concept to many people – including those who are self-employed – but for a significant amount of the world’s population, working within the four walls of our homes has been a largely new experience.

A year on from the start of the pandemic, many questions have been asked: is working from home actually healthy? Do our boundaries between work and private life become blurred, do we find ourselves under greater pressure and risk suffering from greater psychological stress? 

Remote work doesn’t have to be unhealthy! You can counteract the negative effects of working from home by paying special attention to your work–life balance and your physical and mental health. In this article, we will give you seven working from home tips to perfect your work regime as well as reiterate the benefits of working from home.

What are the benefits of working from home?

Are there benefits of working from home? Many studies and surveys have dealt with this question in recent years. The general finding has been that people who often work at home are more satisfied with their work, feel they can manage more and have fewer days off work.

But at the same time, psychological stress at work has increased among those who work from home. A total of 73.4 per cent of respondents who frequently work remotely said they had felt exhausted in the last four weeks. For those who work in the office, the proportion was only 66 per cent. People who work from home also complained more often about anger and frustration, nervousness and irritability, fatigue, lack of concentration and sleep problems.[1]

Other studies came to similar conclusions. Time and again, it has been shown that working at home, while promoting productivity and time management, can disrupt sleep – and even promote stress.[2]

Are you struggling to fall asleep after logging off? Take a look at our sleep improvement supplements – many of which contain melatonin, the sleep hormone.

Benefits of working from home, according to studies[3, 4]

Benefits of working from home

Disadvantages of working from home

Working schedules can be adjusted around family life and obligations

Boundaries between work and private life become blurred

Greater autonomy and higher satisfaction

Less social interaction, isolation

More flexible working hours and no time spent commuting

Often constant availability; always online

Fewer sick days (smaller risk of infection)

More self-organisation and discipline is needed

 

Feeling less acknowledged and having to prove yourself


Can working from home cause anxiety: d
ifferences between men and women

One question has resulted in contradictory responses in various studies: does remote work promote more or less stress? A group of German occupational physicians believe that responses often depend on your gender.

Apparently, men have significantly more problems switching off from work when they can work flexibly, and they tend to suffer from more stress when working at home. Women, on the other hand, experience more setbacks professionally if they regularly work from home – they are more likely to miss out on promotions and pay rises.[3] Another possible effect of working from home, regardless of gender, is that employees feel that they receive less recognition from their superiors and colleagues.

Those working from home then often put in extra effort to prove themselves. On average, they even work more at home, do unpaid overtime, do not take breaks and generally feel more pressured. This leads to increased psychological stress. [4] 

Tip: Want to know how stress affects our bodies? Discover more by reading our Health Portal article on signs of stress and how to improve your cortisol levels. Alternatively, you can check your stress levels by taking a cortisol stress test, which typically measures your stress levels over the course of a day. It is often best to take such a test at home, as stress significantly affects your cortisol values, and visiting a doctor could influence your stress levels.

Did you know that in the United Kingdom, 5.6 million Brits worked from home in 2020 compared to 4.6 million in 2019?[9] According to a survey carried out by YouGov, only one in five Brits would like to work from home full-time after the pandemic.[5]

Young woman working from home

Remote work and mental health: can working from home cause depression?

What is the connection between working from home and mental health? Surveys that poor work–life balance can contribute to depression and low moods. When you work from home, isolation and loneliness can play a significant part on your mood – especially if you are normally a very social person.

According to a Mental Health Foundation survey, more than 40 per cent of employees in the United Kingdom neglect other aspects of their life due to work, which may lead in the long term to depression or low mood.[10] Furthermore, when working overtime, more than 25 per cent of employees feel depressed, over 30 per cent feel anxious and over 50 per cent feel irritable and snappy.

This negative mood often impacts personal life – with long hours and unhappiness at work leading to conflicts at home and mental and physical health problems.

Working from home tip 1: establish routines

Perhaps the most important tip we can give you is to create structure when you’re working from home.

Routines, rituals and structured daily routines help you be productive and stay focused at home. This can include taking a shower in the morning as usual and dressing as you would for the office – even if it’s tempting to stay in your comfortable home clothes. You can replace your daily commute with a walk around the block before sitting down at your desk.

Add to-do lists and clear goals – every morning, define what you want to accomplish that day. Writing things down helps: make a plan of which tasks you want to tackle at which time, and incorporate small rituals along the way. For example, leave time for lunch and small coffee breaks.

Such routines make it easier for your brain to settle into the rhythm of your work life despite being within a home environment. Moreover, being able to plan and take control of your working situation and environment makes you feel more confident and productive in the long run.[4]

Working from home tip 2: ensure a work–life balance

People who work at home often report that the boundaries between their private life and work become blurred. Many say that they shift working hours to the evening or the weekend.[1] There is then no clear end to the working day. This makes it difficult for some people to really switch off and relax.

This creates additional stress when working remotely, which is not without consequences. Studies have shown that when people work more than eight and especially more than ten hours a day, this can be detrimental to their mental and physical health – and it can reduce their performance. Chronic stress is a possible consequence, as is increased blood sugar and a greater risk of cardiovascular disease.[4]

So, keep an eye on your working hours at home, keep a record of them and communicate your hours and your tasks clearly to superiors.

Work–life balance: how do I bring balance into my life?

Even when you’re working from home, establish fixed time windows in which you work – and those in which you do not work. Set a time to finish work on a daily basis.

If this is difficult for you in your everyday life, define very clear times in a diary – either on paper or digitally. In the long run, this should make it easier for you not to be distracted during working hours.

Of course, you can still use the flexibility that remote work brings. For example, if you want to spend time with your children in the afternoon and then go back to your computer for an hour in the evening, set a clear time for this too.

Do not be constantly available

If you use particular digital communication channels, the chances are that you remain online constantly. People working remotely often receive messages and calls at times when they are not officially working or supposed to be online. If you are always online and reachable, this can naturally increase pressure and lead to you always being mentally at work.

So, make sure that, if possible, you do not receive any work-related emails, calls or other messages at home after work. According to studies, such interruptions of your free time are bad for your work–life balance and health.[4]

Does your company not understand that time off is important and that you don’t want to be reachable after a certain time? In this article, we’ll give you some arguments about how to educate your employee on how important a good work–life balance is – not only for health but also for productivity.

Working from home tip 3: your space just for working

Whether it’s your own study, a corner with a desk or your kitchen table – it’s best to choose a specific place in your home where you always work. Banish possible distractions from this place and equip it with working materials. You are effectively setting up your own little office at home, even if you don’t necessarily have your own room for it.

Your brain will then increasingly associate this place with your job. In the long run, this will make it easier for you to get into work mode, even if you don’t leave your own four walls.

If you spatially separate work and leisure in this way, you will certainly find this separation easier mentally as well.

well-equipped space for working from home

Working from home tip 4: make your set-up ergonomic

Of course, your workplace should also be good for your body. Are you sitting cross-legged on the sofa with your laptop all day? Your back won’t thank you for that in the long run. Your eyes will also suffer if you sit too close to the screen in poor lighting conditions.

It’s better to set up your desk so that you can sit properly. Take into account the recommendations for an ergonomic workplace:[6]

  • Do you work with a laptop? It’s best to get a separate keyboard, mouse and screen!
  • Your view of the monitor should be slightly lowered. A good rule of thumb is to adjust your monitor so that your eyes are about level with the top of the screen when you look straight ahead.
  • Ideally, you should sit 50 to 70 centimetres in front of your screen.
  • You should sit with your forearms flat on the table and at 90 degrees to your upper arms; your legs should also be bent at a 90-degree angle.
  • Your screen should not reflect any lights. Daylight from the side is best.
  • Change your sitting position regularly. Even if you sit absolutely straight, your body will stiffen if you do this all day in the same posture.

Working from home tip 5: move around

You have probably found that you’re missing out on some exercise and fresh air on days of remote work that you would otherwise get on your way to work. This is especially true if you were cycling or walking, but also for the short journeys to the bus or from the car park to the office.

This is why you should incorporate exercise into your daily routine – preferably in the fresh air. Start your day off right with a walk around the block or by going for a jog, and take a walk during your lunch break. Small stretches and exercises can also be incredibly helpful. If you work at a computer, for example, stretch your neck and hands in between.

Being outside brings all kinds of benefits – exercise is healthy, of course, but so is daylight. It helps your body to set its internal clock correctly and thus to optimise your serotonin levels and your melatonin levels – that is, your sleep hormone levels. In addition to these benefits, your body needs the sun’s UV rays to prevent vitamin D deficiency. If you don’t receive enough vitamin D from being outside, you should test your vitamin D levels to make sure that you are not at risk of developing a deficiency, as this may lead to several health issues. 

  banner to vitamin d deficiency test

Working from home tip 6: take breaks

Taking regular breaks to get up from your desk is extremely important for your body. Take every opportunity to get up and work around. It is also vital you do this to give your eyes a break from staring in to the screen.

  • Get a glass of water or make yourself a tea more often – this way, you are on the move between your workplace and the kitchen, and you are making sure that you stay hydrated.
  • If you regularly need to take calls, you can walk around the flat while doing so.

As a rule of thumb, after working for about 60 minutes, you should get up briefly and ideally take a break of five to ten minutes. This is also beneficial for concentration and performance – our body functions in certain cycles and rhythms. Short interruptions to your hard work help your mind stay active.[7]

Recommendations for regular breaks are based on the Basic Rest Activity Cycle. Scientists have recognised that in the course of about 90 minutes, a cycle takes place in the body in which body temperature, heart rate and concentration fluctuate. According to this principle, we are able to concentrate for about 70 minutes, after which our mental capacity decreases for 20 minutes.[7]

Working from home tip 7: stay connected

When we work at home a lot, there is a danger that communication with other colleagues suffers. This can lead to important information being lost in communication – or to you feeling alone, which can be a psychological burden that should not be ignored.

For example, one study showed that proactive support from employers and good relationships with colleagues help employees cope well when working from home.[8]

Fortunately, it is easy to hold meetings online these days. Don’t be afraid to hold more small meetings if you only communicate digitally. Remember that even in the office, you would probably discuss many small things with your colleagues throughout the day – whether it’s work-related or not.

Woman in a video conference working from home

What tools do you need to work from home?

Chat programmes such as Slack and project management programmes such as Asana or Trello make it easier for you to ask small questions and stay in touch with your colleagues. With solutions like Google Drive, One Drive or Dropbox, you can store data online, share it with colleagues and edit documents together.

If such applications are not yet used in your company, why not encourage them? A great argument to use them is that many of these tools are free and easy to use!

Don’t be shy about digital coffee catch-ups

It is usually part of everyday office life for colleagues to run into each other and have short conversations while fetching coffee. These social interactions contribute to a sense of well-being and belonging. You can also experience this online: just meet your colleague for a digital coffee chat and encourage small talk about non-work-related matters, be it via messages or video chat.

Tip: If you have the opportunity to use video chat, do it! It makes a difference if we can see who’s in front of us. This makes digital meetings feel a bit more like real personal encounters.

Is working from home the future of work?

For employers, remote work raises questions surrounding onboarding new employees, delivering effective training and configuring healthy work spaces. Employees, on the other hand, are trying to navigate their way around achieving an optimal work–life balance – one where they feel truly happy and content.

Many of us are wondering what future working models will look like: will we work from home permanently, or will there be a hybrid model put in place, so that we can enjoy the benefits of working from home and from the office? As restrictions begin to lift across certain countries, it seems that only time will tell.

Sources

[1]        AOK-Bundesverband, „Arbeiten im Homeoffice: Höhere Arbeitszufriedenheit, aber stärkere psychische Belastungen (17.09.19)“. https://www.aok-bv.de/presse/pressemitteilungen/2019/index_22652.html (zugegriffen März 23, 2020).

[2]        Eurofound and the International Labour Office, „Arbeiten jederzeit und überall – Auswirkungen auf die Arbeitswelt“, Publications Office of the European Union, Luxembourg, and the International Labour Offic, S. 2, 2017.

[3]        Keller, H. et al., „Psychosoziale Aspekte bei der Arbeit im Homeoffice und in Coworking Spaces“, ASU Arbeitsmed Sozialmed Umweltmed, Bd. 52, 2017, Zugegriffen: 23-März-2020. [Online]. Verfügbar unter: https://www.asu-arbeitsmedizin.com/psychosoziale-aspekte-bei-der-arbeit-im-homeoffice-und-coworking-spaces/uebersicht-psychosoziale.

[4]        B. Beermann, Orts- und zeitflexibles Arbeiten: Gesundheitliche Chancen und Risiken. 2018.

[5]        V. K. Brenke, „Home Office: Möglichkeiten werden bei weitem nicht ausgeschöpft“, DIW Wochenbericht, Bd. 5/2016, S. 12.

[6]        Deutsche Gesetzliche Unfallversicherung, „Home-Office: So bleibt die Arbeit sicher und gesund“. https://www.dguv.de/de/mediencenter/pm/pressearchiv/2020/quartal_1/details_1_386240.jsp (zugegriffen März 23, 2020).

[7]        W. W. Blessing, „Thermoregulation and the ultradian basic rest-activity cycle“, Handb Clin Neurol, Bd. 156, S. 367–375, 2018, doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-63912-7.00022-9.

[8]        F. Hager, „The Links between Telecommuting, Social Support and Mental Well-Being among Teleworkers“, International Journal of Business and Management, Bd. 6, S. 36–58, Aug. 2018.

[9]        'Number of those in employment who work mainly from home in the United Kingdom from 1998 to 2020’, Statista, published 27 May 2021, available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/312345/working-from-home-in-the-united-kingdom-levels-employed-uk-y-on-y/, accessed on 7 July 2021.

[10]        'Work-life balance', Mental Health Foundation, available at https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/w/work-life-balance, accessed on 7 July 2021.

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