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The potential stressors of remote working

4 Dec 2018 By Simone Cheng

Simone Cheng explains why flexible working might not be the wellbeing saviour we’re expecting

A survey by Investors in People found that almost a third (31 per cent) of workers would prefer a more flexible approach to work, such as remote working, over a 3 per cent pay rise.

Reports suggest that remote working is on the rise, and it’s not hard to see why. Commentators are right to point to positives such as increased work-life balance and productivity. The lack of commute, familiar surroundings and autonomy can all help reduce levels of stress and enhance overall wellbeing. 

But none of these are a given. There are a number of factors to consider when it comes to remote working which, if not addressed, can quite easily counteract these benefits.

The overcompensation

Remote working might seem like a breeze in comparison to being in the office. After all, there’s no manager sat nearby and no one’s likely to notice how long you’ve been away from your screen. 

Yet, Acas’s research found that those working flexibly suffered from work intensification due to a “willingness to give back” to their employer. Could such feelings of indebtedness and obligation stem from the issue that remote working, or any flexible working approach, continues to be the exception rather than the norm?

There’s also the added pressure of challenging the misconception that they aren’t as committed as their office counterparts. Research by LogMeIn found that nearly half (46 per cent) of employees feel pressured to prove that they are actually working when at home. This includes being “more responsive” on email (36 per cent) and working more hours (23 per cent). All of this overworking – whether self-imposed or imposed by way of employers’ mistrust – can naturally lead to increased stress.

Work-life conflict

Flexible working is frequently used to balance family and caring responsibilities. But does having the flexibility to manage those reduce stress, or does being in the midst of it increase it? 

Acas’ research suggests that this depends on the type of flexibility afforded. “Time flexibility” – a variation in the start and/or finish time - can indeed help to minimise work-life conflict. However, “location flexibility” – working remotely for some or all of the time – could have negative effects due to the blurring of work-family boundaries.

Of course there are a number of other potential distractions while working at home. Getting work done on your house, doing house chores – homeworkers can be guilty of adding to their stresses by simultaneously taking on both home and work tasks.

Technology: the double-edged sword

Technology acts as both an enabler and barrier for remote workers. On the one hand, our ability to connect has never been easier – there are an endless number of apps and tools to facilitate communication. But with our phones and laptops frequently at an arm’s (or more realistically, hand's) length, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for workers to disconnect from the ‘always on’ culture. And of course this is an issue for many office-based workers too. 

It’s unsurprising, then, that according to a study by Cardiff University, two in five (44 per cent) remote workers “struggled to relax and unwind after work”, compared to 38 per cent of those in fixed locations. Perhaps we should follow France’s example of giving workers the right to ignore out-of-hours work emails?

The human connection

Our technological connections may be improving, but is that at the cost of our human connections? Remote workers risk being emotionally as well as physically detached from their workplace.

The lack of face-to-face time can make it tougher to properly engage and communicate with managers and peers. It could even become an excuse not to. There’s great value in being able to vent to or with others, whether that’s at your desk or in the staff kitchen, but working remotely can leave you to deal with your problems alone.

Managers and colleagues may find it more difficult to effectively pick up on signs of stress and poor mental health, which, in turn, makes these issues harder to talk about. All of this in a world where instant messages and emails are preferable to phone calls, and where emojis and gifs are replacing the written word.

So how can remote workers achieve the right balance? Acas’s paper, Home is Where the Work is, suggests that partial homeworkers and mobile workers report lower levels of stress than others, perhaps down to their ability to enjoy the “best of both worlds”.

But what works best for some, might not for others. It’s therefore absolutely important for employers and workers to carefully and regularly assess any potential stressors and put in place effective actions to address them. As highlighted in Acas’s new framework for positive mental health, employers, managers and individuals ultimately have one shared goal – positive wellbeing and productive workplaces.

Simone Cheng is a policy adviser at Acas

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