Many of today’s employees have been working remotely for about a year and a half now. While some likely anticipated they would be back in the office by summer, others are relishing their freedom. Either way, as the pandemic has dragged on, this style of working has remained a popular choice for employers. With countless benefits for companies and employees alike, flexible working is looking to be the future of how many will work in the years to come.
As fewer face-to-face interactions become the norm for many, it’s easy to point fingers at this reason for poor mental health, reading about the reported inability of employees to unplug while working from home. On the upside, most believe that flexibility is priceless.
However, the relationship between remote work and mental health is complicated. It’s not a simple cut-and-dry survey that shows remote work either helps or hurts mental health. There are just as many articles out there praising remote work as there are blaming it for all of our problems today. In fact, in many ways, being out-of-office can actually walk the line, affecting different employees in different ways.
A Study in Contrast
In 2020, Gallup released a report on the emotional state of remote workers which hinted at the dual-sided nature of remote work and mental health.
The report found that working remotely is resulting in a higher level of well-being for older generations — Gen X and Boomers specifically — than it is for millennials. Even though millennials have long been the driving generation for more flexible work environments, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything is all well and good.
When looking at daily emotions, the report found that those who WFH were also reporting more negative work-related emotions like anxiety, stress, and worry. Despite these findings, all generations reported higher rates of employee engagement compared to their on-site colleagues.
As the Gallup report quite literally noted, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Making sense of it all requires a deeper dive into the data.
Well-Being vs. Emotional State
There’s a large difference between overall well-being and the individual emotions that the survey respondents reported.
Well-being, according to Gallup’s report, encompasses the sum of your daily life and work experiences (including your financial state and relationships), among other factors. While older generations might have a more difficult time adapting to their work-from-home situation, the other aspects of their life are likely going well. They may own a house, have a long-lasting marriage and/or relationships with kids and grandkids, etc., providing fulfillment outside of the workplace and, in many cases, leading to higher overall well-being compared to that of their younger colleagues.
It’s also important to note a few other stressors during this time period: school closings resulting in remote learning and less social interaction due to the pandemic. All of this change, resulting in everyone at home together and trying to succeed in the new environment they’ve been thrust into is bound to cause a little anxiety in even the happiest of households.
Another survey from Quicken found that millennials have been the most impacted by the pandemic over any other generation when it comes to financial impact and major life milestones. The survey found that one-fourth of millennials’ finances have been negatively impacted. Nearly one-fourth of these millennials have put off buying a house and around 10% have postponed having a child and/or getting married.
Given that, regardless of work location, millennials aren’t having a great time at the moment…cueing a lesser overall feeling of well-being as compared to their older counterparts.
The explanation for higher, across-the-board workplace engagement (regardless of age) is partially thanks to the fact that remote work gives Millennials the flexibility they desire, the Gallup report explains. Seasoned workers, in many cases, already have a long track record of engagement with their companies and have a solid understanding of their job which, in turn, makes it easier to remain engaged regardless of location.
Some Employees Just Don’t Have the Personality
Of course, beyond generational differences, remote work’s impact on mental health and well-being is also influenced simply by personality type. Some thrive in a remote working environment, whereas others do not. Numerous studies have found this to be the case, tying remote work satisfaction, success, and mental health impacts to personality traits such as assertiveness and level of self-esteem.
Because of this, when considering whether or not an employee would thrive in a remote working environment, it’s important for leadership roles to take personality type and aptitude into account before tossing an employee into a remote work situation.
As Modern Hire’s Large Enterprise Account Executive Megan Nau puts it, “Autonomy, time management, and level of extraversion can be used as important markers for those who might thrive in remote or hybrid working roles. While many companies use remote working models to promote ‘good employees’, assessment companies have seen that model fail repeatedly. It is important to use pre- or post-hire assessments to determine if a job candidate or employee is suitable for a remote role. Simply put: not all people thrive at home.”
Still, FlexJobs shows 97% of employees want to remain in a flexible working position in the future. In August of 2021, Good Hire shared many positive feelings about flexible work in today’s world, including choosing it over other benefits. The bottom line is each person’s ability to do what’s right for their personality. Between in-person, remote, flexible, and hybrid situations, it seems like time and a little trial-and-error will shake out a place for everyone.