The WFH effect: why remote working causes loneliness, and how to fight back


Working from home burnout
Image credit: jcomp (Freepik)

Opinion / by Ufuoma Onemu


As the world plunged into a state of restricted movement and minimal social interaction in early 2020, working from home became the norm for millions of people across the UK. Some have flourished in their new work arrangement, but for others, the shift has sparked a deterioration in their wellbeing that they are still dealing with today. Ufuoma Onemu discusses the psychological fallout of combining our work lives with our home lives, and what steps we can take to keep a positive frame of mind.


The world of work as we know it has rapidly evolved since the Covid-19 pandemic began. Thanks to movement restrictions and mandatory work from home rules, a large percentage of people were forced to carry out their employee responsibilities from the comfort of their own home.


With lockdown restrictions now seemingly in the past for the foreseeable future, many employers have given their workforce the choice of whether to venture into their place of work again, or to keep performing their job from home. For some, staying at home is far more attractive – no travel costs, reduced spending on food, a quieter work environment, and a generally more equal work-life balance. But for others, working from home is taking a substantial toll on their mental health.


Loneliness and isolation


Research has shown that working from home for extended periods of time can have a pervasive impact on mental health. According to a recent report, 42% of workers who were required to work from home because of the pandemic reported declining mental health, while other research says that the shift to remote working systems has resulted in a rise in anxiety, depression and somatic symptoms.

These issues are thought to be the result of self-isolation, loneliness, and severe stress associated with working from home. With most of the world under some kind of restricted movement, a reported 75% of remote workers feel more socially isolated now than they did before the pandemic. Some of the reasons cited for feeling isolated included spending most of the day indoors and alone, no or limited access to social activities, and feeling disconnected from the world and co-workers.


But loneliness isn’t quite as simple as not seeing anyone at all. Even people living with their family, partners or other social groups have reported feelings of isolation due to repeated interactions with the same people, or because of stressed familiar relationships.


Home workers can also experience isolation and depression due to feeling stuck or stagnant. Without physical career milestones such as a new office or celebratory company dinners, workers might feel like they are not achieving anything or going anywhere new in their careers.

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Pressure to be ‘always on’


An additional issue for remote workers is the difficulty to unplug. Reports suggests that up to 1 in 10 remote workers have reported working overtime. Adding on an extra 30 minutes each day can amount to 10 unpaid overtime hours per month, while some workers work as many as 9 hours of unpaid overtime every week.


The result of working round the clock is that stress levels increase, while the ability to establish a meaningful work-life balance is disrupted. These issues were more commonly reported among newly remote workers who were 30% more likely to report poor mental health than workers in traditional work settings. They attributed their decline to high levels of fatigue and feelings of chronic sadness. The mental health decline seen among this group of workers was only surpassed by unemployed workers, 48.5% of whom reported a fall in deterioration of their mental health.


What can we do to keep a positive frame of mind?


With all this is mind, for those of us working from home, what can we do to protect our mental health?


1 – Get moving!

According to experts, just 20 minutes of daily exercise can make a difference and boost mental health significantly. Not only does it help your physical health, but it can reduce anxiety levels, be a good distraction from work, and increase feelings of happiness.


2 – Give yourself a break (or two, or three...)

Make sure to take regular breaks from work. Set a specific time for lunch and spend it with your family or outside. Spending time in nature has been linked to low stress hormone levels and reduced anxiety.


3 – Take some device-free time

Take frequent breaks from your device. Use the 20-20-20 rule: look away from your screen every 20 minutes for 20 seconds at something located 20 feet away. Use this time to stretch your limbs and shoulders as well.


4 – Be strict with your work hours

Make sure to unplug and don't work around the clock! Set a time to clock out just as you would in a physical office. Once it's time, log-out and shutdown and leave the rest for the next day!