Many Australians are now working from home due to coronavirus (COVID-19) social distancing guidelines, and for a sizeable proportion of the Australian workforce, remote working is new. Dr Robyn Johns, a senior lecturer in human resource management at the University of Technology Sydney Business School, has researched the effects of remote working, its influence on work–life balance, productivity and mental health, and offers insight into the mental health challenges of remote workers together with strategies for how organisations can better support remote workers through the new territory of COVID-19.
Remote-working employees face significant challenges, and research into their mental health is especially pertinent currently, as a number of Australians find themselves working from home for the first time. Dr Johns identified burnout, relationships in the home and organisational pressures as among the key mental health issues associated with remote workers.
“Typically when we look at burnout, there are various angles,” Dr Johns said regarding burnout. “One is emotional exhaustion, which can stem from the extra hours worked, as well as adjusting to a rapidly changing environment. Another aspect of burnout is the degree to which people feel they’re able to accomplish their day-to-day work. If they feel that working remotely isn’t allowing them to accomplish tasks, then that will contribute to burnout.”
Workers in troubled relationships or with difficult personal circumstances may also struggle in remote working situations, Dr Johns said, while those workers who are caring for small children can also experience elevated anxiety and stress as a result. Remote working can also pose challenges for organisational engagement and morale, which has associated mental health risks for workers.
To mitigate the mental health risks associated with remote work, Dr Johns suggests daily and weekly check-ins, which allow managers to listen to employees’ concerns and signpost further support if needed. Virtual social sessions, such as online coffee breaks or remote shared activities, are further ways that organisations can support remote workers and help to motivate staff and make them feel connected.
But organisations also need to foster a culture of trust and avoid the temptation of continuous check-ins, which can result in employees overworking to prove themselves, Dr Johns added. “Encourage a culture where everyone can be their true selves at work and feel able to admit when they’re struggling,” Dr Johns said. “We can no longer dodge the conversation around mental health. It may be a hard conversation to have, but it’s crucial to everyone that it’s discussed on a regular basis.”
There is also a myth concerning productivity and remote work that should be addressed, Dr Johns suggested. “There’s a view that when people are working from home, they’re having this great laid-back life, and not necessarily being overly productive,” Dr Johns said. “And yet what researchers have found is that quite the contrary, people who work from home tend to work more, and put in a lot longer hours.
“These are anxious, difficult, unprecedented times and we don’t have any similar experiences to draw on so one of the things managers can do is acknowledge that people feel anxious and that’s okay,” Dr Johns said. “We are in completely new territory. Previously, people have chosen to work from home but at the moment, we’re seeing people forced into working from home. I’ve never heard so many people say I just want to go to the office.”
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