Is Work Causing You Stress? Going Remote is Not a Magic Pill

In this article, Maya Middlemiss talks about how our work location affects our wellbeing. 

We need to accept the fact that work in its traditional form has some things wrong with it.  It’s making us ill, for a start.  

We wrote recently about the challenges of managing seasonal sickness absence in colocated vs distributed workplaces, but not every sickness comes with an easily visible and curable set of symptoms. The most recent data from the Labour Force Survey shows that in the past year 526,000 workers in the UK have suffered from work-related stress, anxiety and depression, resulting in 12.5m lost working days annually.

Why are we so stressed?

A number of factors potentially contribute to this statistic, and research usually cites anxiety and worry in the face of financial and job insecurity, and increased pressure to get more done in less time - possibly to earn less in real terms by way of reward also.  Global political uncertainties may well contribute to escalated background stress levels, meaning that everyone is closer to dangerous thresholds being reached.

Many workers and managers are inclined to attribute increased workplace moans and groans to the daily commute, particularly at this time of year when transport companies traditionally announce fare increases to coincide with horrible weather which tends to create delays and disruption.   

A further factor stressing commuters is that nowadays that couple of hours a day spent rattling through suburbia is mostly regarded as additional work time, to judge by the number of devices in use on every bus or tube train. A decade ago you’d look around and see people enjoying books and newspapers, but today everyone seems to be tapping at a keyboard of one size or another.

So - happiness comes from home-working..?

Of course, developing a policy of remote or flexible working can eliminate the daily grind of the 07.25 into Euston Station. But does it really make people happier and healthier?

The answer is - it definitely can do.  Not being woken by an alarm clock before dawn to embark on a lengthy expensive and uncomfortable journey is regarded by most as an immediate gain in the quality of life stakes.  

Whilst developing a dependable morning routine offers many physical and emotional health benefits, being able to create this around your preferred activities and start times offers a much greater sense of agency, than being driven by the clock. Indeed this autonomy, this ability to choose, helps us to build resilience and derive better intrinsic motivation from our work.

As a manager, conferring trust on a team member to manage their time and work effectively from their preferred location shows them that you value their results and output, and want them to be able to focus on their work in the environment of their choice.  But it’s not enough to simply send people home and expect everyone to instantly reap the benefits of this freedom effectively, or even beneficially.

Designing a strategy for wellness

Building healthy habits to support remote working takes specific, deliberate action, and a lot depends on the individual knowing their own needs when it comes to wellness and wellbeing.

For example, that walk to the station your team used to moan about and are so grateful to give up, may have been their main source of exercise in a day spend mostly at a desk.  Replacing it with a lie-in is brilliant in principle, and might lead to greater alertness and productivity later on. But the physical activity lost needs to be replaced too, otherwise your colleague may develop health problems which affect their work before too long.

And getting together in the break room to moan about the rail strikes may have felt like negativity in the colocated office, but those shared conversations represented a source of connection and sympathy over which people could relate.  Depending on where an individual is located on the extroversion-introversion scale, they might derive a lot of energy and motivation from that everyday chit-chat - much of it unrelated to the work itself - which the shared office space brought.

This is one reason why adopting a flexible ‘office-optional’ approach to a remote working transition can be the most considerate and effective way to support the wellbeing of an entire team.  Encouraging those who need the buzz of a shared environment to base themselves at a local co-working or hub can help avoid isolation, and this can be part of the support package offered for colleagues moving to virtual working. The costs are far lower than the office rental saved, and may even leave budget over to maintain some shared meeting rooms or hot-desking space centrally.

Other people like working from coffee shops and cafes, just to experience that environment of being in a shared space, and some companies like MeetEdgar (whose dynamic CEO was recently featured on our podcast), offer specific expenses to support this - in recognition of the measurable benefits it brings to their productivity and engagement.

For others who enjoy certain aspects of networking but truly thrive on the peace and independence of working from their own home, supporting involvement in online communities might be the answer.  That’s why it’s worth nurturing in-house groups in social enterprise networks, and organising online learning events. As well as looking out for appropriate online communities open to the public - search for “slack group + [your industry] for inspiration.

All the benefits of social contact, gossip, sharing problems and ideas, and new collaboration and connection opportunities - but you provide your own coffee and keep your slippers on.  (If the idea of joining an online community appeals to you, why not come and join us at Virtual Team Talk?)


Managing the stress that still exists in a remote team

So as a manager, remember that just because you can’t see the long faces in the office any more and get to listen to the rants about how many people were crammed on their delayed bus, shifting your team to remote working won’t automatically relieve their work-related stress.  

Stress comes from many sources: from people’s personal domestic circumstances, health concerns, relationships, to frustrations and difficulties with the work itself.  Providing a choice of environment and location may well offer great benefits to everyone’s health and happiness - provided it’s managed well, taking everyone’s needs into account.

Remember too, that picking up on signs of stress in the workplace can be much more difficult, when you don’t get to look people in the face on a daily basis. You will need to develop your own leadership skills and communication practices to ensure problems are not overlooked until they escalate to dangerous levels. You can never assume that just because someone isn’t bringing up issues of concern directly, that those issues are not present, and you will need to develop ways of assessing emotional mood at a distance as part of your line management role.

This and other blog posts have been collated into our book on leading remote teams: Thinking Remote: Inspiration for Leaders of Distributed Teams. Available in paperback, ebook and audiobook.

Going remote is nota  magic pill