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Why Remote Workers Are More Stressed (And What To Do About It)

A new report shows that remote workers are more stressed than their in-office counterparts. Here’s how to fix that.

Why Remote Workers Are More Stressed (And What To Do About It)
Photo: AleksandarNakic/Getty Images Photo: AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

It’s no secret that allowing employees to work remotely can have a positive impact on employee engagement and work-life balance. But a new report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that, for some employees, the ease of anytime/anywhere work can actually backfire.

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The report, “Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work,” found that, remote work has a number of positive effects. These include greater ability to manage and organize how their time is spent and reduced commuting time, which makes them more productive. However, there were also some disadvantages. Remote workers tended to work longer hours and tend to blend personal and professional life, which can lead to higher levels of stress.

For one group of workers, the problem was particularly acute. While home-based workers tended to enjoy better work-life balance, highly mobile workers who travel frequently and work from various places, such as salespeople or those who work onsite at a client’s workplace, are more at risk of negative health outcomes, including insomnia.

Forty percent of employees doing that sort of mobile work report high levels of stress, compared to just 25% among those always working at their employer’s office. These workers were far more likely to work longer hours and on weekends than their in-office or home-based peers. And while home-based workers tended to enjoy greater work-life balance and lower stress thresholds, they may be at risk of feeling disconnected from their coworkers and dealing with work-related pain from poor ergonomics.

Employers need to pay attention to the types of telework in which their employees are engaging and watch for negative outcomes, says Jon Messenger, coauthor of the ILO report.

“Productivity declines after you hit a threshold—usually about 50 hours a week—then, it goes down pretty fast from there to a point where you don’t get any additional gain,” he says. Constant connectivity is an issue, and the high stress of intensive remote work can make it difficult to separate work and home life, making it more difficult for the worker to rest and recover.

What should companies do to head off the negative effects of telework? Here are some things that are working.

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Solving The Isolation Problem

Virgin Pulse has 10 offices around the world and remote employees working across many different time zones. They use technology like FaceTime and other video chat tools help remote employees feel included, says CEO Chris Boyce. “Since they are not able to participate in the casual conversations that naturally occur in a workplace, remote employees can feel socially isolated, anxious, and ‘out of the loop,’” he says. Also, company culture doesn’t necessarily translate virtually, so the company integrates virtual, team-based activities to ensure remote workers are in touch and collaborating with in-office teams.

Make Sure The Employee Is A Good Fit For Remote Work

Even though the job may be right for remote work, the employee might not be, says executive coach Kate Zabriskie, founder and CEO of Business Training Works, Inc. Work with your employees to ensure that telework is the right fit for them, and ensure they have the necessary workspace and equipment to do their jobs well and safely.

According to the ILO report, PSA Group requires employees to have one year on the job before telecommuting, then, six criteria need to be met:

  1. Sufficient autonomy
  2. Mastery of skills
  3. Mutual trust
  4. Compatible work organization
  5. A telework-compatible position
  6. Equipped work space

Supervisors and employees must agree to remote working arrangements.

Set Remote Work Policies

At Japan’s Nissan Motor Company Limited, all employees except those in manufacturing are registered in its telecommuting system (that’s 2,400 employees). Employees are required to apply for work-from-home approval the day before they intend to do so and must work from their homes, which isn’t helpful for highly mobile employees. However, workers must agree to a telecommuting day of eight hours or less, sending an email message to their supervisor at the start and end of each day.

While Nissan lets its employees telecommute up to five days per week, Messenger says that a key finding of the report is that companies seemed to get the most benefit when employees worked remotely part-time. “What we find is workers who are working two or three days outside the office, our research seems to indicate that that’s most likely to produce positive benefits when that work is substituting for work in the office.”

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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