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Working Remotely Is Harder Than Expected

A new study finds that working from home can compromise mental health.

Mental health may be suffering for those of us who have recently transitioned from working on-site to working remotely at home, according to a new study from Japan, conducted by Professor Isamu Yamamoto of the department of Business and Commerce at Keio University.

In fact, around 35% of respondents felt that telecommuting was taking a toll on their mental health – not enhancing it. For those who cited remote work as a threat to their mental health, there were three leading factors noted by the participants: work-life boundaries, physical activity, and communication.

At first, coming around the spring break time period for schoolchildren, the stay-at-home order wasn’t as unsettling or upsetting as it might have been. For many, it felt like an “extended spring break,” rather than a work culture that was turned upside down.

However, once the school work became a priority or at least a task on children’s daily agendas, circumstances frequently took a turn for the worse. Families struggled to determine a routine for everyone that allowed everyone access to limited technology equipment and limited bandwidth. As the days wore on, and days bled into one another, nerves may have increasingly frayed as personal anxiety combined with family tension which mutated into frazzled family members and challenges in keeping any type of normal schedule.

Work and Leisure Time Boundaries Are Essential

For adults without children in the home, the need to put in the customary “eight hours a day” might still be challenging due to the change in the work setting and personal rhythms and sense of duty. Some of us might have found it more enticing to surf the web or play online games than to concentrate on the tasks that our jobs actually required. The pandemic-related anxiety and uncertainty made it hard for many to focus on the mundane drudgery of routine work assignments. At the other extreme, with no “going to work” or “returning to work” boundaries in place, some people have found themselves “working overtime” by choice, as they never fully “close the door” on their jobs since their job sites are now located in their homes.

In Yamamoto’s study, the most frequently cited obstacle to mental well-being was the blurred line between work life and home life with 41% citing this as a problem. As many of us feel pressure to perform at our best, given that we are working from locations that are not necessarily work-centric, we may feel the need to be more available and more accessible than we typically would when we have set hours at a separate location. We don’t know when it’s time to shut down the computer or sign-off from the day.

This blurring of boundaries can negatively affect your own well-being as well as that of whoever shares your home. If you’re always in “work mode,” you’re not able to offer support to your family. If you’re isolating solo, you may obsess over your work responsibilities and crowd out time for the leisure activities that are essential to mental well-being.

Physical Activity Is Also Essential for Mental Health

Another problem noted was the lack of time for physical activity, and this was endorsed by almost 40% of the respondents. Even for those of us in more sedentary jobs, we do get some exercise during our commute from home to work. Some of us likely have workday routines that include time at a gym, which is not permitted right now, or walks or exercise during lunch breaks or right after work. When our daily routines are upended and the days of the week seem to merge together into one long workday, finding time to prioritize our physical well-being doesn’t happen so much anymore.

However, research continues to show that physical exercise can be a protective and healing factor against depression and anxiety. Our bodies, like our brains, need exercise and when our carefully planned and orchestrated workout schedules are thrown to the wind by the stay-at-home order and the lack of spaces in which to exercise freely, our mental well-being can suffer along with our physical health.

Communication Isn’t Easy When It’s Virtual

The third most frequently cited factor as a cause of compromised mental health was the difficulty people had communicating with their colleagues and co-workers. In many workplaces, it’s typically easy to check-in with colleagues by stopping by their desk, scheduling impromptu informal meetings to discuss concerns or plans or to pick up the phone and reach out. While we’re all working solo, we still have projects and tasks that require group input. When we have to connect either through multiple email chains or scheduling virtual video meetings, the response time is often slowed down and progress takes longer than it would in face-to-face circumstances.

Another challenge can be that not everyone is available during the regularly scheduled work hours. Some of us may be dealing with illness ourselves or caring for others who are ill or just so overwhelmed by the crisis that we can’t be “fully available” on our jobs. Just because something is “my urgent need” doesn’t necessarily make it someone else’s “urgent need” at that moment.

Three Lessons to Take From the Study

  1. We all need to respect that workdays begin and workdays end. We need to find a way to mark the end of our work responsibilities at the close of the day. Shut down your computer screen (before re-opening it if you’re going to start surfing, Zooming, gaming, etc.) and change into casual clothing. This means that you should get out of your jammies in the morning before you begin your work shift, by the way.
  2. Build in some type of physical exercise every single day. Whether it’s a home workout before you start work, yoga during your mid-day break, or home gym exercise after the workday ends. If you’ve got children in the house and a yard, get outside and play with the kids each day. Sedentary lifestyles are dangerous to your physical health as well as your mental health. Take good care of both through regular physical activity.
  3. Set up routine check-in periods with your co-workers so that you know there is a time where each of you will make yourself available for work discussions and tasks. Whether it’s a few daily check-ins or virtual meetings or weekly Zoom calls, set out expectations for everyone so everyone is on board. And if a colleague is struggling with personal circumstances or issues that are getting in the way of their work obligations, reach out and provide support or resources they can contact for assistance.

Before long, we are likely to begin re-entering the world of routine workdays that we will welcome, briefly, and then begin to complain about. Returning to work and daily routines won’t be easy as many of us will long for the safety and isolation that our homes provided. However, knowing that there is a legion of individuals who have been performing their jobs and risking their lives for our safety and sustenance for all these weeks should help us recognize the good fortune enjoyed by those who held positions that allowed for remote engagement and continuing paychecks. A mindset of gratitude can help us all bring balance to the chaos that surrounds us.


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