As the world of work has shifted to hybrid and remote setups in some industries, workplace wellbeing is pending a reassessment. Flexible working arrangements allow for reduced travel time and more availability to meet personal needs and health or family obligations. However, research indicates that hybrid and remote work may come with a downside for some people's mental health.
Workplace loneliness was an issue before the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to be. In 2021, two-thirds of people working from home said they felt isolated or lonely at least some of the time, and 17 percent felt this way all the time, according to polling from the American Psychiatric Association. Over half (59 percent) of hybrid employees and 56 percent of remote employees report having fewer work friendships since going hybrid or remote, according to 2022 polling from Microsoft.
In her new book, Workplace Wellness That Works, Motion Infusion CEO Laura Putnam writes about the unintended consequences of hybrid and remote work for some employees' wellbeing and provides tips for workplace wellness programs.
In an interview with TriplePundit, Putnam said remote work has a negative impact on social connections in the workplace. This is because social interactions are greatly reduced, she said, and people are getting out of the habit of connecting with others. “What we’re seeing is that people say they want to be working from home," Putnam told us. "At the same time, people are also reporting higher and higher levels of loneliness and also not even knowing where to begin in terms of fostering more social connection."
“While the pandemic is not as front and center for us, and we’re not having to react to that in the moment as much and we’re in a way returning to normal life, the long-lasting effect it had on our mental health will play out over time,” Putnam said.
Of course, immunocompromised people and those with other health conditions may have no choice but to work from home. But from Putnam's perspective, as it becomes safer to do so, working in person offers benefits for informal mentoring and professional development as it fosters spontaneous connections as opposed to pre-planned virtual meetings.
Some Americans are also wary about the long-term effects of remote work on career growth. More than half (56 percent) of working professionals believe employees who work in the office have a competitive advantage over their remote colleagues for raises and promotions, according to 2023 polling from the American Staffing Association.
But remote work isn't the only thing driving disconnection in the workplace. “Working in this remote and hybrid environment is only one factor of many [for loneliness]," Putnam said. "Another key issue that people are facing is just the threat against one’s economic security."
The majority of Americans believe the U.S. is headed for a recession, and 58 percent of adults are likely to obtain a second job. “A lot of people are feeling frightened about the current state of world," Putnam continued. "And ironically, when we feel afraid, we have a tendency to withdraw as opposed to reach out — which reinforces the cycle of being disconnected from others.” Hybrid and remote work, she said, can reinforce this tendency.
In her book, Putnam writes about multiple key success factors for creating workplace wellness programs. Some of these include leadership engagement, aligning wellness strategies with organizational ethos, creating opportunities for engagement and better communication.
More specifically, she told 3p that leaders being open about their own mental health experiences creates a path for others to do the same. And in addition, organizational policies will have to be reassessed to exercise more care for employees along with considerations for challenges like workplace overload and perceptions of inequity. With this, Putnam told 3p that empowering frontline managers and helping them understand their impact in wellbeing is critical as well.
The world of work is unlikely to return to what it was before the pandemic without a true consideration of wellness. As Putnam writes in her book: "Wellness, at its core, is about getting back to doing what we naturally do. Increasingly, however, we’re being culturally asked to do things that we’re not biologically designed to do. We’re born to move, but we’re culturally mandated to sit. We’re biologically programmed to eat whole foods, but our busy schedules and toxic environments prompt us to eat processed foods that are immediately gratifying, but never satisfying. We’re hardwired to alternate stress with relaxation, but the society we live in idolizes being busy and always on the go."
With this awareness, a reframing of work attitudes, and having open conversations about wellbeing and connection, businesses can foster workplace wellbeing and, ultimately, bottom-line success.
Image credit: Helena Lopes/Unsplash
Rasha is a freelance journalist with experience in external communications and publicity. She is a Ryerson School of Journalism graduate and has worked on various media and communication campaigns in film, home development and the nonprofit sector. Rasha is passionate about storytelling for impact, whether she focuses on social enterprise, transforming our food system or making the business world more inclusive.