Feeling lonely and depressed. Is working from home really to blame?

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Gleb Tsipursky serves as the CEO of the hybrid work consultancyDisaster Avoidance Experts.

While flexibility in work arrangements has been praised for allowing employees to avoid long commutes and manage work-life balance more effectively, skeptics argue that such arrangements lead to increased feelings of isolation and blurred work-life boundaries.

Groundbreaking research conducted by University of Pittsburgh Professor Mark Ma and his graduate student Yuye Ding provides actual data-based insights on whether flexibility is actually good or bad for mental health.

According to a 2022 U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey of 403 executives, 64% of executives said that remote work had anywhere from a major to a minor negative impact on their employees’ mental health, up from 55% saying that in 2021.

And a survey by the American Psychiatric Association in 2021 found that the majority of employees working from home say they experienced negative mental health impacts, including isolation, loneliness, and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day.

Americans waste time commuting.You should only have to do it for a good reason

However, as the University of Pittsburgh scholars point out, such research stems from the period of enforced social isolation due to the pandemic.

It’s very likely that the loneliness and isolation identified previously with remote work decreased – or in some cases, completely disappeared — once people started going out and meeting with friends and family, and engaging in various social, civic, and community activities.

Moreover, prior studies relied on survey data of self-reported mental health, as opposed to mental health risk measured based on professional assessments.

The University of Pittsburgh study instead drew on state-level depression and suicide risk data from Mental Health America, which collects data from over 5 million mental health screens taken by US users at MHAScreening.org.

The University of Pittsburgh scholars also used data on the percentage of firms that offer workplace flexibility in each state during 2023 from the Scoop Flex Index Report.

Combining these two sources, the new study from the University of Pittsburgh reveals significant findings for 2023, the first year we can truly say the pandemic was largely over: states with a higher percentage of flexible firms show considerably lower rates of depression.https://omny.fm/shows/dispatch-on-demand-audio/playlists/then-what-happened/embed?style=cover

The correlation is robust, with depression rates in states with a higher degree of flexibility showing a negative correlation coefficient to depression of -0.389 and a p-value of 0.012, suggesting a strong inverse relationship. In other words, this data compellingly argues that having greater flexibility strongly facilitates mental wellness.

They also separated states into three groups, ones with high, median, or low levels of flexibility, respectively. They found that states with high or median flexibility levels had 3-4% lower depression rates than those with low flexibility in 2023.

While the study establishes a clear correlation, it’s important to explore the possible mechanisms through which workplace flexibility improves mental health. One possibility is reduced stress, since flexible work arrangements help alleviate stress associated with commuting, rigid schedules, and work-life imbalance. This allows employees to better manage their time, responsibilities, and personal needs, leading to reduced stress levels and improved mental well-being.

Another positive factor for well-being involves increased autonomy and control. This autonomy fosters feelings of ownership and responsibility, leading to increased job satisfaction and reduced stress.

The ability to adjust work schedules and locations allows employees to better integrate their professional and personal lives, facilitating work-life balance. This leads to improved satisfaction with both work and personal life, contributing to overall well-being.

Finally, flexible work arrangements help those with mental health challenges, creating a more supportive work environment. Employees feel more comfortable seeking help and taking time for self-care without fear of judgment or repercussions.

As we continue to navigate this new normal, the insights provided by such research are invaluable. They not only help in shaping policies that are in tune with contemporary work-life dynamics but also ensure that these policies contribute positively to the mental health of the workforce.