August 10, 2022

More Scary Anti-WFH Headlines: Is Remote Work Bad for Your Mental Health?

The anti-WFH propaganda is in full swing and why shouldn’t it be? Commercial leases still have to be paid whether offices are full of bodies or not, might as well try to weaponize pandemic loneliness against workers to force them back under the fluorescent lights while they can.

First we heard that remote work might not save you as much money as you think, a suggestion that was quickly debunked in our comment section by accountants saving a shit ton of money (and stress) by skipping long commutes. And now a recent BBC piece strongly suggests that remote work might be bad for your mental health. As if the office is any better.

Remote work has been heralded as a solution to some of the problems of our fast-paced, pre-pandemic lifestyles. For many, it’s meant the opportunity to spend more time with their children, or use time that they would have previously wasted commuting pursuing more fulfilling hobbies. But new research into remote work and wellbeing has shown mixed results – in Microsoft’s 2022 New Future of Work Report, researchers found that although remote work can improve job satisfaction, it can also lead to employees feeling “socially isolated, guilty and trying to overcompensate”.

The negative effects have come as a surprise for some employees, who are now feeling the crush, realising remote work isn’t necessarily the wellness panacea it has been touted as. Contrary to the running narrative of a mass demand for remote work, some employees are actually choosing to switch into roles with an in-office component.

The running narrative? You mean all the people who have said “if my job forces me back to the office I will quit and find a new employer who is cool with remote work” and then actually quit and found a new employer when it happened? That narrative? No one is saying people can’t go to the office if they want to. Go. Knock yourself out. Just let people who prefer remote work stay home.

Just the other day someone from the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) said on the Journal of Accountancy podcast that people will “revolt” if you force them back into the office. She used that exact word. “In some cases you have firms that are now requiring people to come back to the office, and in some cases they are having people revolt, if you will, and essentially saying, I got used to this work from home, this flexibility, this type of environment, and I’m not going to go back to the office, and in some cases they are going to places that will allow for that flexibility,” she said. This tracks with everything we’ve been hearing and reading and talking to people about for the last two (+ almost a half) years.

Back to BBC:

Working from home might have once been viewed as a utopia of exercise on our breaks, making healthy homecooked lunches and easily being able to make the school run. For many, however, the reality has looked very different.

Come on. Life isn’t a Pinterest board. None of that crap is easy or simple and as working adults we’d be delusional to think working from home will magically make breakfast look like a mommy blogger’s Insta feed. Ain’t nobody got time for that, office or not. Maybe in the very early days of the pandemic we coordinated pajama sets and sat down to full 90s American sitcom breakfasts and baked our own bread; that’s because people got laid off and had time on their hands, Susan. We quickly snapped back to reality as the weeks wore on.

BBC interviewed a “workplace scientist” who told them the pandemic sparked a “rapidly growing mental health crisis”, and that even those who have fully embraced a move to remote work might not be exempt. No shit? You mean to tell me that cutting social beings like humans off from one another for months at a time while a virus that could kill any one of us runs wild through the population might cause some mental health issues? Damn, never considered that, thank you expert.

“When working remotely, we miss out on the social cues of a busy office and much needed social-interactions – catching up in the corridor, or making a drink in the kitchen while checking in and asking about the weekend,” she says. “These seemingly small moments can collectively have a large impact on our wellbeing.”

We get it, some people are extroverts. I am, and the isolation of the pandemic has been absolute hell on me and people like me who enjoy the company of others. THAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN WHETHER YOU GO TO THE OFFICE OR NOT. Believe it or not there are some people for whom office interaction is a chore and not a robust part of their social calendar (shout out 90% of the Going Concern audience).

I’ve worked remotely on and off since 2010 and can say with some authority yes, it does get lonely and isolating at times. That’s what clubs and softball league and volunteering and friends and gaming and bars and any place but work are for. Stop making it seem like the office is the only place to get human contact.

According to WHO data, anxiety and depression are up 25% worldwide. Call me crazy (heh) but it’s doubtful the lack of break room donuts is behind that.

One major explanation for the increase is the unprecedented stress caused by the social isolation resulting from the pandemic. Linked to this were constraints on people’s ability to work, seek support from loved ones and engage in their communities.

Loneliness, fear of infection, suffering and death for oneself and for loved ones, grief after bereavement and financial worries have also all been cited as stressors leading to anxiety and depression.

Those are rookie numbers when you compare them to the mental health crisis that’s been ongoing in the accounting profession since forever. Never-ending workloads, long hours, office politics, and a work environment that discourages taking mental health days are just a few of the many reasons why anxiety and depression are as familiar at public accounting firms as branded pens and infinite spreadsheets. From a November 2021 Journal of Accountancy piece on mental health and CPAs:

CPAs, because they are expected to independently solve challenging problems on the job, are conditioned to believe that with hard work they can overcome anything on their own, including anxiety and depression.

In defense of the BBC, they did find at least one remote worker who is not suffering from the burden of working from home. “For the first time in my life I don’t have the Sunday Scaries,” says Lauren, who works in technology. “I keep flexible hours, which is super helpful when you have a child. I definitely want to continue working remotely, at least until my daughter goes to school.”

Am I completely off base here? Are you all just pining for the rich experience of getting interrupted at your desk in person? Do you wish your firm would mandate five days in the office so you can maximize your weekly exposure to culture and collaboration? Do you miss whiteboards??

The remote work debate rages on, I guess. In the meantime, if anyone reading this is struggling and needs help, the NAMI HelpLine is a good place to start. NAMI can be reached Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET. at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264) or [email protected]. You are also welcome to vent in the comments below just keep in mind that a combined two decades of experience in therapy does not make our ragtag band of accounting profession rejects experts in mental health.

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2 Comments

  1. Speaking for myself, working from home has indeed saved me a shit ton of money. In addition to not having commuting costs (timely given the ridiculous gas prices right now), I am also not eating out for lunch every day, which would cost $50+ per week. I also love the flexibility of working from home. I can take a long walk in the middle of the day, catch up on news during my lunch break, or run an errand whenever I need to.

    The biggest down side I’ve found, besides the isolation mentioned in this article, is that I find myself working even more hours than I did when I was in the office. I used to go to the office from a certain time in the morning to a certain time in the evening (give or take a couple hours), and then when I went home, I was generally done working for the day. Now, I am working all hours. Most days are filled with Zoom calls, so I’m not getting anything done during the day…which means I’m doing a lot of my work at night and on the weekends.

  2. I work in STEM, and for me working from home has reduced the anxiety and stress I constantly felt every day of the week. Finally I could enjoy my life for once, and didn’t dread Sunday already. The pandemic indeed did make it harder to see friends and family, but other than that I definitely was happier working from home. I could focus better, the lack of office politics took away some of the stress, and no constant forced-fun events at work. In addition, without the commute I was now able to cook more various dishes, exercise and join activities I liked (when things started opening up).
    The point made about work not having to be the single mode of face-to-face contact is a good one, and one that many businesses ignore.
    Not everyone is the same, some people love the office environment, and some don’t.

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