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Complexity of Health & Wellness Challenges Affecting Remote Workers

I’m just going to say it … remote work is glorious. It’s liberating to have autonomy over my days, it keeps me from having to commute, and it has given us the ability to access people, ideas and communities through work in ways that were previously constrained. The overall concept of #remotework is rooted in recognizing that each individual is trying to find balance across all aspects of life, and that time is valuable. Also, that your physical location shouldn’t limit your ability to access or deliver productive work.

 

We also talk about the benefits of remote work to teams and companies in addition to the individual workers themselves. No longer a trend, remote work is a movement that we at Workplaceless are obviously passionate about.

 

But there’s a catch—if you’re passionate about, or experienced in, remote work, you know it’s not all hammock swings and piña coladas. In addition to team challenges, there are real health, safety and wellness concerns that can take a toll on workers over time. It’s important to be honest about these challenges if we expect remote work and remote teams to be sustainable long-term—and we do!

 

Our team and remote friends joined together at last week’s Networkplaceless event to discuss the biggest wellness challenges they face as both workers and leaders. Top voted concerns were specifically:

 

  • Mental health - isolation
  • Preventing burnout
  • Scheduling time for breaks - such as food and physical activity
  • Difficulty in knowing how people really feel

 

While we could write a dissertation on each of the issues voted on above, we also realized that the breakout group discussions revealed some deeper, underlying common themes that are intertwined across all of the concerns:

 

  • Ergonomics & physical implications of remote: While some remote workers embrace the digital nomad lifestyle, others set up their offices in their homes. When you’re traveling with your laptop and working from a beach or hotel room, you likely aren’t leveraging ergonomic best practices. Home office workers have some great “setting up your home office” tutorials, yet find themselves over the course of the day slowly eroding their posture as they get wrapped up in work and forget to step back, stand up, and take a break! If no one is dropping by your office to grab you for lunch or an afternoon coffee, it’s easier to let those small breaks slide. But those breaks are important to both physical and mental wellness (see mental health and burnout votes above).

 

  • Switching off or between work and home: We continue to hear the old-school push back to remote work, “if my employees work from home, they’ll just sit on the couch watching TV all day.” Yet report after report continues to highlight that remote workers are actually MORE productive because they have ownership over their schedule! There is a downside to that productivity. When your office is always accessible it can be challenging to fully break the cord between work mode and home mode. It’s even worse when you’re office is in your bedroom, which can affect your sleep and wellbeing.

 

  • Difficulties in connecting personally: When you’re working in a central office, you casually encounter co-workers in the hallways, office drop-ins, cafeteria or anywhere else is the proverbial water cooler. It’s these random and unplanned occasions where you learn who loved and who hated the Game of Thrones finale, and whose kids won their weekend softball tournament. Without those organic opportunities to casually see your coworkers, it’s more difficult to find those informal connections. Tools, such as Slack and Remo, can be excellent resources to try to foster those informal chats, but it’s important to recognize that different team members utilize and feel comfortable on those platforms in different ways. Some lean into every Slack channel, while others may internally debate whether to post once a day.

 

  • Issues can go unseen by other team members: We learn so much from each other based on body language. Yet, when you’re interacting with teammates on a two-dimensional screen (Tip: Turn on your Zoom cameras!), so much of that nuanced communication gets lost. It’s much easier to let the silence linger on phone calls or awkwardness slide when you’re only interaction is on infrequent conference calls. While it’s likely that many team members and managers would take action to support struggling colleagues, it often takes a proactive approach on behalf of the person who is experiencing challenges for those challenges to be seen and heard. Placing much of this burden on someone who may already be experiencing resistance to sharing their thoughts means that these problems can evolve into bigger issues.

 

  • Defining solutions from the company vs the individual: As many of these concerns are felt at an individual level, and everyone is working from their individual location, when does a company become responsible for providing resources to help? Should each worker find the guide to build their own ergonomic remote office? Or should the company provide a rubric? Should each individual worker seek mental health therapy or should the company be proactive in making those services accessible to all employees? One trend that we’re noticing is that remote companies who provide health services (mental health consultation/apps, ergonomic evaluations, etc.) as a benefit to employees, set themselves ahead of the pack in growing their remote workforce. Besides that—depending on your benefits provider, there may be significant financial incentives to make sure your workforce has access to and completes training on these topics.

 

  • How to communicate when there are concerns: Now that we know all these issues, what’s next? How do you recognize symptoms of isolation? Burnout? And if you do, how do you bring it up with your employee/manager/team? These questions link back to the question on ownership of solutions—as we become more aware of health and wellness problems, the more we realize that all stakeholders have some responsibility in identifying solutions.

 

All of these themes lead to the conclusion that these health, safety and wellness concerns are intertwined and complex. That means that solutions to overcome these challenges are just as intertwined and complex. Each solution can’t live in a vacuum.


We are going to explore these next steps for developing solutions to health, safety and wellness challenges for remote teams at our next Networkplaceless event on July 9, 2019. We hope you will join us as we explore this complex web of challenges and solutions.

Join our forthcoming Thriveplaceless course waitlist - our program to recognize and address the health risks associated with remote work.

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