Remote & Hybrid Working

Remote & Hybrid Working

Managing stress, anxiety and mental wellness while remote and hybrid working

Remote and hybrid working has become a part of how a lot of us ‘do work’.

This presentation (recently given at the My Little Therapy Box Annual Mental Health Conference in 2021) covers some of the reasons why we get stressed and anxious while using technology for work. It also includes a few hints and tips on what you could do to help to take back control of workplace technology.

You can read a transcript of the main part of the presentation below:

In this talk, I’m going to be focussing specifically on remote and hybrid working. Mostly because this is my speciality and something a number of us have had to manage in our work lives the past 2 years.

Even if you enjoy remote and hybrid working and you find it really beneficial, it still has many challenges. A lot of which are not always recognised and acknowledged.

This is because there are so many nuances to remote working life that we put down to ‘the way things are’ or just take for granted the fact that working life is ‘just stressful’.

We also normally view everyone’s workplace experiences from our own lived experiences and our own viewpoint. We often think, ‘if this is true for me, then it must be true for others’ and it’s just normal, it’s just the way it is.

One of the ways that we can better understand how work impacts us, is to get a perspective of all the moving parts that make up how we work and how working with others impacts us.

I developed this remote & hybrid working model in mid-2020 after reviewing a lot of literature on previous research. This is because I was trying to understand the nuances of what causes workplace stress linked to technology use.

I won’t be going through each of these in detail – there just isn’t time in this session to do so. If you are interested in finding out more, I’ll include my contact details at the end of the presentation, and you are welcome to get in touch.

However, for this session, what I hope you will take away from this model is that there are a number of individual interlinking factors that impact the mental wellbeing of each of us, in a way that is very unique to us as individuals. When it comes to remote and hybrid working we do need to remember that our individual circumstances will be very different from another’s individual experience, and so it is important to show empathy towards others remote working experiences and acknowledge that the same event could impact them in a very different way to how it impacts you.

Ok, so within this model, there are a few areas that we have slightly more control over than others. Those sections with stars are the ones we have the most control over and are, therefore, easier wins for us. This means that we have the ability to do something about these and create for ourselves a better work-life balance that reduces stress and anxiety in a remote and hybrid working scenario.

I will be touching on a few of these and giving you some hints and tips on what you can do to help manage stress and anxiety in these areas.

But first, to give a little context as to why we all struggling so much with stress and anxiety around remote working, I wanted to give you a quick overview of some office-based norms that we often experience – working either face-to-face or remotely.

Pre-Covid, the expectation of being in the office was that you needed to be seen at your desk and seen to be doing work.

This was critical to being promoted and to being viewed as a responsible, dedicated and dependable employee.

Pre-Covid, those who engaged in flexible or remote working were professionals, senior managers, some occupations and some working mothers.

Those who sought flexibility outside of these remits were viewed by managers as not being very dependable and being less committed to their work. They were, therefore, less likely to be promoted and had a lower career trajectory than those who spent a lot of time in the office, even when these people took on passive work roles – where they were just sitting at their desks not really engaging with others.

If you did want to work flexibly or remotely, doing so meant you had to spend a lot of time each day ‘signalling’ your commitment and dependability, to colleagues and supervisors. You would do this by sending emails throughout the day and engaging in constant messenger chat with project team members. It also required taking on additional work tasks (often last-minute and outside of the job remit) to showcase commitment and dedication to the role.

All of these behaviours were just part of the downsides of working flexibly or remotely. But, these behaviours are extreme and costly from both a concentration and emotional energy point of view.

Linked to workplace norms and working flexibly is working parents.

In this area, there has always been a strong unconscious bias towards mothers and fathers when it comes to juggling work and family life.

For mothers, there was an assumption that they are less productive. Simply because they arrive at work and leave work on time. Non-parent, who typically spent longer than their contracted hours in the office, felt that the burden of work, therefore, fell upon them and others in the team. This often resulted in increased levels of resentment towards working mothers – often accompanied by such comments as ‘half-day then’, when in fact they were leaving on time and according to their contracted working hours.

Often because of this underlying resentment, those who were hiring mothers (or even potential mothers) tended to view them as less of an organisational fit.

But, in stark contrast, these very same working mothers were expected to display family devotion towards their children. If they didn’t, for e.g. working longer hours, they were often viewed as cold, selfish, heartless and a bad mother.

The reality for working mothers is quite different from the view others have of them. Research shows (and those of you who are or have been working mothers will be able to relate to this) that mothers tend to create strong and semi-impermeable work-life boundaries. Much more than men or single women do. They also had a much greater ‘psychological presence’ when they are at work and in the office. They know they have very limited time constraints in fulfilling their work & life commitments. So they worked a very focussed way when they are physically at work so that they can take on the home-based responsibilities and be fully present then for their children.

For fathers, the work assumption and bias is a very traditional one where they are still subconsciously viewed as the family breadwinner. In fulfilling this gender-biased role, they were expected to demonstrate family devotion, not by going home on time, but rather by staying longer at work, so they could showcase their commitment to providing for the family.

It was assumed by managers and recruiters that men were were more competitive and more rational towards their careers than women were. The reality however is that there has been a tremendous shift amongst families and couples in the expectations of western fathers for sharing the parenting roles and responsibilities more equally.

In fact, fathers desire to spend a lot more time with their family and often felt frustrated when work impinged on their home life. Because of this, men were more likely to find that work was incompatible with their family life but struggled to reconcile the two. Because flexible or remote working was not really seen as an option for them.

Stepping away from working parental norms and expectations and back to workers in general. A century ago, social status was accompanied by ‘an abundance of leisure’. The wealthy and upwardly mobile demonstrated their wealth by how little they did and how much others did for them.

We’ve now flipped those expectations on their head so that social status now comes from a narrative around ‘busyness without leisure’. This is to the point that busyness has become directly associated with a status symbol. When someone asks how work is going, the first response we often get is ‘Things are really busy at the moment, there is so much going on’.

We also seem to get some kind of internal reward from others seeing us so hardworking and the ‘look how busy and important I am’ that comes with additional responsibilities in an organisation. These longer hours are seen as a characteristic of the socially privileged and those who have ‘made it’.

For those of us who do not produce ‘things’, but rather ‘ideas’, busyness has become a signal of our knowledge value. So, the logic in this is that the busier we make ourselves out to be, the scarcer our knowledge resource must be so, therefore, it is of greater value than someone else who isn’t as busy.

But, the longer-term effect of this working longer hours to increase the perceived value of our knowledge, is that we spend more, and more time at work or ‘doing’ work. Because these knowledge workers conduct the majority of their work with the tools of technology, they end up being constantly connected to these tools, often worried about not being available when needed or missing that one big opportunity.

Research conducted in this area clearly demonstrates that this type of Always On, Always Available behaviour is exhausting. It reduces the ability to focus on tasks, decreases overall productivity and leads to longer-term mental and physical health issues.

So, why is constantly engaging with technology important to consider when it comes to mental and physical wellbeing.

From a physical and cognitive perspective, a term that has fairly recently found its way into the public domain is ‘neuro-plasticity’.

When it comes to human-computer psychology, this is an important factor that really needs greater levels of understanding, research and publicity.

Previously, developmental psychologists stated that at a certain age (around the late teen/early 20’s) our brain has completed its development. They believed that the structure of our brain throughout the remainder of our lives was fixed, and we couldn’t do much about it after that.

But this now has been disproven. Our brains continue to develop and change as we go about life, as we meet people, as we do things and as we learn things. The information that comes in through our 5 senses activates specific neurons associated with those senses. The bonds between these neurons, and those they are connected to, are strengthened as they are activated. The more we do something, the stronger and more connected those neurons become. These strong neural bonds allow information to flow quicker and more easily through the brain.

Those neurons that are not continuously used become weaker and information flow becomes a little sludgier. 

This is why developing a new skill or habit is hard work and requires additional willpower and determination. It is also why practising something embeds familiarity and makes a task easier. It is really the basis of what we call ‘muscle memory’ when we are developing a new skill and expertise. It is also why breaking a bad habit is so difficult to do.

Additionally, the effort of honing a desired skill and doing something well releases mini dopamine hits into our system. Dopamine in our bodies is our natural ecstasy drug, but in doses that give us lower-level, longer-lasting contentment, rather than that mass hits of synthetic ecstasy drugs that give us short term thrills.

This is relevant, from a technology use point of view, in that technology (so social media and gaming) are specifically designed to keep us hooked. The flashing and moving images and copy changes distract our eyes, engages our attention and release mini-hits of dopamine. The neural development that happens at the same time is directly associated with the mini-dopamine hit, which we start relying on, and this is what keeps us hooked.

If we spend a lot of time on our phones in general or switching regularly between emails, social media or checking messages alongside attempting to get work done OR if we open up notifications as soon as they pop up (which most of us do within 30 sec’s of receiving it – no matter what the notification is), we read that story just in, we check what the score is on the game running in the corner of the screen, we listen to that song now playing on Alexa, we quickly reply to mum’s text, we get back to that email, we message that friend about drinks this evening, we write another paragraph of the presentation, we reply to another email … What you are doing here, is training your brain to reduce its ability to focus and concentrate on harder, more productive work. You are also training your brain, through the mini-dopamine hits you get with these bits of activity, is that you come to rely on them to make you feel a bit better, or pull you out of a slump.

Hard thinking work takes mental effort and energy. It’s so much easier, and emotionally more pleasing, to flick between tasks and shower our brain with another quick dopamine hit. In the process, our brains start getting into a habit of being distracted. We crave constant stimulation and the mini-dopamine rush that comes from social connection and information hits.

The message here is that we don’t have to be gamers to be addicted to technology.

So… what can we do about all of this? How can we take back control of our digital habits?

As I’ve said before, there are a few things that affect us differently as individuals. If we are aware of them, it is easier for us to be proactive in making changes around how we interact with technology – whether that’s for work or at home.

The rest of this presentation is to try to help you think about how you use technology, and how you could take more control over it to help reduce tech-related stress and anxiety, particularly when we are working from home.

Let’s start with our personalities, and how it can play a role in how we ‘do work’ using technology and how we manage remote working in particular.

There are many different personality types that have been defined, and a lot of research has been done trying to find out how personality type is linked to engagement with technology and apps. The research results are often vague or contradictory. However, there are some useful insights that we can take when it comes to remote and hybrid working.

The first thing is around introverts and extroverts:

We tend to think of introverts as shy and extroverts as outspoken. But, from a psychological point of view, introverts are those who find that interacting with others drains them of energy. They need to spend time on their own to recharge. Someone can be really sociable, and also be an introvert. In contrast, extroverts tend to get their energy from spending time with others. Someone can be quite shy but also be an extrovert.

Introverts find working in an office really tiring, and they find remote working to be so much easier than extroverts do. Introverts are more likely to revel in lower levels of colleague engagement. They may also feel more emotionally and mentally tired when they have to attend extended periods in video calls or have to attend to a constant stream of messages and emails throughout the day. In the same way as people coming over to the desk on a regular basis, having to keep a messaging window open on their screen all day, can become really tiring to have to keep an eye on while trying to get their work done.

If you are more of an introvert, try closing down your emails, or the messaging app, for extended periods of time during the day. If this needs a conversation with your manager and colleagues to let them know that you need blocks of focussed time, then chat to them about when the best time would be for you to do this. Others quickly get used to you being available via email during specific hours each day, and they often work around it, or they just call if there is anything really urgent that needs dealing with.

Extroverts, on the other hand, need regular face-to-face contact and engagement. They are more likely to, therefore, set up online meetings, or go to every online meeting set up by others. They tend to send a lot, and distract themselves with a lot, of emails and messages.

Sending and reading messages substantially reduces overall concentration and productivity levels. Additionally, extroverts are also more likely to be bored, frustrated and often, therefore, more likely to play games, spend time on social media and distract themselves with many tasks at once.

Because they get energy from being around others, they are the ones more likely to want to return to the office full-time and are less likely to understand why others prefer not to.

If you are more of an extrovert and required to work remotely most of the time, make a conscious effort to allocate time to focus on engaging with others during the day. Simple things like going to a local coffee shop to work for a few hours or going to your local store and chatting with the teller can help. Doing this may reduce the need to dabble in excessive messaging and emails, playing games and checking out social media. It may also help you become more focused and productive once you have received the ‘social fix’ you need

The second thing is around those who have higher levels of conscientiousness.

These people tend to be more disciplined about their work and better able to stick to a work schedule on their own. If you have lower levels of conscientiousness, you may find you struggle with the discipline of sitting down and getting work done outside of a formal office environment. This is neither good nor bad, but it does mean you will need to find other ways to keep yourself on track. For e.g. being accountable to someone – either someone at work, a family member, a friend or even a coach or mentor can be helpful.

Thirdly, if you tend to be a bit neurotic, you can become fixated a little more on checking and responding to emails and messages from work on a regular basis, even during your private time.

You may also tend to worry about the message itself, how to fix the situation or what the person who sent the message thought about you, or what impact you said or they said, will have on your job. So, you keep on checking your emails and messages for a response to your last sent message, because you worry about it until you get the response.

If you are a bit like this, it could be worth not uploading work emails to your mobile device and switching your computer off at the end of the workday. Keeping emails on your computer and having to switch your computer on after hours in order to access emails – means you are slightly less likely to look at and engage with them after hours.

Have a separate work and personal mobile. This way, you can switch your work phone off at the end of the day.

Have a workbook somewhere that is easily accessible that you can jot down things that you forgot you need to do the next day. Don’t be tempted to turn your computer on or pick up your mobile to quickly make a note. It’s all too easy for that to turn into a 3-hour work session that takes you away from your family or from your own recovery

The last thing I want to talk about here is the fact that we take on different persona’s for different life roles.

We also use different parts of the brain to manage different areas of our lives, because each role we have, has differing personalities to manage, different expectations, different demands and different puzzles to solve.

The traditional transition time between home and work and back home again used to give us the time and mental space to subconsciously shift ourselves between these two personas. Working from home doesn’t give us that ability. Additionally, a number of people are now using that commute time to start work earlier and finish later – hoping that additional hours spent on work will make them more productive.

However, research has shown that additional working hours has, in fact, not made us more productive. There is no difference between working through traditional commute time and not working through that commute time. Working longer hours, just makes us more tired and less productive. It therefore just means we take longer to get things done and reduce our overall work-life balance.

If you are not commuting to work, rather than sit down at your desk and start working around the same time you would otherwise have left for the office. Use the time to do a mock transition between your home and work responsibilities, and do the same activity you would have done if you were driving, bussing, walking or cycling to work. Go for a walk around the block, sit in a comfy chair and read a book or listen to music or do a hobby.  Stick with it. Your brain and subconscious require that transition time.

Another area that we have some control over is how much time we spend doing work during our private time – especially when we are working remotely.

I spoke previously about creating a transition zone between work and life – especially when you are working remotely. This is most relevant if you prefer to (and are able to) do your work in one block of 8 hours each day. Although this is how conventional wisdom around working norms requires work to be done. Not all of us prefer to work this way or are even able to work this way. Some of us would just work better really, really early in the morning or would be so much more productive if we started late, late morning and worked into the early evening.

Then there are some of us that need the flexibility to split the 8 working hours into a number of time slots throughout the day. This is so we can also fulfil other life commitments, such as caring responsibilities.

Research shows that when employers force us to work differently to our working preference, it causes us a lot of stress and anxiety. I’ll explain that statement.

On the one side, if we prefer to work in one solid time-block, keeping our work commitments completely separate from our family commitments, being asked by our employer to work or to travel on weekends or evenings OR if our supervisor regularly gives us work that requires us to work in the evenings or weekend, this causes us a lot of stress and anxiety.

On the other side, some workers prefer to split working hours into smaller chunks throughout the day, so that they can more effectively juggle work and personal commitments such as caring responsibilities, studying, sport or hobbies. Being forced to work a full 8 traditional working hours without the option of being able to effectively care for children or when company policies prevent being able to catch up on work after hours. This forced 8 continuous hours of work can be really stressful for those with outside of work commitments.

Those who prefer the block-work, often talk about work-life balance being about finishing work within particular time slots and having set hours to pursue life interests. However, those who prefer flexible hours talk about work-life balance is about being able to effectively manage their private life while still pursuing a fulfilling work life.

So, a good work-life balance for one person may look like a rubbish work-life balance for another person. Reducing stress levels around work-life balance can therefore be about first understanding your preferred way of segmenting your day between work and personal life pursuits.

If you prefer greater flexibility, talk to your team and supervisor about being able to be more flexible with working hours. Then make sure you keep work during work hour slots and personal things during private time slots are essential for helping to manage overall stress and anxiety. Being that focused also means you are a lot more productive when you are working and a lot more present when you are at home.

It may be that the norm for the team and company is to monitor comms at all times of the day and night. If this is the case, there may be many in your team that feel stressed and exhausted by being constantly available. If you prefer greater levels of structure in keeping work at work and not taking it home, talk to your supervisor and colleagues about how the team works and how you can keep work within set hours while still achieving work objectives and team projects going.

Working remotely poses a whole set of additional challenges.

A few strategies that I regularly suggest (and have already touched on some earlier) to those who prefer to keep work within a big block of time:

  • Take a short walk at the start and end of the workday. This can substitute for office commute time.
  • At the end of the workday, set aside 5 minutes to write down all the tasks you need to complete the following day into a physical workbook. Prioritising those that are urgent and important. Then close the book. If you think of anything while you are e.g. cooking dinner, open the book, write that thing down and then close the book again.
  • Do focussed tasks during work time. Our brain can only work productively for stretches of 90 minutes at a time. Try setting a 90-minute timer while you do focussed work and then take a 15 min break.
  • Set yourself an upper-time limit of when you are prepared to finish work. We fill our work to the time we have available. By setting a hard-stop deadline time to finish each evening gives us a real focus to get work done in time.
  • Shut down your computer at the end of the working day. Don’t just send it to sleep.
  • If you do need to check emails at some point in the evening, just because that is less stressful than waiting for the following morning, try setting a timer for when you plan to stop. We lose track of time when we spend it in the techno-sphere.
  • Try not to work during traditional commute times. Engage in other personally rewarding activities during this time instead.

For those who prefer to integrate work and private lives, I would suggest trying the following:

  • Block out the chunks of time you have available to work
  • Try stick to those times and try not to blend the blocks together by thinking about work in between those blocks of time
  • Make sure you get at least 2 hours of down-time before you head off to bed – your brain needs time to slow down so that you are able to get both the quality and quantity of sleep you need

Neither option is easy to implement but starting with an understanding of your preferred working style can go some way to empowering you to make the changes that may reduce some work-related stress levels.

Linked to the previous point is how we manage our personal and work-based technology.

Whether you prefer to do your work in one continuous block or in a number of smaller blocks spread throughout the day, the best way to give your brain physical boundaries between your private self and your professional self is to use different technology for different life realms.

For example, you can separate out work-based and home-based technology by:

  • Having a different work phone from your personal phone so you can switch your work phone off at the end of the workday and leave it next to your workstation until the following day.
  • If you can, use different technology for different parts of your life. For e.g. use your computer for work-based tasks and a mobile device for entertainment (such as movies, books, games and music) and, connecting with others (using personal emails, social media, calls and messaging).
  • If you do use a laptop for work, leave it on your home office desk. Don’t pick it up and take it with you to use for home-based activities.

By using different technology for different life realms, you give your brain permission to not trigger work-stress-mode when all you want to do is listen to an audible book on your phone, but notice a new email notifications that’s just come in and you get sent straight back into work mode, instead of giving your working brain time to re-energise during non-work time.

Research shows that when work infiltrates our personal time, it often results in:

  • Reduced quality time with the family
  • Increased family-based conflict – between partners and their children
  • Increased worker and family anxiety levels
  • It contributes towards child development problems
  • And reduces the ability to meet home and work obligations, raising overall stress levels for the worker.
  • Reduces opportunity for workers to pursue other life-interests
  • It also means that workers do not have adequate mental and physical recovery time, leading to greater feelings of being overwhelmed and stressed
  • This results in higher levels of depression, physical fatigue and burnout.

I’ve included a few hints and tips you can try with your tech during private time:

  • Put your phone away when around others – even the presence of a mobile can be distracting and keep you from being fully present in the conversation.
  • Use the same social expectations around reading a book or a magazine as you would when scrolling through your phone. You would think it rude to read a book when you are sitting in a social gathering, we should feel the same about a phone.
  • Actively create tech-free times
  • Try to have one completely tech-free day each week. I normally choose one day each weekend; it is amazing how much you get done when you aren’t distracted by screens.
  • Eat together more with others, and keep it completely tech-free
  • If you have children, demonstrate the behaviour you expect your children to display with technology. We learn more through the active behaviour of others than through what others tell us to do.
  • Embrace the sensation of being bored – our minds need rest – it is in this rest that we get our greatest insights and ideas.

Give yourself permission to let go of your technology. Spend more time in your community. Take up a hobby or sport that doesn’t include a device. Read a book. Learn a new skill.

All of this will help your brain recover from the cognitive effort that is required when engaging with work or tech.