Five things you can do to look after your mental health while homeworking

Chris Warburton · 28 August 2020

It is often said that working from home can help us keep our work-life balance in equilibrium, and support our mental health. While this is true, it can have its downsides, introducing new sources of stress as it reduces others.

Research into the relationship between flexible working and mental health suggests that homeworking is generally associated with greater job satisfaction and greater satisfaction with leisure time. This is principally due to three reasons:

  • Working from home can increase control and autonomy over working hours and arrangements, and may give employees flexibility in managing their workload.
  • It can reduce distractions or interruptions, especially if you are used to working in an open-plan office (although this might not be the case if you are also looking after others), which can increase productivity.
  • You do not have to navigate the rush hour traffic or squeeze yourself onto public transport.

Whether you work from home or on site, your employer has the same obligations to ensure that, as far as possible, you aren’t exposed to issues arising from work that will cause stress and mental health problems. But there are a number of things you can do to look after your mental health while homeworking – here are five.

Keep in touch

It is always important to nurture the social groups we are part of, especially when we work from home. Social groups provide people with physiological resources, and have been shown to buffer the effects of stress, to protect against depression relapse and to cope with the consequences of injury and trauma.

Regular communication, such as weekly calls, can help remote workers to feel more connected. Video meetings enable colleagues to see each other’s faces and body language, which is vital for building relationships, as well as making it easier to talk through shared work. Just don’t neglect making time for less formal conversations.

Stick to a routine

Working from home can make it more difficult to separate our home and work lives, perpetuating an always on culture.

Try to create a routine and stick to it. Aim to wake up around the same time every day, which will help stabilise your internal clock and improve your sleep. This is important, because one study of home workers based in 15 countries found 42% of them had trouble sleeping, compared with only 29% who always worked in the office.

Take your lunchbreak and have short, regular breaks from your workstation. Communicate your availability to your team to help manage expectations. Finally, switch off your mobile phone and your laptop when you’re finished at the end of the day.

Set up a workstation as well as you can

Badly set up workstations can lead to painful backs, necks and shoulders. These musculoskeletal disorders tend to be associated with mental health problems too – if you have one, the higher the chances that you have the other.

Employers should have similar furniture and equipment standards for home and office workstations, because the regulations governing computer use apply to both. You should be shown how to set up your workstation, but for information on how to sit comfortably, see the HSE’s workstation checklist.

It is also worth creating a boundary between “work” and “home” – if you can, keep one area of your home solely for work. It needn’t be a spare room, it could just be a corner, shielded off with screens or blankets so you’re not tempted to start working again.

Find out how to contact your EAP, if your employer has one

Employee Assistance Programmes, or EAPs, are independent benefit services intended to help employees with personal problems that might adversely affect their work, health and wellbeing. EAPs tend to offer short-term counselling, and sometimes other advisory services like money, addiction and relationships. You will usually find details on your intranet, from HR or from your union rep.

Speak to your rep

Employers can respond to workplaces changes, such as homeworking, in a variety of ways, some of which you might not be able to deal with on an individual basis. In these circumstances, it’s best to get support the support of the union.

For example, some employers or line managers may impose rigid structures around working time, such as enforcing “9 to 5” norms, or may start monitoring employees. Both of these factors can limit employees’ control over their work, which can cause stress.

It may be that your rep can provide you with confidential, independent advice; represent you individually; or raise the issue anonymously with management. If you are experiencing these problems, the chances are others will be too. The union may be able to tackle the issue collectively and negotiate improvements for all.

Chris Warburton is Prospect’s Health and Safety researcher