Working at Home Brings its Own Challenges

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer recently made headlines when she put an end to her company’s work -at-home policy.  Despite her claim that this was not a referendum on telecommuting, many commentators have taken the opportunity to cast their votes on the issue.  Some have defended her right to structure her workforce as she sees fit, while others have criticized her as being a traitor to working women everywhere. Across the range of opinions, it seems taken for granted that working from home--whether good or bad for business--is generally good for employees.  I have to wonder whether this is always the case.

It turns out that there is strikingly little research on the link between teleworking and mental health.  But here is what we do know.  Americans work longer hours and take less vacation than those in any other OECD nation.  Mental health issues are highly prevalent and are costly to employers.  Depression alone is expected to cost workplaces an estimated $44 billion each year.  Conflicting work/family demands and longer workdays contribute to increased stress levels.  And, being in a toxic work environment can put an individual at increased risk for burnout, anxiety, and depression.

So, telecommuting would seem to offer an easy remedy to these issues, right?  Not necessarily.

While working from home cuts down on commute time, it does not necessarily reduce the amount of time spent working.  And because managers may be less aware of their remote employees' workloads, it may even have the opposite effect.  More importantly, working at home can leave individuals feeling isolated from co-workers and cut off from much-needed social support—a key predictor of depression.  And, for many individuals who are in the early stages of depression and anxiety disorders, the demands of the workplace can provide much-needed structure, social support, and sense of purpose.

Most troubling, removing the boundaries between work and home can erode the sense of relief and sanctuary that home traditionally provides.  In my practice, I regularly meet professionals who feel like they are never quite not working. Although they seem to spend enough time with their families, they report difficulty staying "emotionally present," a fact that does not go unnoticed by their families.

This is not to say that working at home is a bad thing.  If nothing else, it points toward the importance of employers offering flexible and tailored policies, and of employees taking steps to manage their psychological well-being.