Remote workers are not okay.
The ability to meet social and personal needs within work was disrupted by the forced shift to telework that many experienced at the start of the pandemic. Many workers lost their sense of control and any work-life balance they had established. Teleworkers are emotionally exhausted, and their mental health is undoubtedly suffering.
The Department of Management’s Samantha Conroy wanted to know how this disruption showed up in work behavior and how significantly the shift impacted overall well-being among remote workers. She and her coauthors started sending surveys across their university networks in April 2020.
The responses they received found correlations between critical human needs as they relate to work. People with less perceived job control and more work loneliness are more emotionally exhausted and have a lower work-life balance. Further, those with low work-life balance experience increased insomnia and symptoms of depression. And to tie it all together, lower job control and higher loneliness are associated with increases in counterproductivity at work.
“Surviving remotely: How job control and loneliness during a forced shift to remote work impacted employee work behaviors and well-being”
William J. Becker1, Liuba Y. Belkin2, Sarah E. Tuskey1, Samantha A. Conroy
1 Virginia Tech
2 Lehigh University
Individual work-life boundaries
These findings make sense on the surface, but there’s more to it. Employees perceive and define work-life balance and job control differently based on individual preferences. Conroy’s research considers and examines the extent of separation people prefer to keep between their work life and their personal life in terms of “segmentation preference.”
Workers with a high segmentation preference like to keep their worlds separate with a clear boundary between work and home. Whereas those with a low segmentation preference don’t mind a continuous flow between the two.
“Increased job control perceptions for those who prefer high segmentation may not be as beneficial for their emotional well-being and balancing their work and nonwork domains in the context of COVID-19,” Conroy explained. “On the other hand, those employees who prefer to integrate will be more comfortable with the shift, experiencing reduced stress with better job control.”
On the high segmentation side of the spectrum, the shift to remote work resulted in teleworkers feeling less in control of their work-life balance with a loss of boundaries and increased interruptions. However, those with low segmentation preferences likely felt they were gaining job control when they were pushed to remote environments.
Loneliness among long-distance workers
People have two critical social needs: autonomy and belongingness. Both needs must be met in the workplace through competency and connection, and the shift to telework upended both realms.
The concept of “work loneliness” taps into these social needs. Conroy and her coauthors hypothesized that emotional exhaustion would come from loneliness and cause counterproductive behaviors such as starting work late, purposefully not completing assigned tasks, taking longer breaks or leaving work early. After examining data, they found that emotional exhaustion did not play a role in counterproductive behaviors.
“So why does increased loneliness make people participate in counterproductivity?” Conroy asked. “Maybe there’s something more going on here like this is how they give themselves control, or maybe being disconnected from others just makes us feel less accountable.”
Snowball samples and individuals’ contributions
The research team employed a “snowball sample” strategy, meaning they sent the survey out to their university networks and asked people to participate and send to people they know who fall within the target group of remote workers. The initial survey was followed by a second about a month later to reduce the risk of mood effects on responses. Conroy was pleased with how well the “snowball sample” worked, collecting nearly 600 responses across the two surveys.
“Research is one way to help us better understand what’s happening in the world, and I think people saw the surveys as an opportunity to provide that kind of contribution at time where we felt helpless,” Conroy said. “It was one way people felt like they could make a difference.”
Survey questions and analysis leveraged psychology and management models to analyze aspects of the remote work experience. Conroy and her coauthors analyzed autonomy and belongingness as primary workplace needs; the limited amount of emotional and energetic resources each person has; and what can be done to protect those resources.
“The more demands you have and the fewer resources you have, the more stressed you’re going to become,” Conroy explained. “Things like job control can help with the strain that you’re experiencing.”
Finally, the survey examined workers’ need for nearby social resources, known as the social baseline. Everyone has this need – introverts and extroverts alike. Each person has a social baseline characterized by coordinated work, shared goals and mentorship. Relationships devalued or disrupted by the shift to remote work upset individual balance and create a loss of self as individuals shift toward the condition of being alone.
Together, these theories and models help conceptualize what’s important for employee well-being and further, examine the relationships between critical needs. Job demands, resources and social baseline affect workers’ emotions, work life, family dynamics and ultimately, well-being and health outcomes.
Managing for loneliness
Ultimately, Conroy’s research shows that a lack of job control and increased work-related loneliness have significant well-being impacts on employees.
“I think for HR professionals, policy makers and managers, they need to be thinking about how they can give employees a sense of control when these kinds of shifts happen and how they can manage loneliness for their employees,” Conroy said.
The more managers are able to ensure their employees are feeling fulfilled and having their needs met, the better off the employees and the company will be. But virtual happy hours are probably not the answer.
“It’s more important that you help employees have a few deep connections that fulfill those needs than it is to have them do these big group phone things where everyone just feels like a little square box on a screen,” Conroy explained based on her experience and other research.
The evolution of remote work
Conroy’s research finds a few deep connections in relation to a massive, world-changing event. However, she wants to see more work done to examine loneliness in the context of general teleworking. As the pandemic roles on, remote workers have grown accustomed to video calls and messenger conversations. It may meet the needs for some, while others continue to struggle, and those differences should be considered.
Further, we need to better understand the essential worker experience, and Conroy has work in progress to do just that.
“How do people in more essential jobs use this same technology? And is it helpful or hurtful to their lives?” Conroy asks. “I’m thinking more about the workers who didn’t have the luxury of being able to work from home.”
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