How one can help the psychological well being and wellbeing of distant staff

When COVID-19 hit, suddenly commutes were a thing of the past, and many home offices took the shape of kitchen tables or even stacks of cushions on the bed. While Zoom fashion may have been the height of comfy for some, for many the isolation and lack of separation between work and home was torture, and exacerbated an already escalating crisis of loneliness and mental health. 

Enabled by the digital age and turbocharged by the pandemic, remote working is so much more complex than the Instagram-touted ideal of a ‘digital nomad’ swaying with their laptop in a hammock between palm trees. But it can still offer a host of benefits — for employer and employee alike. 

For instance, rather than being geographically constrained, companies gain access to a global talent pool. Allowing for remote work can also increase the appeal for potential hires, as well as raise retention rates. Furthermore, employers can save costs on office space and utilities. 

Employees, on the other hand, spend less time commuting (which also offers environmental benefits), have more time for family, are free to live where they wish, and gain access to more diverse opportunities.

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Furthermore, the World Health Organisation estimates that something like 1.3 billion people across the world suffer from long term mental or physical impairment. As such, remote work is also a question of access to employment and financial inclusivity. 

TNW sat down for a conversation with the originators of a document called the European Charter for Digital Workplace Wellbeing — Filipa Matos, VP Special Ops at Remote, and Ben Marks, impact entrepreneur, founder, and executive director for the #workanywhere campaign. 

“Remote work for many, many of these people equates to access to work, which is a fundamental human right. And that was really the basis for us setting up the ‘work from anywhere’ campaign — to try to ignite that sort of culture change and show that remote work is actually about economic justice,” Marks said. “It’s not just about relatively privileged people avoiding the commute.” 

Going beyond the buzzwords 

But remote and mostly digital work also comes with a specific set of challenges. Blurred boundaries between work and private life, loneliness, and perhaps being overlooked for career advancement due to lack of face-to-face contacts are all things that could contribute to unhealthy stress and potential burnout. 

As such, protecting the wellbeing of remote workers goes far beyond enabling digital nomad visas, and providing stable internet connections. Most organisations tend to heap the responsibility for wellbeing on the individual (“have you tried yoga?”), aided, however unwittingly and well-meaningly, by the social media bombardment of #selfcare. 

“I think we need to be open to understand that this reality is not just about the buzzwords,” Matos stated. “People talk about mental health issues, like it’s something that is trendy, or something that we should all care about, without putting it into practice.”

The European Charter for Digital Workplace Wellbeing

Under the umbrella of the Future Workforce Alliance (FWA) — a multidisciplinary network of policymakers, academics, and public and private stakeholders — Marks and Matos have compiled the European Charter for Digital Workplace Wellbeing. It is a non-binding document that encourages policymakers and corporations to recognise that this growing part of the population exists — and to do better by them. 

The Charter was endorsed and co-signed by 31 Members of the European Parliament earlier this summer. It proposes to set official guidelines and lay down best practices for companies with hybrid or fully remote staff, focusing on four key areas: life beyond work; social connection; privacy and trust; and digital wellness. 

Following the launch of the Charter in June, FWA is now working with stakeholders to determine best practices that can be codified into EU law. 

Life beyond work

The “Life beyond work” segment builds on the “right to disconnect” proposal (not yet enforced across the bloc, but in individual member states such as France and Spain), ensuring that measures such as the right not to engage with work-related communication beyond working hours take the specificities of digital workplaces into account. 

It also calls for practices where remote workers do not suffer in terms of career opportunities compared to their office-based colleagues. Furthermore, it asks that instead of  “work-life balance,” the term should be “life-work balance” in all EU legal and political documentation, to help shift the emphasis. 

Social connection

“Social connection” focuses on access to coworking spaces. Marks highlights Ireland as a policy role model, which runs a national network called Connected Hubs. Launched in May 2021, the government initiative comprises 323 coworking spaces across the country. Ireland has a high proportion of remote workers, with 39.3% of employed people in Eastern and Midland Ireland working from home in 2021 (only the region of Stockholm had a higher proportion, with 40.5%). 

Meanwhile, companies also need to do their part in supporting access to coworking spaces for their remote staff. For instance, Remote offers its employees a stipend so that they can have access to the social wellbeing and professional inspiration that coworking spaces can offer.

“We can just meet with someone, maybe colleagues from our own company, and go to a coworking space for a day or two,” Matos said on this means of combating experiences of loneliness. “That makes a real difference for me because I get to define my needs as an individual.”

Privacy and trust

The pillar of privacy and trust looks to ban or restrict ‘digital leash’ technologies used for worker surveillance. 

“When we trust people, and we focus on the outcomes, and we focus on their expertise, we’re saying, ‘Hey, we’ve hired you. If I hired you, it means that I trust you’. I’m not coming from a place where I don’t trust you to start with, and then you will need to win my trust. [Employers] need to start hiring with trust,” Matos shared. 

Digital wellness 

Under the umbrella term of digital wellness, the signers of the Charter agree to recognise a link between increased technology use and mental health issues, including attention and behaviour problems. 

Furthermore, they will look to establish evidence-based, legal definitions on what constitutes a “healthy relationship with technology in the workplace,” and cross-sector support of tools and practices that moderate technology usage to promote improved health and well-being. 

In the words of Marks, “we created this charter to modernise the approach to workforce wellbeing and to pave the way for the next generation of workers’ rights protections around wellbeing and mental health.”  

You picking up the phone and opening Instagram/X/other distraction-drug-of-choice icon and before you know it, it’s been 15 minutes of instant context switching and you wonder why you feel exhausted? That’s, unfortunately, still on you (and maybe the billions of dollars flung at behavioural algorithms by Big Tech). 

But as someone who worked fully remotely over three years, and watched (remotely) friends and colleagues just roll out of bed and then proceed to have breakfast, lunch, and often even dinner in front of their computer screen, not able to go for a walk because “they will see that I am not online,” it is heartening to know someone is looking out for the rest.

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