Working from home and its effect on anxiety and depression – What we know

12 Mins read

Working from home can be an amazing experience, giving us more flexibility in our schedule and removing stressful commutes to the office from our everyday routine. But for many, working from home can feel a little more like living at the office. Stress, anxiety, and depression are real concerns for many who spend their days working from a home office (or their bed). The good thing is that we know quite a lot about the causes of increased anxiety and depression when working from home. Of course, if you have been diagnosed with clinical depression or anxiety, then please defer to advice from licensed medical professionals.

Anxiety and depression can be caused by and amplified by working from home. Social isolation, increased stress, and lack of control all contribute to symptoms of anxiety and depression when working remotely. Increased physical exercise, a predictable workday and sleep routine, and planned social interaction remotely can help in lessening the effects of anxiety and depression when in a teleworking arrangement.

The evidence: Remote work and its effect on anxiety and depression

We went largely to primary, peer-reviewed literature to figure out what role working from home plays in anxiety and depression. The key takeaway here is that it depends on the person’s existing mental state as well as their particular context. But it is clear that both depression and anxiety can be brought on and even amplified by home working arrangements.

Don’t want to read this whole article? Here are the basic findings:

CauseLoss of control, job insecurity, stress, isolationSocial isolation, stress, loss of control
Greater effect onLess organized individuals, neurotic, outgoing, females, those with less experience working remotelyWomen, mothers, those with weaker family relationships
SymptomsPersistent worry, stress, lack of sleepSadness, lack of interest, physical impairments, altered sleeping routines, loneliness
Tips to reduce symptomsTime blocking (Pomodoro), drink water, exercise, decluttering environment, regular breaks, scheduling, social interactionExercise, better office lighting, predictable routine, breaks outdoors, social interaction

Can working from home cause anxiety?

The short answer: absolutely. For some, working from home actually reduces anxiety considerably. For others, feelings of worry and loss of control can be worsened by remote work. But what does the research say?

In this case, we take the Mayo Clinic’s definition of anxiety disorder which includes: “intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.”

Griffin et al. have shown that low levels of control at work and in the home can lead to anxiety, especially for women. This can be compounded by those that may be worried about job insecurity. A study in India found fear for the loss of employment to be a strong contributor to anxiety among the workforce who called their home their office during the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, home stress can often more easily spill over into work life (and vice versa) in a work from home scenario, leading to feelings of anxiety.

Acute stress in general can be a major cause of anxiety and is often a major factor in the development of anxiety disorders. Many who are working from home experience increased levels of stress in comparison to when they are working out of the office. This may be because of non-work factors like having to look after kids or other dependents from home or from a perceived expectation from the employer to produce more and in less time when working from home. Context matters here. Researchers in the UK found that WFH anxiety tended to be associated with employees that are less organized, neurotic, or outgoing. Introverts and those with better organization skills tended to be at less risk for symptoms of anxiety. So working remotely is definitely easier for certain personality types.

During the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, studies showed an uptick in perceived levels of stress among workers who were working from home. This was especially true for employees who (1) were female and (2) had less experience in remote working. This extra source of stress for many has been a reason to hate working from home and a significant source of anxiety in the workplace. A study of researchers themselves showed a major imbalance between work and private life among participants. This was especially bad during the 2020 lockdown.

Another key source of stress for remote workers is a feeling of isolation. The physical space between you and your colleagues and the irregularity of social interactions can give a sense of being alone, without a support system. A study in 2019 by Morneau Shepell showed that 64% of remote employees had high levels of perceived workplace isolation leading to stress. A further 15% of those interviewed for the study reported extreme feelings of isolation while at home. When about 1 in 6 employees are experiencing extreme isolation it is no wonder that feelings of anxiety are common in the WFH context.

A study done in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown in Cyprus used the Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 (GAD-7) questionnaire to determine the levels of anxiety among employees working from home. It was found that 41% of study participants experienced mild anxiety symptoms, while 23.1% experienced symptoms of moderate to severe anxiety.

So, if you’re feeling anxious while working from home you are not alone! The extra burdens added into the mix like looking after kids or other dependents is significant. Those who feel less in control of their career trajectory or, the world in general, tend to have more anxiety. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything about it. There are a lot of things that can be done to keep your WFH anxiety in check. Check out our tips below.

Can working from home cause depression?

Again, the answer is yes. Working from home can cause depression or at the very least exacerbate existing depressive states. Research on depression and remote workers tends to focus on social isolation, gender, sense of control, and stress. Like anxiety, depression can be brought on by a myriad of factors, each compounding on one another. It is useful to define depression in this case though. The Mayo Clinic considers depression “a persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest. Also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression, it affects how you feel, think and behave and can lead to a variety of emotional and physical problems.” So this isn’t just a fleeting sense of sadness, but instead, a serious disorder that affects millions in the United States.

Like anxiety, a loss of control in the workplace can be a contributor to depression. This, again, can be compounded when there is also a loss of control in the home personal environment. When home and work coexist in a single physical environment it is not uncommon to see symptoms of depression. A major loss of control for many, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, was the threat of job loss. It is clear that uncertainty in positions, especially at a distance, can greatly contribute to stress, anxiety, and depression. The same study from Cyprus (mentioned above) showed 48% of respondents experiencing mild depressive symptoms. And 9.2% experiencing moderate or severe depressive symptoms.

In particular, it is clear that women (and especially women with children) are at major risk of depression when working from home. A study showed that women who replaced regular exercise with caring for children experienced an increased risk of depression. In some contexts, working from home lessened the likelihood of depression due to giving more ability to care for dependents in the home setting. In fact, remote working mothers experience depression and loneliness more acutely than telecommuting fathers.

In general, lack of physical exercise has been cited many times as a major risk factor for depression and actually feeling tired. So making time for physical exercise may be a major key in keeping depression at bay when home working. Similarly, remote working has been associated with altered sleeping routines, especially when it is done non-voluntarily. During the COVID-19 lockdown, many WFH employees shifted to later bedtimes and later waking time, resulting in overall less sleep. This deterioration in quality sleep is associated with depressive symptoms. Sleeping either too much or too little can be signs of career burnout and the onset of potential depression. Poor sleep quality can also result from social isolation or loneliness, creating somewhat of a depressive cycle.

Women, younger age (18–29), student status, unemployment status, prior psychiatric history, and those reporting greater negative impact on their QOL, were at higher risk for increased anxiety and depression symptoms

Solomou & Constantinidou 2020

Close family relationships, those who do daily exercise, and those who normally have an optimistic personality tend to be less likely to experience depression symptoms when working from home.

Social interactions are considered by many psychology professionals as one of the most important factors in the staving of depressive episodes. In-person communication is obviously lost in a work from home situation, resulting in fewer opportunities for real social interaction. Furthermore, research has shown that motivation and productivity are actually negatively affected by a lack of genuine social interaction. Meaningful social connections seem to be a critical factor in both workplace success and mental health and may even affect the body’s oxytocin pathways.

Like anxiety, depression does not affect every individual the same way. Clearly women are at more risk of depression as well as those with anxiety, stress, and less control over their surroundings. The good news is that things like exercise and regular social interaction can form a buffer for you when depressive episodes may threaten. We do want to emphasize that if you experience long term or deep depression that you should consult a licensed medical professional as you may be experiencing clinical depression.

How to fight anxiety and depression while working from home

Anxiety and depression can be caused by similar things when working remotely. Because of this, there are several things you can do to lessen the impact of anxiety and depression symptoms while working from home. These aren’t a replacement for counseling and professional help, but for many, they may be enough to eliminate or massively reduce mild symptoms.

1. Increase your social interaction and connections

For both anxiety and depression, a major contributing factor is social isolation. Obviously you won’t be having water cooler or hallway conversations when working from home unless you count your cat… But that doesn’t mean that social interaction needs to disappear altogether. Consider setting up regular times with your colleagues for social interaction. Daily drop-in coffee meetings are a great way to keep up social connections. This is especially important for people who live alone and do not get much interaction outside of work. When possible, try to meet up with a few colleagues in person. Coffee shop dates and meetings can go a really long way in giving a sense of normalcy to your working from home routine.

Having a co-worker that you trust and text/call regularly can also be really great. You can share your challenges and concerns from work, a critical component of dealing with the stress of work. Plus, who doesn’t like a good complaint session?

2. Eat and drink

Keeping healthy eating and drinking habits are incredibly important. Staying hydrated in particular can make a big difference. Eating a balanced diet without the addition of refined sugars can also help keep you feeling physically and mentally healthy.

3. Get some exercise, even if it is just a walk

For both anxiety and depression, exercise can play a huge role in how severe the symptoms are. For many, a simple habit of taking regular walks every day can help keep you mentally in tip-top shape. This also gives you time to disconnect from your work and reset your mental state throughout the day, a major way to combat burnout.

4. Separate private and work life

It is important to make a firm separation between personal and work life when working from home since you are quite literally working down the hall from your bed. We recommend NOT situating your office in your bedroom for this reason. If you have space, try to create a home office in a specific room that has a closing door. In the morning consider a morning walk to act as your “commute” to work and then immediately go into your dedicated office space. You’ll feel much more like you are truly going to work. As tempting as it is to just roll out of bed and onto a Zoom call, it is not recommended.

5. Declutter – physically and digitally

Anxious people tend to feel more anxious when their environment is chaotic. Consider taking some time every day to clean up your physical workspace. I personally like to do this at the end of every day to “reset” my space back to a neutral state. And the same goes for your computer workspace. All of those 50 Chrome tabs? Close them at the end of every day. Keeping your computer desktop and browser window under control can give you a much-needed sense of control over your situation that can really help in controlling anxiety.

6. Let there be light

A nicely lighted work environment can do wonders for your mood. Consider moving your desk to an area of the house with natural light. If that isn’t available, get a nice soft/warm lamp to light your desk. And get outside! Midway through your day make a point of going outside, even if it is just for a quick water break. Suck in those rays!

7. Keep a routine

Routines are the key to a successful home worker. This means: shower, get dressed, arrive at your desk at the same time every morning. Treat your work from home routine like you really are going to an office filled with real people. In order to keep your routine, literally schedule things in your calendar. People booking you for lunchtime meetings? Nope! Book that off on your calendar. Your mental health is too important.

8. Keep a good sleep routine

One of the first things to go when people first start working from home is their sleep schedule. Less physical exercise may make your body want to stay up later and sleep in the next day. Fight that urge by making a strict bedtime schedule. Put your phone, tablet, and laptop away at least one hour before bedtime. Dim the lights, put on some soothing sounds on your smart speaker, and lull yourself to sleep with enough time to get in 8-9 hours of sleep.

9. Keep organized

Organizing everything in your work from home life is what will make you feel productive and in control. Make your productivity app home screen on your phone and use some kind of task management software to make sure your digital life is as organized and regimented as possible. And don’t forget the regular old notebook and pencil. Sometimes tactile, old-school tech is the best to stay grounded in times of stress.

10. Get comfortable

You’re going to need a good work desk and chair if you are going to go the long haul in working from home. Too many people set up shop in their bed or use rickety old dining room chairs for their remote working setup. This simply won’t cut it and your back and mental health will suffer in the long term. Our favorite standing desk from Ergonofis will allow you to sit and stand intermittently throughout the day to keep active. Similarly, get a really good chair. I know its tempting to get the “Staples special” but don’t do it. Your back is just too important to leave to a crappy chair. We recommend the Herman Miller Aeron as pretty much the best chair available. You’ll be able to work for hours on end. Just remember to take a break!

Top Recommended: Ergonofis Sway stand-up desk

There are a lot of standing desks out there but very few of them are made to the quality levels offered by the Sway stand up desk. This thing is made from solid maple, birch, or walnut and features one of the best adjustability motors in the business. If you’re going to spend the bulk of your productive life at a desk, why not make it a really good one? We highly recommend this desk to people experiencing issues with anxiety due to a lack of physical exercise. Check it out

11. Pomodoro Technique – time blocking

If you feel like you are constantly getting interrupted and not making progress it is a problem. You won’t feel in control and this could affect your level of anxiety. We recommend the Pomodoro Technique of breaking your tasks into uninterrupted short sessions. This idea of time-blocking has enabled remote workers to stay as productive as possible while also experiencing the satisfaction of progress in their everyday tasks.

12. Set some boundaries

You’ll be tempted to work longer than ever before when working from home. After all, the commute is gone. But your workday should be the same as if you were actually working from the office. Set boundaries of when your workday starts and ends by setting up do no disturb settings on your phone and computer. Once you are “out of office” people should know not to bother you. Similarly, shut the door to your office and move into “personal” mode at the end of the day. I recommend a “commute” walk outside to reset your brain after you end work. You’ll be surprised how much this instills a boundary between work you and personal home you.

13. Take mental health days

Don’t feel bad about taking a day or two off from time to time if your office allows it. Everyone needs a day here and there to recharge. Spend those days outside and away from devices, news, and anything else negative. Take some time for yourself.

14. Go hybrid office-home

If you really need that social interaction with co-workers, consider negotiating a scenario with your employer where you work partly at home and partly at the office. This will ensure that you get that critical social interaction but also enjoy the flexibility benefits of working from home. Not sure how to work up a working from home agreement with your employer? We have you covered.

15. Ask for help

Mental health issues are experienced differently by everyone. You may get to a point where the above tips just aren’t helping. In that case, ask for professional help. In the US, consider checking out the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The SAMHS has a free hotline to give information and referrals to
those going through mental health struggles at 1-800-662-HELP.

Home Werk

For your Home Werk, start getting more exercise and drinking more water throughout the day. Place a water bottle on your desk and drink it until it needs to be refilled. Repeat. You’ll be surprised how much this will help with some of the more mild symptoms of anxiety and depression.

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I have worked from a distance for many years with colleagues overseas but only recently got a taste of full-blown 100% working from home. And I love it! I can stay way more focused and sneak in the odd cat pet…
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Should my home office be in my bedroom? Science says no.