March 18, 2021
We all know remote work full-well at this point. For many of us, it’s not an option, but an edict for the time being. It’s done wonders for some in productivity. But do we know what it does to us mentally?
We’ve pulled together some of the latest research that shows remote work’s potentially harmful effect on the human brain and how we work.
It’s fair to say whether or not you benefit from working at home partly depends on personality (it’s easier for introverts than extroverts), motivation (being engaged with your job makes a big difference), and gender. But we’re all subject to some negative outcomes of being fully remote for the long haul.
If you’ve ever finished a day (or week) with back-to-back video calls and felt like you just ran a marathon, there’s a reason for it.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), examined the psychological consequences of spending hours per day on these platforms. In his research he found four ways Zoom and other video conferencing platforms wear away at our energy and create a stress response.
Scientific evidence shows that when we are under stress, our brains are less productive and have less capacity to think creatively. So, while these platforms are intended to support better collaboration, and they do in moderation, they can have an adverse effect on the brain as well.
Bailenson’s research shows that our stress and fatigue are linked back to these “unnatural” experiences on video calls.
All of these factors drive toward a more taxing experience and actually show changes to our brain activity.
Another study by Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab found that remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration. Specifically, brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork were much higher when collaborating remotely than in-person. But they found something unexpected as well: If the pair first worked together remotely, their brainwaves suggested it was more difficult for them to work together in-person afterward.
All of this new understanding sheds light on the mental impact our new norm has on the individual and hopefully reminds us to keep this impact in mind as we work out our new way of working.
Another impact on our cognitive capability is our social prowess and capacity.
Leo Widrich is the founder of the multi-million dollar company Buffer. A few years ago he left his successful business to live out in the woods. 2.5 years later he came back with a new perspective on what isolation caused by remote work does to the brain and social abilities.
He references studies that show slowly, like any muscle in our body that isn’t exercised, our vagus nerve (aka our social interaction system in the body) starts to atrophy. This is confirmed for example with experiments where mice are taken out of their social environment and into isolation, after which their brain cells atrophy that are related to social engagement.
As a consequence, we spend even less time around other humans, which in turn creates even more loneliness and makes our brain cells and social engagement circuits atrophy even further.
He calls this pattern of slowly weakening a self-fulfilling prophecy or loop our brain gets stuck in the more we’re on our little islands behind our laptops.
Even as hope rises with the availability of a vaccine, the last year has created a serious sense of uncertainty for millions if not billions of people. Think job security, financial instability or impact, social constraint, and shifting responsibilities.
Uncertainty triggers anxiety. For all the talk of agility, adaptability, embracing uncertainty, most humans are pre-wired to optimize their habitats for predictability. We crave meaning, so in the absence of familiarity, we feel unsafe. When we are unable to plan we experience discomfort and helplessness. All this means that remote working alone with no end in sight, no definitive plan can be hard on the brain and one’s sense of security.
Earlier mentioned founder, Leo Widrich also points out prolonged loneliness and isolation (as those social muscles atrophy) can lead to depression or a deep sense of insecurity for people.
So how do we cope? Can we? What are our options?
Huffington Post, Founder and CEO, Ariana Huffington weighed in on some of these challenges in an interview with CNBC. Her suggestions are simple but carry great value. She recommended fighting stress by taking 60-second pauses between meetings to breathe and reset your brain. She also suggested getting up every hour just to stand or step away from your screen. And to avoid grazing on Oreos or creating other unhealthy habits, she suggests having an accountability partner.
She also calls for a new way of thinking, a more empathetic way of interacting with employees in their work-from-home environment. “One of the fundamental delusions that has been driving us all, which is that in order to be successful, we basically need to be on all the time, I think that’s going to be completely sacrificed. Because we are all saying much more clearly the price we pay for that.”