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The Well-Being of Remote Workers

Since the massive expansion of remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic, the associated benefits and risks for workers have been much discussed. Yet the unusual circumstances make it difficult to draw conclusions from this experience. WZB Fellow Erin Kelly (MIT), Duanyi Yang (Cornell University), Laura D. Kubzansky and Lisa Berkman (both Harvard University) have studied how remote work affects the psychological well-being of workers in more typical times. Their results show that outcomes differ, but are generally worse for women.

Based on data from surveys of German employees in the mid-2010s, their study draws a mixed picture: Distinguishing between working from home during regular working hours ("replacement work-from-home"), and outside regular working hours ("extension work-from-home"), the authors find more benefits for workers in the first category and more risks in the latter. These risks are predominantly born by women.

Impacts of Different Types of Remote Work
Workers doing replacement work-from-home report significantly higher psychological well-being and job satisfaction than workers in a traditional workplace. In contrast, workers doing extension work-from-home show lower well-being than those not working from home, and receive no benefit to their job satisfaction. They also show higher intentions to seek out a new job, which indicates that this type of work carries higher risks for employers as well as employees. Remote work outside regular working hours is furthermore associated with higher conflict between work and family life.

Gendered Impacts of Remote Work
Women are more affected by these negative effects. For one, extension work-from-home is associated with higher amounts of work/family conflict for women than for men. And while women report a similar, but smaller, effect on family life for replacement work-from-home, men do not. These results suggest that women spend more time juggling remote work and care work than men do. The results also show that women’s mental well-being is significantly more impacted by extension work-from-home than men’s well-being is.

Better Remote Work
The study shows: Whether working from home leads to good outcomes for workers depends on the conditions in which this work happens. The authors suggest, for example, that new labor standards like a “right to disconnect” and specifying regular hours for remote work may counteract the harmful effects of extension work-from-home. They conclude that attention to the organizational practices of remote work may help ensure better, more equitable outcomes for workers.

4/4/2024 MSt