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The Emotional State of Remote Workers: It's Complicated

The Emotional State of Remote Workers: It's Complicated

by Jennifer Robison

Story Highlights

  • Employees who work from home have higher wellbeing and engagement
  • They also have worse emotional states than on-site workers
  • Gen X and boomers have better wellbeing than millennials, remote or not

When COVID-19 launched a mass exodus out of the office, leaders could expect Gen Xers and baby boomers to suffer. Millennials would probably be enthusiastic -- their demand for flexibility and work-life balance was never subtle, as Gallup detailed in the pathbreaking How Millennials Want to Work and Live report -- but older workers have spent decades developing relationships, work habits, schedules and a sense of identity that hinges on their workspace. Leaders might predict that leaving that behind would really hurt older remote workers' wellbeing.

But it didn't. At all.

In fact, data on full- and part-time workers from the Gallup Panel -- an approximately 100,000-member group that's representative of the entire U.S. adult population -- show that Gen X and boomer wellbeing is better than that of millennials, remote or not.

Custom graphic. Among millennials, those who work remotely show higher rates of wellbeing. 54% of remote millennials are thriving, compared with 47% of those who work on-site. Among older generations, remote workers also have higher wellbeing, although the gaps between remote and in-house workers get smaller as age increases.

And if that seems baffling, the rest of the Panel data are frankly bizarre.

The Contradictions of Transitioning to Remote Work

First, take a look at remote workers' daily emotions. Their wellbeing is generally better across the board, yet they report more worry, sadness, stress, loneliness and anxiety than in-house workers do. Remote Gen Xers and baby boomers report slightly less happiness and enjoyment than in-house workers their age, and remote Gen Xers are just as angry and depressed as their on-site age group. And while millennials working remotely say they feel just as much happiness and enjoyment as non-remote millennials, they're more liable to report experiencing anxiety, loneliness, stress, sadness and worry.

Self-Reported Daily Emotions of Remote and On-Site Employees
Percentage experiencing each emotion "a lot of the day yesterday"
Work on-site Work remotely
% %
Enjoyment 66 64
Worry 45 54
Sadness 24 30
Stress 55 62
Anger 24 23
Happiness 72 70
Boredom 36 38
Loneliness 20 24
Depression 17 19
Anxiety 35 46
Gallup Panel, March 13-Nov. 30, 2020

Then there's the perplexing engagement rate. All generations of remotes have worse emotional states, but they have higher rates of employee engagement than on-site workers: 38% of remote Gen Xers and baby boomers are engaged in their work, versus 33% of non-remote Gen Xers and 35% of non-remote boomers. Forty-one percent of remote millennials are engaged -- the highest engagement rate among millennials Gallup has ever seen -- but on-site millennials' engagement is at 30%.

And that doesn't make any sense. How can older remotes have higher wellbeing than flexibility-craving millennials? Why are on-site workers, who are more at risk of infection, less stressed than people who work safely at home? How can remotes have high wellbeing but bleak emotional states? And why would anyone say they want to continue working remotely -- as 75% of millennials, 68% of Gen Xers and 61% of boomers do -- if they're sad, anxious and lonely at home?

To understand that, it helps to understand employee wellbeing and engagement, and how age factors in.

Understanding Wellbeing

Let's start with wellbeing. Our research shows that your wellbeing is likely to thrive when your daily life and work experiences are fulfilling, you have strong and supportive relationships, you're physically healthy and financially secure, and you're proud of and actively involved in your community.

Life experiences change wellbeing over time, and millennials' grim responses to Gallup's questions about daily emotions show that their life experiences have been dismal lately. No wonder -- remote millennials have spent 10 months putting in longer workdays while home-schooling kids in a shaky economy. The Brookings Institution estimates a 13% drop in the birth rate next year because so many people think this is a bad time to have a baby.

Life experiences change wellbeing over time, and millennials' grim responses to Gallup's questions about daily emotions show that their life experiences have been dismal lately.

Of course, Gen Xers and baby boomers are afflicted by the same negative emotions, long hours and pressures as their millennial coworkers. In fact, women, who put in an average 15 hours more domestic labor than men, are leaving the workforce in droves -- 865,000 of them, compared with 216,000 men -- and they're not all youngsters. But members of older generations tend to have more financial and professional security along with established community and social networks. That creates a defense system around their wellbeing that younger employees may lack.

Remote Work and Employee Engagement

Next, engagement. Employee engagement is based on 12 discrete workplace needs -- among them, feeling cared for, getting to do what you do best, having opportunities to learn and grow -- and managers usually control the mechanisms of those elements.

Those who do it well are an enormous benefit to their companies: Gallup's recent meta-analysis shows that teams in the top quartile of engagement tend to show 81% less absenteeism, 64% fewer accidents (and in hospitals, 58% fewer patient safety incidents), 41% fewer quality defects, 18% higher sales productivity, and 23% greater profitability.

All workers have the same 12 needs; age has nothing to do with engagement. But older workers have had time to work their way toward a job -- or more accurately, a manager -- that engages them and enables them to do what they do best every day.

Most millennials haven't had the time to accomplish that yet, and they tend to believe flexibility, work-life integration and a feeling of purpose are fundamental to a life well-lived. That's part of why Gallup's How Millennials Want to Work and Live report is seminal -- it detailed a sea change in the will of the workforce.

Remote work gave millennials all the flexibility and integration they ever wanted. Those who went home to work skyrocketed their engagement, even though their reported daily emotions are grim. The same thing happened with Gen Xers and boomers, despite their stake in the traditional workplace. And in general, remote workers have higher wellbeing than on-site workers do, though the difference is more evident among younger generations.

Put it all together, and it very much appears that remote work is an antidote to engagement and wellbeing problems.


But -- though disengagement costs the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars every year, and companies millions -- it doesn't actually matter.

Employee Experience Over Work Environment

The thing is, remote work definitely delivers the work experience that most millennials and many older workers want. The managers who kept their suddenly remote teams productive are the ones who realized they had to communicate more often and more purposefully, leave no doubts about their expectations, and individualize better than they ever had. That surely amplified teleworkers' engagement and wellbeing -- those teams in the top quartile of engagement also achieve 66% better wellbeing than bottom-quartile units -- even in the face of a global disaster.

But engagement and wellbeing aren't about the place. They're about the experience.

Now, there's no question remote work allows for a deeply engaging work experience that helps wellbeing thrive. But untangling the experience from the environment might not be worth the trouble for teams staying remote -- if productivity and engagement are high, why bother?

Yet, some people and some roles aren't suited to off-site work and some leaders can't bear dispersed teams. In those circumstances, leaders really must figure out what benefit remote work offers their millennials, Gen Xers and baby boomers, and help managers provide that experience in the office environment.

Engagement and wellbeing aren't about the place. They're about the experience.

Gallup's advice is to start by developing managers as coaches because coaching creates genuine relationships. Those relationships allow managers and workers to explore and articulate the experience that led to high engagement and thriving wellbeing for off-site workers. That information must make it to the C-suite so leaders can replicate the experience -- especially for the notoriously disengaged, job-hopping millennial generation -- that supercharged engagement and wellbeing.

Because that's what these baffling, contradictory, conflicting Gallup data make abundantly clear: A lot of people find working at home a uniquely engaging, fulfilling experience. We might not have expected that, but we must expect people to come back to the office changed. And if the office changes in response, we'll be better equipped to sustain the engagement and wellbeing gains people have made since they went remote.

If that happens, we can all expect the workplace to be better -- and richer -- for it.

Keep employees engaged and thriving -- wherever they're working:


Sangeeta Agrawal contributed to this article.

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