Foster PhD student Ekonkar Kaur wins “Business for a Better World” dissertation prize for investigating the effects of remote work on mental health
Ever since pandemic lockdowns turned remote work into a new normal for many, employers and employees alike have contemplated its upsides (focus, flexibility, lack of commute) and downsides (distractions, isolation, lack of boundaries).
But what about the effect of remote work on mental health?
A Foster School PhD candidate named Ekonkar Kaur has begun investigating this very—and very important—topic. And her work has not gone unnoticed. Kaur’s thesis—“Remotely Well: Investigating the Unique Costs and Benefits of Virtual Work for Employees who Experience Depression”—won this year’s “Business for a Better World Dissertation Proposal Competition,” sponsored by Colorado State University.
“This award was really validating,” says Kaur. “It has inspired me to continue working hard on this project to see if we can produce generalizable insights on the extent to which individuals should leverage remote work when they are facing a serious mental health condition.”
Inspired by quarantine
Kaur was barely six months into her doctoral studies when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
She had entered the Foster PhD Program with a strong orientation toward studying wellness in the arena of organizational behavior.
This orientation may have been passed down by her parents, who were involved in health and wellness industries while she was growing up in Eugene, Oregon. Years later, after earning an MBA at San Diego State University, Kaur worked as a marketing strategist for a wholesaler of natural wellness products. “The apple didn’t fall too far from the tree,” she says.
After the spread of a deadly virus compelled Kaur—like so many others—to work from home, she began noticing increasing commentary on mental health and the ways that quarantine isolation was affecting us as we communed and communicated solely on Zoom, Teams, FaceTime or Slack.
She took a particular interest in how serious mental health issues such as depression were being impacted by online versus in-person work. This eventually led to her dissertation topic.
“I thought, can we provide some takeaways for someone who is experiencing depression, some unique benefits or costs that organizational leaders should know about before they create policy?” she says. “That was the inspiration.”
To turn inspiration into investigation, Kaur assembled a dissertation committee of advisors that included organizational behavior experts Ryan Fehr (chair), Chris Barnes and Crystal Farh from Foster’s Department of Management and Organization, as well as Jonathan Kanter, a clinical psychologist and director of the UW Center for the Science of Social Connection. She also leans on the experience of her mother, a clinical therapist.
Under their guidance, Kaur designed a pilot study to discern whether her proposed thesis would hold water. In it, she asked people experiencing depression to report the percentage of time they worked from home as well as various attitudes they have and behaviors they exhibit while working.
The initial survey suggested both negative and positive effects of remote work. Some people experiencing depression reported feeling more isolated or withdrawn when working remotely. Others reported feeling less anxious and more relaxed.
“Remote work can exacerbate the depressive tendencies to be more socially inhibited and less active,” Kaur explains. “But it also can provide an environment in which people can feel that they are more in control to manage their condition, and less need to perform ‘surface acting,’ or pretending everything is fine when it is not.”
These positives effects of remote work may be strengthened when there are supportive people at home.
Kaur hopes that more rigorous quantitative studies will produce stronger evidence of the effects of remote work for individuals experiencing depression.
But she does not expect to find headline conclusions that veer too far from her initial observation that remote work can have a positive and/or negative effect on a person experiencing depression, depending on the case and circumstance.
“Depression and remote work do not appear to have a direct connection,” Kaur says. “I don’t expect these studies to result in absolutes. It’s just highly conditional.”
She adds that even a determination of “it depends” would offer significant insight to employers and their employees. It would suggest that remote work might serve as useful accommodation to those experiencing depression and perhaps other mental health issues, depending on their circumstances and condition.
“The key insight may be in the value of flexible work arrangements,” Kaur says.
If there can be a silver lining behind a deadly global pandemic, Kaur believes it is the elevated awareness and acceptance of mental health challenges that so many face. They are not always visible. And they are not always debilitating. But they are very real and very costly.
She cites the blockbuster 2021 New York Times piece by the psychologist Adam Grant introducing the notion of “languishing,” giving name to a psychological limbo that many of us found ourselves suspended in during the pandemic.
“What he did that was so helpful was highlighting the middle section in the spectrum of mental health, where people might not be suffering severely, but they’re not thriving either,” Kaur says. “When we think about mental health this way, it allows us to be more proactive in moving people toward the healthier end of the spectrum.”
It also gives us greater sympathy for those who are suffering. Because there is still stigma attached to mental health issues, big and small. “While I feel like people are talking about it more,” Kaur says, “I think society still doesn’t always have the right language to talk about it accurately and consistently.”
Research like hers is advancing the conversation. And providing the intelligence to advance the way we respond.