Working From Home Could Make Us Crazy

The telecommuting movement may create a generation of depressed adults.

With Hurricane Sandy battering the East Coast, hundreds of businesses across the region closed and told employees to ride out Monday and Tuesday testing flashlight batteries and watching the endless stream of maddeningly redundant storm updates that seem to be on every channel.

Through at least Tuesday, much of Philadelphia will continue to enjoy an extended four-day weekend, with schools, office buildings, public transit and even the airport on a temporary hiatus. Yet thousands of others who are part of the growing work-from-home culture—myself and my wife included—will do what we do every day: Roll out of bed, have a cup of coffee, and sit down at the kitchen table, dining room table, coffee table, or—for the lucky—a dedicated workspace with an actual desk, and put in a day’s work without ever leaving the house. If we want a day off this week, the best we can hope for is massive a power outage.

Thanks to today’s faster and cheaper broadband, next-generation videoconferencing technologies and secure virtual networking, more and more American workers continue to join the telecommuting ranks. For the most part, it’s seen as a desirable transition. A recent poll found that 80 percent of workers would like to spend at least part of their time working from home, and almost a third are willing to give up salary increases or vacation days for the luxury of doing so. More companies are starting to listen.

According to the Telework Research Network, there are now more than three million people working exclusively from home—up more than 73 percent since 2005. Another 34 million people telecommute at least part of the time. And in some places, such as Boulder, Colorado, as much as 10 percent of the working population is exclusively home-based. In 2012, President Obama signed the Telework Enhancement Act requiring all government agencies to develop strategies for moving employees off-site.

Studies abound on the benefits of telecommuting to the environment, worker productivity, and even employee health and satisfaction. The average telecommuter saves as much as $1,500 a year on gas.  Then there are the “unexpected benefits”: People who work from home tend to labor for more hours before feeling burned out. In other words, working from home makes you feel like you’re working less, even when you are working more, so businesses get more bang for their buck.

But what about the pitfalls? Working from home requires considerable discipline. It’s easy to slack off with no one breathing down your neck, and even if you do manage to stay on task, you don’t want to do so while sitting on your couch in your pajamas in front of a muted television set for 40 hours a week. The simplest things, like changing your clothes every day, suddenly take on extraordinary importance. There is plenty of advice out there on how to avoid these relatively minor bugaboos. However, as far as I can tell, there isn’t a single body of research on the potential long-term consequences of pushing millions of Americans out of offices and into their living rooms.

The workplace is more than simply a place to do your job, it also serves the purpose of building relationships and preventing alienation. So what happens when that connection is abruptly severed for large numbers of people at the same time? Humanistic psychotherapists like Erich Fromm, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl and Irvin Yalom thought they knew the answer: We go crazy. Well, not psychotic crazy, but we develop neuroses, like addictions, compulsive behavior, anxiety and, most of all, depression.

Working from my home office, I have developed just as many work relationships as I did during my time as an office worker, but they hardly compare in scope and depth. I don’t know a single colleague’s birthday, the names of their significant others, or even, in some cases, what city they live in. I have been writing daily for the same Denver-based editor for almost two years, and I have never met her. I spoke with her just once on the phone, and I doubt I’d recognize her if she sat next to me on the bus.  While I relish the flexibility and freedom working from home offers, I’m quite certain that if I didn’t have five animals and a wife to keep me company during the work day, I’d start feeling a bit loopy. Now imagine an entire civilization in which three-quarters of the population is in the same boat.

What kind of society are we going to be 50 years from now when everyone is isolated in their own room in front of a computer screen and there are no more happy hours, no more work Christmas parties, no more cake on co-worker birthdays? Only time will tell, but I imagine it will be a very lonely world.