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Flexibility in how we work is a good thing. Or is it? 

During the pandemic, worries over employees experiencing feelings of isolation and a lack of connectivity to their teams was a big concern. While it’s great to avoid commutes and give people back some time, do people actually benefit from work arrangements that see them working in isolation from home?

Much of the insight available to us on this is based on opinion or observation. But now, groundbreaking research conducted by Professor Mark Ma and his graduate student Yuye Ding at the University of Pittsburgh provides actual data-based insights on whether flexibility is good or bad for mental health across the US.

The Need for New Data

According to a 2022 US Chamber of Commerce survey of 403 executives, 64% of executives said that remote work had anywhere from a major to a minor negative impact on their employees’ mental health, up from 55% saying that in 2021.

survey by the American Psychiatric Association in 2021 found that the majority of employees working from home say they experienced negative mental health impacts, including isolation, loneliness, and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day.

However, as the University of Pittsburgh scholars point out, such research stems from the period of enforced social isolation due to the pandemic. 

It’s very likely that the loneliness and isolation identified previously with remote work decreased - or in some cases, completely disappeared - once people started going out and meeting with friends and family, and engaging in various social, civic, and community activities. 

Moreover, prior studies relied on survey data of self-reported mental health, as opposed to mental health risk measured based on professional assessments.

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The New Data 

The University of Pittsburgh study instead drew on state-level depression and suicide risk data from Mental Health America, which collects data from over 5 million mental health screens taken by US users at

The University of Pittsburgh scholars also used data on the percentage of firms that offer workplace flexibility in each state during 2023 from the Scoop Flex Index Report.

Combining these two sources, the new study reveals significant findings for 2023, the first year we can truly say the pandemic was largely over. 

States with a higher percentage of flexible firms show considerably lower rates of depression. The correlation is robust, with depression rates in states with a higher degree of flexibility showing a negative correlation coefficient to depression of -0.389 and a p-value of 0.012, suggesting a strong inverse relationship. 

In other words, this data compellingly argues that having greater flexibility strongly facilitates mental wellness.

State Depression Rates

For example, consider Mississippi, a state where only 52% of all organizations offer either hybrid or remote work, the lowest degree of flexibility among all states. Mississippi’s rate of depression is about 50% higher than in Massachusetts, which has the highest degree of flexibility, offered by 84% of all organizations.

California has less flexibility than Massachusetts, with flexibility at 79% of all organizations. In turn, California has a depression rate that’s 20% higher than the New England state. Now you might be thinking, life in those two places is very different though, so other factors might be driving this. 

We can take a look at two states that should be highly similar in other respects, North Carolina and South Carolina. In the latter, 66% of all firms offer flexibility, and in the former, 71% do so. North Carolina has a 17% lower rate of depression. 

This plays out when comparing other states of similar size and geography such as Ohio and Pennsylvania. In Ohio, 65% of all organizations provide hybrid or remote work opportunities for employees, while the comparable number for Pennsylvania is 73%. You won’t be surprised to learn that Pennsylvania has 12% less depression.

Correlation vs Causation

While the study establishes a clear correlation, it's important to explore the possible mechanisms through which workplace flexibility improves mental health. Several factors likely contribute to this positive effect. These include: 

  • Reduced stress levels
  • Increased autonomy
  • More control over their time
  • Sense of ownership over their work
  • Better environment to help those with mental health challenges.

As we continue to navigate this new normal, the insights provided by this research are invaluable. They not only help in shaping policies that are in tune with contemporary work-life dynamics but also ensure that these policies contribute positively to the mental health of the workforce.

The goal should be clear: to design work models that promote both high productivity and strong mental health, thereby creating workplaces that are not only more humane but also more effective.

Embracing flexibility creates an avenue toward building more resilient and adaptive organizations in the post-pandemic world.

Software to Support Remote Teams

The variety of tools that have been created to support remote work has only grown since the pandemic. Some of these will help your employees build connections, others help them find important supporting documents or provide detailed analytics on employee behaviors.

As you build your repository of tools, you might find it challenging to discern which ones are a necessity and which ones are a nice to have. To help you sort this, we've reviewed an array of remote working software to support your distributed teams.

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Gleb Tsipursky
By Gleb Tsipursky

Dr. Gleb Tsipursky was lauded as “Office Whisperer” and “Hybrid Expert” by The New York Times for helping leaders use hybrid work to improve retention and productivity while cutting costs. He serves as the CEO of the future-of-work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts. He is a best selling author, consultant and behavioral scientist. A proud Ukrainian American, Gleb lives in Columbus, Ohio.