Remote working and mental health in France during the health crisis

What are the impacts of remote working on mental health and work-life balance?

While there are several advantages to remote working—no commute, less stress and fatigue, easier to organize housework and parenting tasks—it can also have adverse effects on well-being, especially mental health, effects related to social isolation, possible evening and weekend working hours, and a blurring of the boundary between personal time and job time.

Drawing on data from the French survey Epidemiology et Living Conditions (EpiCov) conducted by INSERM and the DREES in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic in France, INED researchers Ariane Pailhé and Emilie Counil, together with Elena Reboul, a researcher at the Center for Work and Employment Studies (CEET) (CNAM), analyzed how remote working affected work-life balances and mental health in France during the pandemic. Their study focuses on the summer of 2021, when movement and activity restrictions were loosened in France following the first vaccination campaign, a moment when working conditions were beginning to return to normal.

Data and method

The EpiCov survey data enables researchers to track how use of remote working evolved during the pandemic from the period immediately prior to the crisis through France’s first lockdown in the spring of 2020 (the first survey wave), its second lockdown period (second wave), up to the summer of 2021 (third survey wave). The third wave included questions to working respondents on how their work-life balance situation had evolved since the pre-crisis period and whether they experienced either (clinically defined) anxiety or depression.

The study examines those three indicators as they relate to the ways that work was organized during the pandemic in the cases of over 40,000 EpiCov survey respondents aged 20 to 65 who were in work prior to the first lockdown period.

Wage inequalities and remote working

Five main trajectories were identified, involving three types of remote working:

  •  “Crisis remote workers,” who worked remotely during the first lockdown period and then returned to their work sites;
  • “New remote workers,” who had never worked remotely before the start of the pandemic and worked remotely throughout it;
  • “Continuing remote workers,” who had already working remotely before the health crisis, though perhaps not all the time.

In the summer of 2021, as during the pre-crisis period, the use of remote working was closely linked to worker’s qualification level and activity sector. Highly educated working persons, managers, and the upper intellectual professions, together with the IT-communications, finance, and the scientific and technical sectors were overrepresented among remote workers. When the pandemic hit, however, remote working began to develop in the mid-level occupations and among qualified office staff, also increasing among young people and women.

Working remotely and well-being

In the summer of 2021, 10% of all workers reported that they now found it easier than before the pandemic to manage both their occupational and personal lives, while 21% found it more difficult. Improvement was greatest among remote workers, regardless of how long they had been working remotely: slightly over 25% reported greater ease, while only 4% of respondents who worked on-site through the pandemic did so. Moreover, improvement was reported more often by women and parents than other categories. 

While employees out of work during the entire first lockdown due to the pandemic’s impact on their employers’ situations [though in France these workers were not laid off and remained on the payroll] seemed particularly susceptible to depression and “crisis remote workers” to anxiety, the mental health of longer-term remote workers does not seem to have been affected.

Remote working and gender inequality

Although remote working appears to have helped women manage their occupational lives and household responsibilities, it did not affect existing balances between men’s and women’s participation in household and parenting tasks, though it did enable some fathers to invest more fully in parenting.

In the wake of the pandemic, remote working became durably integrated into French employee practices. That normalization suggests the relevance of studying how remote working is experienced outside crisis situations, in terms of a range of diverse aspects (degree of employee autonomy, IT proficiency, cooperation) or the ways the practice is implemented, in order to better understand its often differential effects on the well-being of male and female workers. 

Source: Reboul, E., Pailhé, A., Counil, E., 2023, "Experience and Intensity of Telework: Links with Well-being after a Year of the COVID-19 Pandemic in France", Population, 79, 528-558 

Contact: Emilie Counil, Ariane Pailhé

Online: April 2024