Working Remotely,Part Trois
Working Remotely, Part Trois
Hello, people! The last couple of weeks we’ve been discussing working remotely. I was prompted to do this series after noting the ways some of my patients evolved, or devolved, after working remotely in a ‘rona world. When I did some research, I read studies and reports from years BR, before ‘rona, and saw that remote workers regularly reported higher stress levels than their office worker counterparts. According to a 2017 United Nations study involving 15 countries, 41 percent of “highly mobile” employees (defined as those who “most often,” or “more often…worked from home” as opposed to “in office” or “onsite”) rated themselves “highly stressed,” as compared to only 25 percent of the office and onsite cohort. This was of obvious interest to me, given what I’d been seeing in my patients, so I thought it warranted further investigation and discussion. And a baby blog was born. Awww…
Captain Obvious says that mental health and work are intertwined, because work is such an integral part of our lives. Remote work has a somewhat unique ability to get to people, even the mentally healthiest of individuals, because when you work from home, you may feel like you live at work. The work-home and work-life lines can blur, especially if the switch is abrupt and unavoidable. Thank you, ‘rona. Last week I talked about some of the issues that can come along with this type of remote arrangement, and the fact that they generally present as some level of SADness, so you may find you feel stressed, anxious, and even depressed as a result. You may feel these impacts within a widely variable range as well as pattern; acutely, chronically, or as more of a cumulative or building phenomenon. Just to make it more complicated, you can also have a pink cloud situation as well. After making a switch, the novelty of the setting can alter how you value certain associated factors. You may find that any negative impacts you feel from one issue are offset by the positive impacts of another. But this can be a little insidious if you’re not careful, because it’s a transient phenomenon. Once the novelty wears off, that pink cloud goes **poof-bye bye** and suddenly, the equation is altered again! It’s not really worth it anymore, and that can make you SAD.
Sometimes the effects can be so low level, you might just generally feel blah, or ‘some kind of way,’ as the kids say, but you can’t seem to put your finger on why. There are nearly innumerable ways that stress can manifest, regardless of where you work, and it usually doesn’t just affect your work. It often seeps over into your private life as well, but this is especially true when you’re working from home, because of those annoying blurred lines.
So if you’re a remote worker and feeling some kind of way, how would you know that it might be your remote work at the heart of it? Clearly it’s difficult to pinpoint it exactly in a generalized blog setting, because each person is different; but there are some ways stress can manifest in both your personal and professional life, some things you may start to notice. The most common things can include: insomnia and poor sleep patterns, an inability to ‘switch off’ from work, headache, feeling disconnected from other people, an increase or decrease in appetite, having difficulty concentrating, having difficulty becoming and/ or staying motivated, having difficulty prioritizing workload and daily tasks, and feeling insecure or unsure of standing or spread too thin/ pulled in too many directions in your work and/ or personal life.
Last week I likened work, and life, to an equation. Everything has a value, and you decide what’s worth what, give and take, in order to decide what works for you. Last week I focused on the negative side of said equation, so this week will focus on the more positive side. Today will be about addressing issues I brought up last week, presenting some additional factors, and suggesting some steps you can take if you think that working remotely is having a negative impact on your life. Clearly, you don’t have to wait for that to happen, and everyone knows what they say about an ounce of prevention, people. When we’re talking about stress, it all comes down to minimization and mitigatation. I’ll try to address each issue in the same order I did last week, and make some strategic suggestions for solutions. Some of these may have been mentioned in the first blog of this series, so people that might’ve missed it can still follow along. If you didn’t miss it, please bear with me.
I’ve joked about how many patients I’ve seen in bed during facetime appointments, but I think far too many people are both working and sleeping there. Seems like a lot of people’s morning routine is just rolling over to grab the laptop. But there are good reasons why this is concerning to me. Humans need sleep, and studies show that working from home, just in and of itself, can already interfere with sleep. But this is especially true for people who find it difficult to switch off from work. Working from your bed, or even bedroom, makes it very difficult to do just that. Not only does it encourage the late night blue light exposure that has been shown to interfere with sleep, but it also makes your brain associate that place with being alert, awake, and switched on. And that’s not the association you want- your bedroom should be the place you rest and recharge.
If you find yourself working remotely full time, you want the best possible experience. You’ll certainly be more comfortable and productive, not to mention a lot happier, if you create a dedicated space to work. Preferably, a separate room with a door you can close for privacy, and to minimize distractions and physically separate your work from your home life. If you just don’t have a separate room, find a corner or nook in your house that you can commandeer, and transform it into your home office. The goal is to make it feel detached from the rest of your house, so if it’s a small space, consider a room divider, or think about using just an area rug as a means of creating a division. Once you have “the office” location, be it a separate room or just a corner, set yourself up for success. Buy new- or check out used shops or thrift- for a desk that’s wide enough to support your wrists, arms, and elbows to keep carpal tunnel at bay while you’re tapping away at your keyboard. Better yet, go tetherless and get a wireless mouse and keyboard. Also look for a comfortable, ergonomic chair that supports your lumbar back, neck, and spine. Few paychecks are worth an orthopedic problem. Big bonus points if you can kit out your space with a sound system and other creature comforts. Try to also get some life into the space. Consider some plants and maybe even a little fish tank if you have room- they’re very soothing. If you’re only working remotely temporarily, and you just don’t have the space at home for an office, even going to a local library or cafe to work may be better than just converting your bed to one. When you have a clearly defined working space and time, it’s far easier to finish your tasks for the day, and leave work at “the office.” That way home remains home, and you avoid being “on” all the time.
Once you’ve done what you can to create a dedicated work space, make sure to do what you can in the way of technological assistance. If you need a new laptop, smartphone, wi-fi, or cell booster, communicate that with your employer, if appropriate. If they provide the equipment, or some sort of assistance in purchasing it, then score! If not, investing in tech that will save you time and aggravation is always a good move, so do that as soon as is feasible. If you’re all set up and ready to roll and find you’re still having technical difficulties, most definitely communicate that with your company’s IT department, if that’s not you, to fix the issue. If that is you, take the time to deal with it as efficiently as possible, call a “geek” to come out for a diagnosis. The sooner your systems are running smoothly, the fewer the tech migraines you’ll have later.
Coming at this from a different direction, once you’re properly setup, working from home can give you an opportunity to be proactive, learn something useful, and make friends with technology. There are apps out there that do all sorts of cool things that can be helpful in a remote work environment. You can set timers and reminders for break activities, track your social media usage, like if you need some help to use it less, remind yourself to get back to work when you become distracted for too long, and you can create to-do lists and schedules galore to help stay on top of things, simplify tasks, avoid frustrations, and be more productive. There’s nothing more encouraging than getting your mundane tasks done as quickly and efficiently as possible, so check out all the options available and learn to use tools like these to your advantage.
And just as the expansion of the internet has made remote work possible from nearly all corners of the globe, novel programs and platforms have also been developed specifically for remote workers. If you work for an organization, they may offer access to automated online courses that will allow you to keep honing your skills, so contact human resources and make some inquiries. If those opportunities don’t exist, you can always look for other free or paid online courses for virtual and remote workers. When I searched it, the number of them available was impressive. There are courses designed to give you the skills necessary to start a new career, or to grow an existing one. Remember that any time you work to broaden your horizons, you further your personal identity and make yourself more valuable in every professional application.
A significant issue revolving around working remotely involves its management. How do you adequately supervise- and support- multiple employees, when they’re potentially thousands of miles away? Both managers and employees face a different set of challenges when working remotely. From what I hear from remote worker patients, the decreased feedback from managers and supervisors boils down to making some employees feel insecure. As I mentioned last week, it makes them feel mistrusted, and as though they have to prove that they’re actually working from home and not goofing off. I think the remoteness gives them no benchmark to judge their own progress, and that leads to increased anxiety and concerns about being up to standards. In short, they may not be getting the attaboys they did in the office, and that makes them wonder if they’re doing a good enough job. Obviously, employees need to adequately document the hours they work, and maintain regular communication with supervisors to keep them up to date on what they’re working on. More on communication later.
On the supervisory side, I think the solutions to these issues requires an open mind. Remote companies need to start thinking about how they can ensure that employees aren’t overworked, and also utilize management courses for remote team leaders to help train them for this new working environment. They should set aside more traditional ideas that no longer work, in favor of developing more flexible policies that better correspond with a more modern arrangement. Maybe implement the concept of management by objectives accomplished instead of by time. I can tell you from years of listening to people that helicopter monitoring- actually helicopter anything- and micromanagement won’t work. Management should consider allowing some employee input into the creation of novel management methods as well. Employee happiness and engagement increases productivity by 31 percent, so getting them involved in making suggestions benefits everyone.
Some other simple steps that management can take include encouraging employees to communicate amongst themselves, to take PTO days, to stay out of their “office” after hours, and to enjoy a hobby that does not involve a computer screen or technology of any kind. Also, performing technology and work station audits to confirm reasonable working conditions, and giving regular updates regarding organization standards and plans for future work performance will help alleviate a great deal of employee insecurity. Management also needs to be proactive in helping remote employees avoid undue stress, and allow them to feel comfortable reporting stress without worrying about repercussions. Two psychologists created the Yerkes-Dodson Law, which points out that stress can be productive up to a point, and then it results in reduced productivity. Being overly stressed without the ability to report it is detrimental, as pressure will eventually outweigh an individual’s ability to cope over time. Contrast that with the findings of one recent study, which reported that colleagues who spend just 15 minutes socializing and sharing their feelings of stress had a 20 percent increase in performance. Clearly, this demonstrates how it behooves management to implement measures for employee stress sharing and reporting.
Given the negative impact of stress in a remote work environment, management should also avail themselves of training to learn the warning signs that signal that remote employees are feeling workplace stress. Opening up a line of communication is a good first step, so that when they are starting to experience burnout, they’ll be comfortable discussing how they feel. Management should learn to ask questions about how they’re feeling and listen closely to the answers. Do they mention having a difficult time concentrating? How about their interests in things they used to like? Are they experiencing any feelings of frustration, irritability, or hopelessness? These would all be indicators of stress that management needs to catch before employees reach a breaking point. An increase in negative language is another indicator. The use of phrases such as: “there are no options,” “I can’t do anything,” or “this is impossible” are examples of catastrophizing, and should be red flag indicators of employees having more workplace stress than they know how to deal with. There are other signs as well. Make sure to speak with employees that are starting to make mistakes, missing deadlines, or getting sloppy, as they are often the first signs of struggle. And instead of cracking down on staff that’s having a hard time, organizations must offer support through stress management initiatives in the workplace. In my opinion, management and employees making all of these efforts would result in big strides on the road toward improving the remote work experience for everyone.
Isolation and Loneliness
The solitude of working remotely can be a double-edged sword. It can be easier to focus when you’re in your own home, with no annoying coworkers randomly stopping by your desk, or your boss breathing down your neck. Aah…sweet freedom! But when there’s no social interaction during a full workday, that also means there’s no one there to ask a work related question to, or bounce an idea off of, or un-stick you at a crucial point. Social isolation was another factor associated with increased stress levels mentioned in the UN study. In addition, without personal communication, more emphasis is placed on deadlines and routine information, so remote workers can feel like a cog in a machine, rather than an essential part of a team. This just adds to the sense of isolation that naturally comes with working remotely, and the two together can make it difficult to have as much energy to be productive. In addition, it can be very unpleasant, if not impossible, to sustain this for the life of a career. A top priority should be to maintain relationships with coworkers and managers, especially if you are one who is energized by these relationships. It is critical not only to work performance, but to emotional and mental wellness.
Technology can serve as an assist, and there are plenty of platforms like Slack, Zoom, and even good ole facetime to facilitate this. Lots of companies have established ‘virtual coffee breaks’ and even ‘watercooler’ channels to encourage break-time chatter during work hours, to foster collaboration and create a more comfortable work environment. If your company has outlets like these, take advantage of them. If they don’t, then maintaining connections is essentially up to each individual. Because everyday encounters with colleagues don’t spontaneously happen when working from home, you need to be proactive to maintain positive relationships. Think about scheduling a few minutes for informal banter at the start and end of video calls to emulate the normal casual talks you would have with coworkers when walking by their desks, or in the kitchen at the office. It may not seem productive, but it helps build internal relationships and boost morale. These connections will help you feel less isolated, reduce stress levels, and stay productive.
You can always facetime, Zoom, message, and email people, but that’s not the same as having face-to-face interactions with them. So make it a point to meet with coworkers or friends for lunch, coffee, or drinks a couple of times a week. If you find you’re still feeling isolated and lonely while working remotely, consider meeting other digital nomads at a coworking space, or work together from one of your home offices twice a week, or more often if it’s helpful. But remember what all work and no play did to little Johnny. Make social commitments with friends and get outside of the house at least once a week. Ultimately, if you work from home and feel isolated or lonely, it’s important that you take responsibility for your own social interactions. The key is to make an effort and be proactive to do things to decrease the isolation that can come from the remote work setting.
One of the biggest challenges in working remotely is finding a healthy work-life balance to avoid blurring those lines I mentioned earlier. Surveys show that 51 percent of employees report stress and burnout as a result of working at home. Just as an interesting aside, the most often cited reasons for burnout are, surprisingly, the very things that made remote work seem attractive to most people. The dressing! Or not. The surveys indicated that when people dress in sweats because they are not seeing anyone, they then find that comfort makes it difficult to fully engage. Their clothing signals fun chill time, while their tasks are anything but. And while remote work seemed liberating, many employees relied on supervision and structure to manage their workday. Without it, many people fing it hard to be as productive, and are stressed about not completing tasks in a timely manner, and these cause them to overwork and risk burnout.
Not all people can achieve proper work-life balance when they work from home, and in fact, the UN study also noted that this is one of the many negative impacts of the remote work arrangement. For some, working from home feels like a special privilege that’s been granted to them, so they feel like they should work harder, and that’s how stress and burnout are escalated. I’ve noted that some patients, who definitely seemed to have a solid, healthy work-life balance when they worked in an office, suddenly started to become work obsessed after going remote. They work ridiculous hours at home, unable to even define the end of a day, much less switch off at it. I’ve seen it happen- watched it happen- to people who had a previously healthy balance, so imagine what happens to someone with workaholic tendencies when they go remote. From what I’ve observed, working remotely is to workaholism what bar hopping is to alcoholism. If you’re in a place that facilitates a bad habit, that’s a bad place to be. In other words, workaholics probably need not- or should not- apply for a remote position.
When working in an office environment, there are often clear signs and symptoms if somebody is burning out. These commonly manifest as increased emotional reactions to situations, a general lack of motivation, and the appearance of small, seemingly minor mistakes. There are also some visible physical signs, such as bags under the eyes and even weight loss, that can be seen. When working from home, there isn’t anybody to notice these telltale signs, apart from family members or friends. But if that person lives alone or is isolating themselves, then they’re not even there to see them. So remote workers have to be able to police themselves to avoid burnout.
Flexibility is a double edged sword. It can be liberating to set your own times as to when you need to get up, when you go to bed, when you need to start work, and when you need to stop. But this feeling of freedom can gradually morph into a feeling of being out of control, especially if you don’t expect it. It sounds great to eliminate a structured office setting, but once that structure is gone, where it might have felt stifling before, it can start to feel like the scaffolding on which your whole life was built. When there’s no one there to monitor or guide you, and structure has to be self-imposed, it can be difficult to create. It can also be more challenging to function as efficiently without it.
The solution is to set a schedule and put it on a calendar. Look at it as an opportunity to exercise the flexibility that is a prime benefit of working remotely. It can be vital to not only save you from burnout, but also from distractions that will swallow up your time. More on that in a bit. There are several useful tricks for creating a schedule, and you can always use an app to help you to make one in a format that suits you. If you are free to set your own hours, meaning it doesn’t matter when you work, then decide when you work best. Many people find that working in the morning when they feel rested can provide a more productive experience than beginning work halfway through the day after cleaning the house and doing other non-work-related activities. This isn’t true in all cases, so feel free to experiment if this advice doesn’t seem to ring true for you. If it were me, I would not only start work first thing in the morning, but I would also prioritize the most challenging tasks first. Rather than letting unpleasant or difficult tasks hang over your head and create stress when you think about them, pushing yourself to get the most difficult jobs done first will give you a sense of accomplishment and increased energy to get you through the day.
To be productive and avoid burnout, you not only have to set a schedule for balance, but you have to stick to it. Make sure to maintain reasonable office hours. As I mentioned last week, your home is now your office, so you’re not technically ‘leaving’ work unless you turn off all communication platforms. Sign out of your email, close the laptop, put the phone down at the end of the day, then leave “the office.” Make sure to include time to step away from your desk to take a lunch break, and eat something sensible to avoid being distracted by hunger later. If you have children or family at home, this is a good opportunity to spend some time with them. Since you probably spend a lot of time indoors, try to have lunch outside.
In addition to a lunch break, schedule short breaks during the day. Scheduled breaks are better than just working until you lose focus, then randomly giving in to distractions. Everyone is different, so the length and number of breaks can vary slightly, but within reason. Some people would do better taking 15 minutes mid-morning, and then again mid-afternoon, while others would rather two shorter breaks in place of one longer one. During these breaks, try to step away from your desk to disconnect for a few minutes; this is a very effective method for avoiding/ managing stress. Go outside to get some fresh air, maybe take the dog out to get the mail. The idea is to use these times to clear your head to help you focus on work when you come back.
When you take time off, take it completely off. If you’re guilty of working on PTO days or of bringing your laptop on vacation, you’re missing the point and need to disconnect more fully. It might seem like bringing work with you means you’ll have less to catch up on, and therefore less stress, when you get back, but in reality, you aren’t allowing yourself to recharge. This goes for weekends too. Keep the laptop closed, resist the urge to check emails, and concentrate on the life part of the work-life balance during your time off.
Focus, Motivation, Distraction
Creating structure and setting boundaries are critical in a remote work setting, not only to avoid blurring the lines between work life and home life, but also those between productivity and leisure time, and socializing time and working time, in order to avoid distractions. But this can be more challenging than many people expect. If you live with family, setting boundaries with others can be difficult when people expect that you should have time to talk when they do. You may feel pulled between competing loyalties and overwhelmed by the responsibilities of your various roles. Not only is it difficult to set and communicate boundaries, but in some situations, such as when there are children in the home, those boundaries may also be constantly challenged. If you live with other people, especially children, make sure to have set office hours and communicate them to everyone. You can even show small children your schedule, and explain that you have break times and lunch time scheduled, and you’ll see them during those times. Also clearly communicate what circumstances warrant an interruption of work time in order to avoid random needless interruptions. Apparently some companies actually provide employees with do not disturb signs to hang on their office doors in order to remind others you’re actually working. It’s not the worst idea ever. I say if you have kids, and your company doesn’t provide you with one, get out the markers, glue, and glitter and them involved- ask them to create a sign for you. If they make it, they’ll be more lilely to respect it when they see it hanging on the door.
Setting and sticking to boundaries with yourself may be even more difficult than with others, especially when you are feeling a lack of motivation. Without other coworkers around to hold you accountable, you may have a little tougher time motivating yourself, but resist random distractions in favor of taking your scheduled breaks. In addition to sticking to your schedule, you can avoid distractions by not taking personal calls during the middle of the day and avoiding the endless rabbit hole of social media. Turn off notifications and/ or mute your devices while you’re working. Just don’t go on social media if you don’t want to be Alice. It’s easy to lose sight of tasks and deadlines, especially when your superiors can’t physically see you, but you can monitor your own productivity by planning ahead of time and using time management techniques. At the end of each day, make a list of tasks to be done for the following day. On the next day, review your priorities and tackle high-value tasks first. By following this, you’ll stay organized by keeping your schedule and calendar straight, and learn how to prioritize to get your work done. It should also help you learn one of the golden rules to working remotely: don’t procrastinate! If you need more help with time management techniques, google it. There are methodologies available on the interwebs to help maintain your focus throughout the day, and I’m sure there are apps for that, as well. Aren’t there for everything?
To keep your motivation up, it’s a good idea to break big tasks down into smaller, workable goals. You can also setup project milestones, working with a manager to establish objectives when needed. Sometimes communicating those goals out loud to others can help to motivate you, so consider sharing those goals with coworkers or family members, because sometimes making public commitments to others about what you will accomplish that day helps hold you accountable. If you need to really pump up the motivation factor, you can always reward yourself for accomplishing goals as well. But this doesn’t mean a food reward, people. Maybe schedule a massage, a special lunch with a friend, or an ice cream with the kids. Okay, I guess that’s technically a food reward… so make it a yogurt if you’re trying to be healthy. At any rate, put planned rewards on the calendar so you can see it as a motivator. It doesn’t even have to be a real reward that costs anything. Sometimes it’s rewarding enough to imagine something you’re working toward, and reward yourself by taking whatever the next step is in attaining it. Maybe you want a new kitchen; you can go to the tile store and get different samples to bring home and mull over. The point is that it’s up to you to be productive, while also making your work experience pleasant. Try to keep yourself feeling appreciated, even if you yourself are the only one who appreciates you.
If you’re freelancer, your monthly workload and income can be unreliable and constantly changing. This is an obvious source of anxiety and stress, as sometimes you may be swamped with too much work, while at others, not have enough; it can be very difficult to find that middle ground. And because jobs aren’t usually long-term, you need to spend much of your time searching for new opportunities, while simultaneously completing the work you have. Not only are these conditions stressful, but freelancers are independent contractors that usually have to handle everything, so switching hats from sales to service to invoicing and bookkeeping adds to the stress. Not every personality is well suited for this variability. While researching this blog, I found a lot of resources available- job boards, apps, communities, and blogs for freelancers that look like they would make their lives quite a bit easier. One blog I came across had a list of various applications with descriptions of exactly what they do, along with links to everything. If anyone is interested, the blog was called skillcrush, and can be found here: https://skillcrush.com/blog/useful-resources-for-freelancers/
Communication can be very sensitive territory, and learning how to navigate it is an essential skill to avoid misunderstandings and misinterpretations in every work situation, but especially in a remote work setting. With electronic communication methods that don’t allow for visible body language, it’s difficult to convey the true meanings of messages, leaving them open to individual interpretation. Misunderstandings can lead to hurt feelings, decreased productivity, and issues with your corporate culture. For these reasons, it’s best to have an assortment of communication and collaboration tools at your disposal for use in different circumstances. Email and instant messaging are convenient, but more complicated communications should always take place using some sort of video interface, such as Zoom or Skype, as it allows people to interact with each other in a format that provides body language and non-verbal cues that other forms of correspondence don’t express.
When communicating with a group, make sure that any messages you share are very easy to understand. On that note, if you receive a message that isn’t understood, don’t be shy about asking for clarification. For collaboration to work properly, the right information needs to be passed along efficiently and comprehensively, so this makes proofreading especially important.
Keep in mind that etiquette matters in all communication. Jokes and sarcasm have their place, but that is not in professional group applications. Also, remember to check your tone. Without that face-to-face connection, tone is important, so take the time to double check your phrasing before hitting send. Spending a few extra seconds to go over what you’ve written to make sure that there aren’t mistakes, omissions, or other factors to get in the way of what you’re trying to say helps keep you from having to backtrack and explain things again later. This can also keep incorrect presumptions from influencing the results of your efforts. Given that your coworkers could be located anywhere around the world these days, try to be extra aware of time zones, and remember that waking up to 20 Slack notifications/ instant messages is stressful! Try to be respectful of the different time zones that your team are working from, and keep communication to those hours whenever possible.
Conduct regularly scheduled video chat meetings to maintain good communication with your colleagues and managers. This is the best way to keep lines open and make sure everyone is on the same page about whatever projects you’re currently working on. Make sure the video chat platform includes features such as file sharing, screen share, and multiple user interfaces in one chat. Be sure to always “show up” to your organization’s online meetings and be heard. If you need to communicate with your manager about sensitive topics, such as evaluations, progress reports, or even workplace stress levels, always do it over a video conferencing platform. It’s much easier to connect and fully emote how you’re feeling when your manager can see you.
Stressbuster Tip: Mobile Devices
Probably the biggest overall culprit common to all remote workers in causing stress is device use, especially smartphones. I’ve been yelling about this forever. While all of the sources of stress I’ve mentioned are significant, the UN study that prompted this blog found that frequent use of mobile devices appeared to be a “significant source” of added stress. Part of the reason has to do with blue light exposure from device use late at night, which remote workers are more prone to, and the serious impact it has on sleep schedule. In fact, this study found that it was linked with frequent waking at night: 42 percent of those who work from home report frequent night waking, while only 29 percent of office workers reported the same. This is especially important because poor sleep can add a significant amount of stress throughout the day.
Research has also connected higher levels of stress to the habit of constantly checking one’s phone. Remote workers certainly check their phones often, but what else might make people constantly check their phones? Hello, social media. Not only that, but surprise, social media use itself can also lead to stress, because of increased social comparison. I’m sure I’ve mentioned that before. Ultimately, the increased use of devices, and the constant checking of devices- whether for work or social media silliness- is absolutely associated with higher stress levels, insomnia, and ironically, social isolation. Okay, rant over. The solution for this one is pretty simple: limit the number of times you check your phone for non-work reasons, ie social media, each day, make it a point to put the devices down at the end of the work day, and declare a minimum 90 minute moratorium on all device and screen use, for any reason, before bed.
Stressbuster Tip: Make it Routine
Just as you create a schedule to keep you on track at work, design a morning and evening routine unrelated to your work, to tell your brain when it’s time to work, and when work is over for the day. This will help your brain create a distinction between work and home, which helps you switch off and decompress. Yet another good reason to get dressed for work, even though no one will see you- it helps you create that division. If you have young children at home, seeing you “dressed for work” will also help them to understand the distinction. Be sure to use time spent away from work for yourself, for family time, exercise, and self care.
Stressbuster Tip: Get Comfortable Saying No
Working from home, you’ll be faced with many requests, many of which you may need to refuse if you want to have enough time to get everything done. It can be surprisingly difficult to say no to people you don’t really owe your time to, simply because most of us can find reasons why a “yes” is a perfectly reasonable answer. We may think of their needs and see ourselves as a great answer for them, and not realize that saying yes to them means saying no to ourselves. We may also have our egos involved in having a solution for them. Whatever the challenge, realize that saying no to the time drains you didn’t plan for often means saying yes to the healthy life you truly want and need. For freelancers, learning to say no is an especially important skill. You may want to take on as much work as you can, but there’s only so much you can complete in a day. Know your limitations, set boundaries based on your schedule and workload, and don’t extend yourself beyond them. Be assertive, yet courteous, and your clients will still respect you.
Stressbuster Tip: Protect Your Sleep
A good night’s sleep rejuvenates the body so you can tackle the day ahead and can help lower the effects of stress during your workday. Because healthy sleep is vital for your productivity, do what you need to do to get it. It may sound like kindergarten time, but this includes setting a bedtime for yourself and sticking to it. Believe it or not, keeping a sleep schedule is one of the hardest things for most of my patients, even the ones I lecture to about it. In any case, when you do it for a while and feel the effects of getting adequate sleep, you’ll see that it’s well worth the effort. You already know that this is a no-no, but it bears repeating, as so many people blow it off: using screens and devices late at night alters your sleep patterns; it makes it very difficult to not only get to sleep, but to stay asleep at night, because it elicits brain patterns of wakefulness. So skip the screens before bed for a minimum of 90 minutes.
Stressbuster Tip: Accentuate the Positive
Another cause of work-related stress is focusing on the negative, and all of the things going on that are beyond our control. The best cure for stress is to concentrate on what is going right and the progress that is being made. I’m sure I’ve mentioned in various blogs that laughing and smiling lowers stress hormones like cortisol, epinephrine, and adrenaline, and can act sort of like a natural antidepressant that releases healthy hormones. When you’re working remotely, learn to take a few minutes to concentrate on positive things, and do what makes you feel calm and happy, even if these things may not be so productive and useful all the time, you’ll find you’re less stressed.
Stressbuster Tip: Slow Down
Life can come at us way too fast at times, and while you can’t just stop, you have to learn to pace yourself if you want to be a great remote worker. Slow down and remember that the best decisions are never made in a rush, and rushing is never the best decision. When you’re stressed, take a few minutes to breathe and clear your head. Try inhaling for five seconds, holding five seconds, and exhaling with another five. Do this a few times in succession if necessary. This will help you stay calm and focus, like a 90-minute yoga class, but in three minutes or less.
Stressbuster Tip: Eat Right
Diet does matter. Eating poorly will stress your body out, while eating right will restore balance and reduce pressure. Sometimes working remotely can be a recipe for a snack attack when you get distracted or don’t eat properly, so that’s double trouble. When you work remotely, make sure to eat three decent, well balanced meals each day.
Stressbuster Tip: Share Stress
Remember the two kinds of stress, good and bad, how they work for and against you, and the Yerkes-Dodson Law. Share your stress with coworkers to lighten everyone’s load. I’m not saying concentrate on it, just spend a few minutes each day releasing it, and then keep it moving.
Stressbuster: Keep it Moving
Speaking of which, you should absolutely be doing something to move your body everyday, so incorporate exercise into your non-work routine. I personally exercise every morning, first thing, to get my blood pumping; and I also use that time to think about what I have coming up in my day. You don’t have to spend two hours at the gym, even just 30 minutes of walking per day can help boost your mood and reduce stress levels, and you can do that on a treadmill if you have one, or just in your neighborhood if you don’t. That way you also get some fresh air and kill two birds with one stone. In addition, a pre- or post-work workout will help enforce those divisions in your brain to keep your work life separate from your home life, and prevent those lines from blurring.
Mental Health Benefits of Flexible Work
Yes, remote work can cause and exacerbate mental health issues, but it can also act as a support mechanism. I read a survey of over 3,000 professionals conducted in 2018 on flexible work options, which includes remote work, flexible hours, and reduced schedules; and the results were interesting. It demonstrated that flexible work options have a lot to offer in supporting mental health at work, and in life in general. In fact, the impact that work flexibility can have is so great that 97 percent of people surveyed said that having a more flexible job would have a “great,” “positive” impact on their quality of life. That same survey also found that work-life balance and commute-related stress are two of the top factors that make people want a job with flexible options. For people with mental health concerns, caregivers, and professionals at large, flexible work options appear to support efforts to improve the mental health of everyone. It should be noted that this study included people who self-identified as living with a chronic physical or mental illness, making up 16 percent of those surveyed; and also included people who were caregivers of someone with a physical or mental health issue, making up 10 percent of those surveyed.
There other notable way flexible work can positively affect mental health is directly related to commute-related stress. Even if a person loves their job, sometimes what they have to go through to get there is so stressful that it can negate that positive impact and result in added stress. The average commute time in the U.S. is approximately 26 minutes each way. But according to this survey, people who are most interested in flexible work options have even longer commutes, with 73 percent of respondents reporting commutes exceeding one hour. And 71 percent said they’d like to work from home just to eliminate commute-related stress, so this is clearly a huge factor in the appeal of remote work.
Other interesting findings from the survey on specifically how remote work could help respondents “reduce stress and improve productivity” included: 75 percent indicated by generally reducing distractions during the work day; 74 percent indicated by eliminating interruptions from colleagues, 65 percent indicated by keeping them out of office politics, 60 percent indicated by allowing for a quieter work environment, 52 percent indicated by giving them a more comfortable work environment, and 46 percent indicated by a giving them a more personalized work environment.
Remote work also provides more job opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas. Living through the decline of an industry or long-term high unemployment can negatively affect mental health. High rates of depression and anxiety are found in rural areas, especially among older adults who have often had their lives greatly affected by their community’s economic decline. Those living in rural or economically struggling areas may miss a key piece of the human experience: engaging in the workforce in a meaningful, long-term way. Remote work may be an solution to all of these issues by providing options to people in economically disadvantaged areas that may have mental health issues. It shows huge promise in bringing people in these situations back into the workforce, and there are partnering programs established to help spread the awareness of these opportunities.
Another population that would reap great benefit from flexible work options are neurodivergent individuals. For example, employees on the autism spectrum and people with mental disorders like OCD can benefit from more time working from home, as loud noises, distractions, and pressure to appear “neurotypical” in front of colleagues and coworkers takes an emotional toll and impacts performance. By working remotely, they can benefit greatly, both professionally and personally.
All professionals put a huge amount of time, energy, and focus toward work each day. By offering flexible work options, companies are signaling to their employees that they can, and should, devote more time to health and wellness. And that’s never a bad thing.
The other top factors that make people want a flexible job, in addition to better work-life balance and eliminating commute related stress, were family time savings. The constant pull that people feel between time spent with family versus time spent at work can negatively affect mental health, and flexible work options allow those priorities to coexist more peacefully. But this isn’t just a benefit for employees, because companies also benefit when their workers are healthier. Multiple studies have demonstrated that employees in unhealthy workplaces are likely to experience higher stress levels and lower engagement, and that these feelings actually spread throughout the workplace, negatively affecting productivity and corporate culture. Companies that give employees more control over when, where, and how they work by offering flexible work options, are supporting the health and wellness of their workers and enhancing the company’s culture and productivity, all at the same time.
The only demonstrable good thing ‘rona did was to reveal the opportunities that working from home poses for many companies that may not have considered it an option otherwise. Maybe it helped them realize how important health, both physical and mental, is as well. Nothing like a pandemic to set your priorities straight. Ultimately, mental health at work must remain a priority for employers, regardless of whether that takes place at the office, or at the employee’s home.
The news that remote work can actually be as stressful as working from an office, if not more so, may have come as a shock to many people who considered a work-from-home lifestyle to be one that’s less stressful just because it offers more personal freedom and eliminates a commute. Part of the stress experienced by remote workers may be due to the fact that those who work from home face a host of challenges that are unique to this particular setup. While there are certainly pitfalls, there are also a number of benefits. As remote working becomes more popular, it’s very important that companies adapt and put the right policies in place to ensure their employees don’t experience any undue stress or burnout, and still feel like a valued part of a team. The right kind of communication is key to overcoming the challenges, as is being proactive about using it. Everyone involved in the remote work equation, top to bottom, needs to think about what makes them productive, happy, and successful in everyday life, and try to replicate those things in a remote setting. When you implement ways to mitigate and manage the stress associated with working remotely, then you’re free to enjoy all of the many benes.
Hopefully now that you know how common some of these stressors are, you may feel less isolated in what you face, and more energized in tackling these challenges in the remote work environment. While employers should make the mental health of their employees an important priority, remember that ultimately, we’re all responsible for monitoring our own mental health, so if the simple exercises and routine changes I’ve suggested here are not enough, and workplace stress becomes too much for you to handle, it’s important to talk to somebody about it, so please seek professional help if that’s the case.
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