The mental health cost of working from home

When it comes to remote work, there seem to be two different camps: those who swear by it, and those who’d rather pass.

Its proponents see it as a way to avoid long commutes and reduce pollution levels, as well as open spaces for people with disabilities and working parents,

On the other hand, others express concerns about staying productive at home or the costs of making employees responsible for some operative costs, such as internet connections and software, online security, home offices or co-working spaces. 

Although some large companies do cover some of these costs, it many cases it’s still up to each person to deal with them.

One of the most important challenges, however, are the effects of remote work on people’s mental health. 

Luckily, there are things we can do to minimise the impact of working on your own and stay happy and healthy. The first step is to understand what aspects of remote work may affect workers.

Isolation

One of the main selling points of remote work is to avoid long commutes and crowded, noisy offices to be more productive. Although many options are available for those who still want to work outside their home, 84% of respondents to Buffer’s State of Remote Work 2019 claimed they work from home most of the time.

Unsurprisingly, and according to the report, many remote workers feel lonely and isolated.

Making friends as an adult can be difficult, so offices are an important way for people to socialize–from after-hour drinks to the extended network of people you can meet through coworkers and clients. Staying home alone most of the day doesn’t help to make new connections or maintaining old ones. And that’s not great for your mental health.

Lack of work-life balance

Working from home has more implications than difficulties making new friends.

Usually, going to an office every day means designating a time and a space to work separate from your personal life. The division, however, is harder to draw when any space in your home can be a place to sit with your laptop and work.

This lack of separation between work and rest often results on people working during their days off and on holidays. In fact, 20% of remote workers took no time off in the last year.

Needless to say, the lack of personal time to rest, nurture relationships with family and friends, and pursue other interests is detrimental to mental health.

Excessive screen time

Remote work relies heavily on technology, and computers are employees’ main tools. So, most remote workers spend the majority of their day looking at screens, which is unhealthy in different ways.

For starters, long periods of screen time without adequate rest are plain bad for the eyesight, as it may cause eye strain and worsen dry eye syndrome.

Lack of exercise is also a big concern. At the office, even those small moments like getting up from your desk to get coffee in the kitchen help you stretch your legs. Also, many companies invest in equipment like ergonomic chairs, desks and large monitors. At home, it’s up to you to equip your office, assuming you have enough space. 

Without ergonomic equipment, daily exercise and plenty of breaks to stand up and stretch your back and shoulders will definitely feel it. I know I did.

When I quit my office job and started working from home, all I had was an old desk that was too tall for me and one of the chairs from my dining table. Unsurprisingly, after a couple of days, the back pain was so bad I couldn’t work there for more than an hour at the time.

Even today, without a proper ergonomic chair and a stand for my laptop, I start getting back pain again if I go a few days without exercise.

It’s easy to see how these situations affect your physical and mental health. But what do they cause, exactly? Let’s have a look.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Depression

Many aspects of remote work make people more susceptible to developing depression. 

First of all, working alone makes people feel isolated and disconnected from their companies, as well as their friends and families.

Job safety and financial concerns also play a part in developing mental health conditions over time. Many remote workers are freelancers who rely on themselves to keep a steady flow of projects. Others work in part-time or seasonal positions that don’t provide enough financial stability. 

This uncertainty causes a catch-22 in which depression affects productivity and efficiency, which in turn reduces their feeling of self-worth.

Burnout

Remote workers, and freelancers specifically, take on many extra responsibilities on top of producing work, including promoting themselves, securing more projects, and upgrading their skills. All these added pressure leads to burnout.

In very small amounts, stress is not negative to our physical and mental health. It keeps us on our toes and gives us that extra push to complete a project. Stress, however, is not meant to be permanent. 

When that happens, it can have the opposite effect. Instead of giving us that extra push, it drags us down, makes us feel unfocused and apathetic, doubt our skills and abilities, changes our sleep patterns, and even depend on food or substances to feel better.

That’s what burnout looks like, and it can be a catalyst for other mental health issues, like depression and anxiety.

Anxiety

The idyllic image of remote workers chilling on the beach is not always true. For many, it’s plagued with uncertainty.

Working in distributed teams can make it difficult for members to see their progress and feel part of a team that’s accomplishing tangible goals. In turn, we may feel left out of the company’s achievements and have unrealistic views about our skills and performance.

Anxiety disorders (including phobias, social anxiety and panic disorders) are among the most common mental health conditions. In the United States alone, over 31% of adults experience an anxiety disorder at any point in their lives. 

It’s important to understand the difference between healthy amounts of stress and anxiety and an anxiety disorder. The latter is persistent and gets in the way of everyday life activities, and it can manifest in different ways: from restlessness and trouble concentrating and falling asleep to feeling faint and shortness of breath.

What can we do?

Although the picture looks bleak, remote work is not all doom and gloom. Far from it! With an individualized strategy, it’s possible to prevent mental health issues and stay happy, healthy and productive while working on your own. 

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, though. To find what works for our personal situation, we’ll need the self-awareness to recognize unhealthy habits and what you can do to improve.

Some of the steps you can take to keep good mental health while working remotely are:

  • Keep a separate space to work. It can be a home office, a co-working space, or a coffee shop you like. Even if you work in your bedroom, avoid working from bed as much as possible. 
  • Build a strong support network. Staying in touch with friends, family, and coworkers is vital to stay grounded and healthy. 
  • Communicate with coworkers. Many remote companies pride themselves in their flexibility and relaxed hierarchy. Make connections with coworkers who may offer friendship or, at least, a helping hand when work gets hard.
  • Work out. Although exercise alone cannot cure a mental health condition, it has been proven time and time again to boost your mood and bring some relief. 
  • Get a hobby. Having interests outside work keeps your mind sharp and your mood high. If possible, try out a hobby that lets you step away from the computer for a while—reading, gardening, cooking or playing a musical instrument are some popular options.
  • Set up business hours. Just because you’re working remotely it doesn’t mean you should be available 24/7. Set up your business hours and set clear expectations with your coworkers and clients to give yourself a break.
  • Block distractions. Being distracted constantly can affect your mental health by making you more anxious and less productive. Mindfulness, meditation, blocking distractions, and working on one task at the time may help.

Although remote work is not a novelty anymore, its growing prevalence brings into attention potential effects in mental health, time management, and productivity. The good news is, it’s possible to find ways to maintain good mental health while working on your own. With some planning, self-awareness and the right strategies, you can get everything done and achieve your goals. 

Are there any other aspects of mental health for remote workers we didn’t cover in this blog post? Let me know!

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