I spend an average of 22 hours per day alone. All while working full time at a job I absolutely enjoy. It’s an introvert’s wet dream, really.
How? Well first of all I am working at a fully remote position. So I do everything online.
I can work when and where I want to. When and where I can be the most productive.
I get to travel, be a nomad, run errands, spend more time with family, sometimes go out and join social events happening weekdays during 9-5.
I have had this privilege for close to 7 years. I’ve been in my current fully remote workplace since 2015.
The previous work place is also remote friendly and I pretty much maximised that opportunity. Spent 3 years there, only going to the office once every month or so when I need to.
People often think this is one of the perks of running your own business. Stuff like sleeping till late, not having to drive or commute to a workplace. All while still not having to ride the mental roller coaster and the magnitude of responsibilities that entrepreneurs face 24/7.
I get weekends off, a good work life balance (most of the time, when my workaholism demon is under control).
Freelancers also get to enjoy this perk. But in this case I don’t need to worry about chasing invoices, deal with clients from hell, or the uncertainty of whether or not I will get any gig next month.
It feels like I’m getting the best of both worlds.
It’s pretty great, really.
I guess at this point you’re thinking:
- OK is she just here to brag? What’s the plot twist here?
- Yadda yadda yadda. I kinda already work remotely now, tell me something I don’t know will you?
- That sounds amazing. I want it.
I’ll talk about all three, as a series of posts.
This first post will be exactly about the first catch: remote working poses a slightly different mental health risks than what usually found in traditional work settings.
Specifically about mental health risks someone faces as a remote worker, we’ll go into three things:
- What is this thing called mental health?
- Benefits of remote working
- Pitfalls of remote working
The second post will be for you who are currently working remotely. I want to share a couple of tips and strategies I have found to be useful for maintaining mental and emotional fitness. Basically how to stay sane while working remotely.
The last post will be for you who who thinks remote working still sounds pretty awesome (it is) and wanted to know how to land yourself a remote friendly position. I’ll share a couple of ways how you can start getting a taste of remote working.
I would like to also share about different aspects I learned while working in remote environment in future posts. Couple of lessons learned, experiments, burnouts, productivity tactics, knowledge management techniques, communication strategies.
The good, the bad, and the ugly of remote working based on my personal experience.
Let’s get started.
“Benefits of remote working: you can work anytime anywhere.
Pitfalls of remote working: you can work anytime anywhere.”
That’s as accurate as it gets.
But first. let’s talk about mental health.
What is mental health? Defines it as “(n) a person’s condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being.”
So. How are you? When was the last time you asked yourself that?
How do you know if you’re well or not?
Do you experience any of these?
- Constant worry / anxiety / low grade stress.
- Feeling sad, down, unfulfilled.
- Reduced ability to concentrate.
- Excessive fears, worries, or guilt.
- Withdrawing from people or activities you would normally enjoy.
- Fatigue, low energy, problems sleeping.
- Sleeping or eating too much or too little.
- Substance abuse / compulsive eating (alcohol, nicotine, food).
- Lack of motivation and capacity to complete ordinary tasks.
- Thoughts of harming one self or others.
This can be an awesome thing, indulge in coding and debugging or setting up some system, spending time hunting down bugs. But if it becomes a vicious cycle, and without realising it, you’re not getting enough time to recharge.
There’s no concrete start and end time to structure your day around. It’s very easy to always be “on” when there’s no clear divide between work and home, so it’s fully up to you to set and commit to a working schedule that works for you.
On the flip side, it takes a certain amount of discipline and motivation to show up and do the work without supervision.
Not gonna lie, having the option to only leave your house when you want and need to is pretty awesome.
Not having to commute is generally a good thing. I can spend more time doing more valuable things than sitting in the car / train / bus.
Sure there are many ways to make a good use of your commuting time. I used to look forward to commuting because it means I get to sing out loud to Billy Talent or headbang to Devildriver in the middle of Jakarta traffic, and sometimes listen to podcasts. But it’s definitely nicer to have the option to not do that.
But not having to commute also means there is no clear switch on and switch off. It is mentally easier to transition from working to non-work time by commuting.
During my commuting times (total of 5 years in traditional work settings), once I got home I switch off immediately. Well mostly because I was already too tired to be thinking or do other things, so I just usually just had dinner and quickly unwind before going to bed.
Now, working remotely could mean never leaving the bed.
It also easy to end up sitting all day. Sitting kills. I haven’t verified this claim. I guess living kills as well. And I’ve heard counterarguments saying standing up is not the solution but rather keep moving.
Aspects of Remote Working
Conceptually, these are the benefits of remote working:
- Control: a degree of control and freedom over schedule, location, and environment
- Autonomy: Trust and autonomy is one of the key aspects of human motivation (autonomy, mastery, purpose)
- Resource efficiency: Cost, time, and energy in general.
- Effectiveness: We all have heard how remote work increases workers productivity. And how people who work from home feel that they’re more productive than when they’re in an office. I am sure there are a lot of biases and studies are never perfect. But speaking from personal experience, I know that having more control over my environment, and having nothing else to show for other than results definitely motivates me to engage in more deep work.
And these are the pitfalls:
- Human connection
Linking these pitfalls back to the mental health component, I sit comfortably near the very end of the scale of introversion.
So I am extreme lucky that I almost don’t notice any the drawback from the Human Connection factor.
I am also certain the fact that for the past 2 years my role has been very client facing also helps. So I do have to interact with many people from inside and outside of the company on a daily basis.
On the other hand, I suffer majorly from the Overcompensation aspect.
I have been going in and out cycles of burnout once every 1.5 – 2 years. I know my way around it by now, yet I still find it hard to not slip into it.
The lines between life and work can quickly go from blurry to completely non-existent.
Another common struggle is dealing with friends and family who don’t think you’re working.
After all these years, my friends still don’t get that working in a remote job actually still mean I need to work. I can’t just go out and have lunch with short notice. I have meetings, tasks, just like normal office jobs. Well technically I can, but it will interrupt my planned work.
Despite the well-intentioned tone, it’s still annoying to hear things like, “public holidays make no difference to you, you work from home anyway”.
Isolation and Loneliness
By design, remote working means less social interaction. You would have less people around compared to traditional workplaces unless you make an effort to manufacture that. Either by going out and work from a cafe, coworking spaces, or your friends’ places.
There are no coworkers to get me out of my own head. It’s easy to feel reluctant to ask for help, more barrier to reach out compared to sharing the same space with your coworkers. I need extra effort to build that support system.
It can be very easy to feel like I’m on my own. Timezone differences, communication latency, not wanting to bother or appear less than capable.
On top of all of that, loneliness kills. U.K now has a Minister of Loneliness. The effects of loneliness on health and wellbeing cannot be understated. It is a real public health issue.
When you work remotely, you have nothing to show for other than the results.
If you showed up at the office and for some reasons run into some issues that prevent you to produce a tangible result that day, you mostly won’t feel anxious and guilty at the end of the day. You’ll feel secure enough to just do it again tomorrow because you’ve signalled that you “worked” that day.
A slightly different thing can happen in remote working environment.
In both situations you have done all you can, but in one situation you feel the pressure to have something to show for.
It’s harder to know when you’ve accomplished enough. There’s a constant need to deliver and appear productive.
Overcompensation almost always lead to overworking and burnout.
Technology as the the double-edged sword
Technology enables remote working. It allows us to travel and still complete work-related tasks. It also opens up a whole can of worm of getting everyone to be never properly disconnected from work, which hurts in the long run. We use and are being used by technology.
Most of us already engage in a constant low grade stress, being reactive to pings and notifications. That’s from social media and entertainment. Add work on top of that and you get a nice cocktail of mental fatigue. I have uninstalled Slack and have never checked emails on my phone for this reason.
Travelling. One of the biggest perks of remote work as the media sold it is the idea of nomad life. The exotic image of you sitting on a beach somewhere, hustling, earning income. Spending couple of days in Bali, then go backpacking through Europe.
Well yes there is nothing preventing you from doing that within your allocated budget and physical endurance. But in practice, working on the go is HARD to pull off properly.
During the years I have worked remotely, I have spent considerable time working while travelling. It’s doable. But it’s not nearly as sexy as the media made it out to be.
You’ll eventually get tired of the hunt for reliable internet connection and power plugs. Hopping from cafe to cafe, joining coworking spots. Those take effort. Most of the time the frustration that come from not being able to find a stable work station where you can produce quality work is just not worth the mobility.
This is why there are significant number of companies offering these services. They will take care of the logistics, accommodation, itineraries, meals, so you can focus on working. Remote Year is one such service.
Yet again, it’s still arguably significantly better to have that option than being stuck in the office job.
That sums up the first part of this series.
I know there are a lot of interesting things to cover about this relatively new working arrangement as it’s being adopted more widely.
Please let me know anything you’d like to know more about remote work.