So why do you feel so down? Despite the perks of telecommuting, there are still mental health pitfalls that can stack up — leading to frustration, depression, and burnout.
Psychologist Dr. Michael Britt regularly explores subjects like this on his popular podcast, The Psych Files. We recently talked to Dr. Britt about some of the pressures inherent in working remotely; here’s what he recommends to keep your well-being in check.
The slippery slope of overwork
One of the lures of online work is the promise of better work/life balance. But, even if you theoretically have more control of your schedule, the lack of physical separation between work and personal space means that it’s easy to let work drift into your down time.
“You can get caught up in it. You figure you can answer the email quickly. But then it turns into something longer. You send that email, answer another, and then the next thing you know, you just spent the last 45 minutes working,” said Britt.
“It’s hard to subtract that time from your work hours. You tell yourself you will, but then it doesn’t happen. When you lose the structure that our parents had with work, it becomes really fuzzy and you get a little more stressed.”
Getting work hours under control takes mental discipline, according to Britt. “Juggling time successfully means you have to remind yourself it’s okay to subtract the time overworked from the middle of the day. When you’re ingrained with the 9-5, you have to coach yourself into a new way of thinking.”
The isolation workaround
Working remotely means you avoid all those in-office distractions — but it can also mean losing social connections that come naturally when you’re in the office. Unless your organization has a strong online social component, the isolation can pull you down.
Even online meetings can contribute to the problem. According to Britt, “When you’re at a face-to-face meeting, you can tell how others are feeling, how they’re reacting. Online, everyone is in their own living room and you can’t judge what’s going through their minds.”
Back-channel chats can be an important connection tool. Britt encourages co-workers to communicate thoughts and ideas through other outlets. He also believes managers should make those venues available.
“It’s important for managers to encourage [this]. What’s not said at the meeting is going to be said later. Let your employees do the back channel thing. You’ve got to accept that. Let it go. Let it happen. It helps build a sense of attachment between your team.”
He says it’s vital for online workers to be proactive about socialization. “You have to find a way to connect with your colleagues. If you’re feeling frustrated or bored, find a GIF or emoticon to represent that and share it with your co-workers. Engage in that non-work related banter. It’s important.”
The root of dissatisfaction
You love your work, but you have a nagging feeling that things just aren’t right. According to Britt, this could be a result of Equity Theory. “Equity Theory is about fairness. In an office setting, you can look around and see what co-workers are doing. You gauge how you’re expected to work and how your work is valued by watching what is accomplished by those around you and how they’re treated.”
Working remotely can throw off your inner equity meter. “Now you can’t see how your co-workers are performing, so you make guesses. You gauge how hard they’re working by their output. You analyze their emails, their accomplishments.”
“Working remotely, you can almost never be completely comfortable with the level of work you’ve accomplished. You have absolutely no idea what your co-workers accomplished in comparison to you.” The way to deal with this is to just let go, asserted Dr. Britt; you have to leave the fairness issue in the hands of your boss and learn not to worry about it.
Remote team managers can play an important role in helping remote workers feel assured of their contribution to the organization. “People feel like they’re appreciated when they receive feedback and praise from a manager. When your team is remote, you have to make an effort to send an email or tell them in a chat that they did a good job. Praise makes them feel a part of the team,” said Britt.
The benefit of breaks
Dr. Britt believes one way for someone to be an invaluable company asset is by taking a break. “Naps truly are important. What we find is that 15-20 minutes of downtime through either a nap or a walk allows the brain to consolidate memories. These breaks help our neurons to solidify the things we’ve learned.”
“As important as focus is, it’s equally important that you have those times that you’re not so focused, where you just let your mind go. That time away from staring at the computer allows other thoughts to come into your head. It can make your mental activity so much richer.”