036: The Mental Health Struggles of Working Remotely

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Struggles with loneliness, depression, impostor syndrome, and physical health can come with the territory of being a remote worker – but you don’t have to stay there! This week Justin shares about his struggles and what he’s been doing to try to stay above it.

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00:00 Hello and welcome to Process, a podcast by Effective Remote Work. My name is Justin DiRose and today we’re talking about the mental health struggles of working remotely. Before we begin, be sure to check out our Patreon campaign effectiveremotework.com/patreon to gain access to our Discord water cooler chat, our episodes of our bonus podcast Behind the Process, and our monthly office hours where we remote workers get together to talk about the challenges and solutions that we’ve come up with while working remotely. That’s effectiveremotework.com/patreon.

00:38 Lately there’s been a lot of chat around Doist’s recent article titled “What Most Companies Don’t Tell You About Remote Work.” Doist is the company that makes the software Todoist as well as some other tools and they are 100% distributed. Now in this article, the CEO of Doist shares a number of things that the company is intentionally trying to do to improve upon the mental health of their employees.

01:06 Truthfully, I think we all can recognize that mental health stuff is a difficult problem to solve and especially when you’re trying to do it for a bigger group of people because each and every single person’s mental health needs are different. Every person’s social and emotional and physical needs can vary greatly from one another. Additionally, when you’re in a remote work company, oftentimes one of the benefits that’s touted is having this grand scale of freedom and flexibility. You can set your own work hours, you can work wherever you want to, and a lot of people tend to work wherever they want and as digital nomads they travel around the world. But, I know one thing that this article talks about, and I think is very important to note, is that when you are everywhere, you’re nowhere. When you don’t have a solid community in one place, it can be very difficult to have deep, meaningful relationships.

02:12 And that’s why I think a lot of remote workers are staying in a single community. Most of the people at the company that I work for are not digital nomads. They live in the same place. Sometimes they travel, but it’s not their primary mode of living. I know at Doist according to this article this is the case and I’m sure other remote companies, this is the case as well. When you have this level of freedom, you have to be hyper intentional because what often ends up happening is that freedom tends to expose the areas that we are weak in as people. So when we’re given freedom with our time, if we don’t have good time management skills, that freedom will expose that weakness. If we don’t have good organization skills, but we are free to organize things whatever way we want to, that’ll come through as well.

03:06 If we are completely free to figure out our relationships in the workplace because we don’t really have face to face communication with people and we have to supplement that otherwise, well if we don’t have structures built in our lives or things like that, friends, relationships, weekly meetings, whatever that is that will show as well. And so remote work is this huge benefit and I think it really has the power to change the way our society in the world works. And I actually really think that remote work has the capability to lift up underpowered economic regions because you can get people pouring money into an area where they wouldn’t necessarily do it otherwise. But with that comes these things that we have to be aware of, this freedom that we have to turn into intentional behaviors. Because if we don’t then we get stuff that happens inside of us and around us that’s not always the most healthy and this is where we can start to struggle with mental health, with depression and loneliness and things like that.

04:15 The Doist article goes in pretty in depth about some ways that they’ve seen the effect of mental health on employees who are remote workers and things that they’re doing in their company, things that individuals in their company have done to try to help themselves. But today I wanted to talk about what my struggles have been with remote work and what I’m trying to do to get through them or get on top of them; to build a structure so to say, so that I’m managing my own freedom a little bit better. So if you’re new to this podcast, here’s a little bit of background about me or if you haven’t heard it before. I’m a remote worker. I currently work for Discourse – discourse.org. But I started off in remote work about seven or eight years ago, working completely remotely from the rest of my team on an IT help desk, which then also led me out into doing some field work in IT and management as well.

05:10 All of it completely remote in a way from the employees that I was working with. Now the other employees on my team, sometimes they were distributed and other times they were actually working in the same physical office together. And so there was a lot of dynamics that took place in those types of jobs and the same thing as translated working into a full remote distributed organization as well. And to be honest with you too, like I have struggled with some of these things that I’m going to talk about today in my previous jobs and some of them are unique to my own experience as a remote worker in a fully distributed organization. But I know one of the things that I’ve consistently struggled with periodically throughout working remotely the last eight or so years has been loneliness.

06:00 It’s really easy when you’re used to going into an office and being around people in the same physical shared space, especially for someone who is slightly extroverted like myself, though I can be fairly introverted as well, that loneliness can set in because you’re not really talking to anybody throughout the day. If you like to have conversations or you like to process things out verbally, and especially if you’re in a technical role like I am in some regards where your spouse may not quite understand some of the things to be able to reflect ideas back to you if you need to say process out something verbally, and if your company culture doesn’t necessarily do a lot of meetings or phone calls, then it can be really difficult to stay on top of that, especially if you need to keep focus on work or if you’re working on some pretty deep focus stuff.

06:54 I’ve also over the last few years struggled with depression a little bit here and there. In my twenties I struggled with depression quite a bit heavier, but, I really overcame now, which is great. Then now being into my thirties and working remotely in my own little office and especially in a climate and in a place where it gets super cold and super dark really early, it’s just difficult. If you can’t get outside and get some fresh air always or if you don’t have a lot of people around, it can be easy to slip into depression a little bit where you’re just down where you just don’t have motivation or energy and it’s difficult to get out of that trap and I’ve definitely been going through that, especially with the season change just now.

07:43 Another thing that I’ve found increased as a remote worker is imposter syndrome. Sometimes when we see people on the internet, including our coworkers, we can get a sense that they know more than we do because they’re communicating differently than we are, or that they’re more superhuman than we are, especially I’ve noticed that myself with other developers in the company where I work, but in reality this really play it out when I was at our last company meetup where they just stumbled along through it just as much as I have. It’s not like they’re anything special and they get it any more than I do. No. In reality, they’ve just stumbled through it more than I have is all and they’re just a little further along on the journey. And that’s something that’s hard to remember when you’re a remote worker because you’re not working with these people day in and day out, face to face, having sidebar conversations about, well, how did you learn that and why did you do this?

08:44 Instead, you’re kind of acting more transactionally with the people that you work with. And we just had a podcast episode on that, which I’ll link in the show notes. That’s something that you have to fight against in remote work culture. The other thing I’ve struggled with at times is my own physical health. I’ve always had a little bit of a challenge with maintaining quality physical health. Diet has been a little bit better than exercise, but exercise has been a regular struggle of mine. And so when you’re sitting at a desk in your office all the time, it can be very easy to just get sucked into what you’re doing or feeling obligated that you have to sit there and punch a timeclock in essence. But that’s not always the healthiest thing for you to do. It’s very important to take care of your physical health and that’s something that I know I am working on.

09:29 It’s not easy start new habits and build something new. Now with these struggles, I’ve learned that for me, any of these things that have come up are usually tied to some kind of a need that I have. So if I’m dealing with loneliness, it’s usually because I need to get out and see some people or have a conversation or literally just have someone give me a hug or something like that. It’s amazing how those simple things that we don’t often talk about are really impactful to us as people. Same thing with depression. Sometimes I just need to get outside and get some sunlight or drink some water, have some food. Impostor syndrome is one of those things too where it’s just a matter of recognizing where people are at. Maybe having that conversation with somebody at work and just talking through something, talking through an issue or whatever it is, but more often than no, a lot of these emotional states that I found myself in are tied to a need like this.

10:32 So keeping that in mind, here are some of the things that I’ve tried to do since becoming a remote worker that help me get through these times. Now do be clear, these are not bullet solutions that’ll just solve the problem. But you have to continue iterating on your life. You have to continue building intentionality in your life in areas that you are struggling with. I go back to the concept of the wheel of life by Zig Ziglar, which we’ve talked about in previous episodes. but basically if there’s an area of your life that’s falling flat, don’t be afraid to prioritize that for a season until you build it back up again and then start working on the other areas that are falling flat again. There are times where we need to work more on our physical health to get that back into shape, but then we can’t focus on everything.

11:23 So maybe one other area of our lives starts to dwindle a little bit. So then in the next season or the next month or whatever time frame you’re evaluating these things on, you have to spend some more time doing that too and investing into that, making sure that gets better. So these things are very seasonal and there are things that I don’t do all the time. And then I don’t always remember to do and I’m definitely not perfect at any of this, but I doesn’t want it to list out a few of the things that I have done that helped me work through some of these mental health struggles that I’m sure many of us remote workers have dealt with.

11:59 One thing I try to do is to get out of the house a couple times a week, whether that’s going to the coffee shop or running some errands, but just getting out of the house and getting a change of scenery really helps, whether that’s for work or for something else. I try to go downstairs to see my family during the day so that I can actually have some conversation, give my kids a hug that can really help and just play with them for a couple of minutes. I’m not the best at doing that in the middle of the work day, but I especially do that at the end of the day. I try to get outside, but with the season right now that is currently going on, it can be a little difficult when it can get really, really cold out. And it’s not always the best weather, like rain and snow, not always the most fun to go outside in that. Sometimes I’ve been trying to do a workout during the middle of the day or at the beginning of the day. My favorite lately has been to do some basic pilates, which is just a simple low impact exercise is that helps you strengthen your core. Doing something like that can also really help deal with some physical issues that you have if you sit all day in your chair or if you try to stand all day. Building those core muscles can really help with some of that.

13:09 Another thing I try to do is get some lunches with friends. I try to remember that, especially if I’m dealing with imposter syndrome, that everyone else is out there just like me just trying to figure it all out. Some people have more knowledge and understanding than I do, but in reality we’re just trying to solve problems. Nobody has this magic solution to anything or is superhuman or whatever that we can often get into our minds when we’re just seeing a highlight reel of what people’s successes are and things that they’re doing. Another thing that really helps me stay lighthearted at work is to just have some fun. So one thing that I do is I really like puns, so I try to make a lot of them in chat at work or in our conversations. I know I get a lot of eye rolls and groans, but it’s really funny when that happens I think.

13:50 One thing I know that a lot of remote work companies also do try to do is give people a lot of days off. At Discourse is really nice because we get five weeks off here. But one of the challenges with that is that I often struggle with taking days off for myself. I’ll sometimes take vacation days off. Sometimes I’ll take time off to get something done around the house. But if I need just a day for myself to recoup such as a mental health day or something like that, I really struggle with doing that though it is a good strategy to employ. Especially if you have more than 14 days PTO that you have in the year that also counts for your sick leave like most corporate jobs do. Another thing that really helps kind of alleviate things and actually really helped me today as a record, this is that I try to work on stuff that I enjoy for a little bit.

14:44 So lately I’ve been working on some music projects and that has really helped spending, you know, 15-20 minutes, something like that. It refreshes my brain if I’m working on something repetitive or if I’m working on something like answering a bunch of support tickets or something like that. Being able to focus on something else like that for a little while really helps try to alleviate some of the pressure of doing the same thing, especially if it’s something that I enjoy. And another important thing to do is to set limits on work time. I’ve talked about this before, but I try to keep my work hours between 8:00 AM and 5:00 PM. So that means all the work that I need to do needs to fit in those hours. Sometimes I’ll work a little later after the kids go to bed. Sometimes I’ll work a little earlier in the morning. It just depends on the day, but generally every day the work stays within those hours because I do not want work slipping in to my time with my family.

15:43 Overall, when you look at remote work, there are some real challenges to it. We have to remember that there’s always a way through it. Remote work is so new that you have to think about it a little bit differently. And it gives you so much freedom, but again, you have to structure your life a bit more intentionally when you have so much freedom and that means you have to be clear on what’s important to you. You have to be clear on what is going on inside of yourself too. To get clear on what’s going on inside of yourself, you have to spend time noticing what’s going on in certain times and seasons of your life. Journaling has helped me do that. Talking to my spouse about things that have happened during the day or putting words to the feelings that I have inside has really helped with that.

16:37 Sometimes just verbalizing something that I’m feeling like saying, “Hey, I feel lonely,” “Hey, I feel depressed,” or, “Hey, I feel tired,” can really help move through that. In a lot of cases when I’m dealing with something fairly simple and fairly straight forward, just verbalizing when I’m feeling is 50% of the issue. I just need to communicate it to somebody so that somebody knows what’s going on inside of me. That requires us to be honest with ourselves and that’s the challenge when it comes to dealing with these types of things. We often want to put on a positive face, which is something that I struggle with myself too. We don’t just have to be okay for everyone else. We have to be okay for ourselves too. We can’t take care of our family, we can’t do the best work that we can do, we can’t move forward in life as effectively as we can if we don’t take care of ourselves. And that’s ultimately what it comes down to is that when we’re dealing with mental health stuff when we’re working remotely, we have to develop habits and mindsets to take care of ourselves and what we need each of us individually so that we can be the most people that we can in our lives and in our work.

17:55 Well, that’s all for this time. If you want to join in on the discussion for this episode, head on over to the Effective Remote Work Community at community.effectiveremotework.com. Be sure to join our Patreon at effectiveremotework.com/patreon to get access to our exclusive members-only content. If Twitter’s your thing, you can find me at @justindirose, and the podcast and community @effectiveremote. Lastly, if you like this show, rate us on iTunes or recommend us on Overcast! My name is Justin DiRose and join me next time on Process.

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