The depressing truth about working from home
Mental health repercussions of the laptop life
People seem to feel one way or the other about New Orleans. I fall into the camp of people who love it fiercely. I love the music, the culture, the people, the food, the traditions, the neighborhoods, the festivals, and parades, and costuming. Would you believe I even love the humidity?
I live in New Orleans by choice. Because I work for a virtual organization, I can live anywhere in the country within reasonable distance to a major airport. So I live in New Orleans. It’s a sweet perk of working from home.
Unsurprisingly, the number of those of us working from home is on the rise. Eight million people — not counting the self-employed — work remotely, representing 5.2% of US workers, according to the Census Bureau.
The benefits are many: avoiding transit problems and the stress of commuting; sidestepping office politics; adopting a flexible schedule that allows for chores and errands to be incorporated into the work day; more time with family and pets; and a break on keeping up a business wardrobe and other appearance-related expenses.
But there’s a dark side. It’s an arrangement that fosters isolation and disconnection, two conditions that feed the greedy depression monster.
When working from home, isolating is not necessarily a case of withdrawing from interacting with other people. You have to actively seek that interaction. And when you’re depressed, that can be very difficult to do. A hallmark trait of depression is not wanting to do the things you once enjoyed, including social activities. In the valleys of my depression, I not only don’t want to be around people — I don’t want to burden them with my presence. And so the isolation perpetuates itself.
In an office, collegial relationships are built by working together. But at home, with irregular and ‘sterile’ communications — chiefly straight-to-the-point emailing — it can be easy to feel disconnected from colleagues and clients. The feedback and encouragement loop found in an office setting is often lost. It can feel like working in an opaque bubble.
Without the structure and schedule of working in an office, boundaries between work and personal time can blur. If I’m not careful, I’ll be at my desk as soon as I get up in the morning, and well into the evenings. Occasionally, I have the opposite problem and can’t force myself to make the 12-foot trek from the couch to my desk.
A common anxiety-provoking issue when working from home is feeling the need to be super responsive to ‘prove’ you are indeed working. A friend of mine says in his company’s culture, it’s important to “keep the green dot on” in reference to the universal chat availability signal, and that it’s something that managers monitor.
Finally, depression can be compounded by inactivity. A two-room commute can mean staying in pajamas all day — which can be glorious — but also detrimental to mental health. Exercise boosts dopamine and serotonin levels, two brain chemicals that can drop off in a depressive state.
After a decade of working from home and several more living with bipolar depression, I’ve identified some strategies that work for me. The trick is to develop the habits as a way to tend to my mental wellbeing, because once I’ve dropped into a major depression, I won’t have the motivation to start anything new.
- Carve out a work space. For many of us, an entirely separate office may not be possible. In my front parlor, I have a desk with a second monitor, keyboard, comfortable desk chair, file cabinet, and so forth. I chose this room because I don’t do a lot of “living” here, but also because it has the best natural light in the house. That makes a huge difference for me.
- Create a commute to transition to work. I like to walk my dogs to a local coffee shop before heading to my desk.
- Break it up. I’m a huge fan of taking a mid-afternoon break to take the dogs for a long walk and run errands. It gets me out of the house, into fresh air and sunlight, and takes my mind off of work. Plus I get to interact with actual people. If I don’t make a plan to do this, though, I find myself working the whole way through.
- Consider not working at home at all. Some people benefit from leaving the house and going to a coffee shop, library, or co-working space. This is a difficult one for me because I like to have the quiet of my house, but it’s nice to do once in a while. Not only is it a change of scenery and getting out of the house, but it’s often a way to meet other people with similar work arrangements.
- Build systems to socialize. There are two pieces to this. One is that it helps me to have an online community of people who do the same kind of work I do, so I interact with them throughout the day. But there is also the all-important in-person socialization. I joined a book club and volunteer, in addition to spending time with friends. Having a schedule for volunteering and being obligated to show up gets me there when I really don’t feel like going.
- Find ways to deepen relationships with colleagues. My team and I do a regular video call each week. That definitely helps us feel connected and allows us to get to know one another better on a personal level. When we see each other a few times a year, I make a point of building in downtime with the team. As we build stronger relationships, our virtual communications become more meaningful.
Would trading in my remote working situation for a busy office alleviate my depression? Surely not. But being cognizant of the risks of isolation and disconnection, and proactively addressing them, can make the difference in living full, balanced work and personal lives.