And what remote companies, managers, and employees can do about it
The flexibility to work where you want when you want should support work-life balance, but often it does the exact opposite. In contrast to a traditional office, remote work puts much more focus on output — what did you get done — rather than input — how many hours did you spend doing it. There’s a sense of personal responsibility to get “enough” done that can lead people to keep themselves working long past the point of optimal productivity. Couple that with a lack of physical work boundaries, and remote workers can quickly fall into a downward mental health spiral that’s hard to see the way out of.
The flexibility of remote work requires a lot of self-awareness to recognize an unhealthy cycle and take steps to stop it before it spirals downward. You need to intentionally ask what situation best suits your needs and personality and actively experiment until you find a good fit.
It might be a home office, a coffee shop, a coworking space, none of the above or some combination — it doesn’t matter. The danger lies in doing what I did when I first started working from home in college: ignoring your mental wellbeing and defaulting to an unhealthy situation with zero work boundaries or social interaction.
At Doist, we’ve been too slow in actively thinking about how remote work affects our team’s mental wellbeing and what we can actively do to create an environment where people can come with their struggles and get the support that they need.
We believe that remote work is a solution to many problems the world faces, but the research suggests that human beings weren’t meant to work in isolation. One study found that people with a “best friend” at work were seven times more likely to be engaged in their jobs. Furthermore, those who said they had friends at work felt more productive, stayed at their jobs longer, and reported higher job satisfaction.
At the end of another two-year study that focused specifically on remote work, over half of an experimental remote group decided not to continue working from home 100 percent of the time. This despite the fact that they were a full-day’s-worth more productive per week, took less sick time, and were 50% less likely to quit than their counterparts who stayed in the office. Why did they come back to the office? They felt too isolated.
Remote work poses unique mental health challenges. And when you don’t see your coworkers in person every day, it’s easy to assume that everything is ok when it’s not. As a remote company, we need to honestly acknowledge the downsides of remote work and do more to help our people thrive in all areas of their lives.
We’re still in the early stages of figuring out how remote work affects our mental health and what we can do to improve the situation.
On a high-level, here are some of the things our team is actively doing:
- Openly acknowledging that there can be serious mental health issues related to remote work. People are not alone in these struggles, and there’s nothing “wrong” with feeling anxious or depressed.
- Creating an environment that encourages open conversations about these hard topics and not making them a taboo. We encourage this in 1-on-1s and in public Twist threads. We even had a workshop at our last retreat devoted to the topic of anxiety and remote work.
- If a person is having problems with depression, anxiety, or stress then we should be there 100% for them (as co-workers, as leaders, and as a company).
On a more concrete level here are some of the things we do to encourage wellbeing:
- 40 days paid vacation per year: True disconnection is fundamental to help people de-stress and recharge.
- Encouraging people to use sick days for mental health when they need them.
- Coworking perk: So our people can get outside the house and be in a more office/community setting if they wish.
- Smaller things like a daily mindfulness post on Twist where Neil does a regular post that encourages us to build more awareness and calm into our days.
- Lucile and Andrew have recently spearheaded a Mental Health Monthly initiative where they post on a new mental health topic each month.
I believe that companies should want happy employees because helping people live satisfying and meaningful lives is a worthy goal in and of itself. But research has shown again and again that happy employees also make for strong businesses.
Finding work-life balance isn’t about prioritizing your mental wellbeing at the expense of your work. It’s acknowledging that, in the long-term, all areas of your life are better off when you put your mental health first. At Doist, we’re committed to building a culture that helps people navigate the potential challenges of remote work to be their best selves in all aspects of their lives.
About the Author
Amir Salihefendić is the founder and CEO of Doist, a remote-first company of 70+ people spread across 24 countries. We believe that remote work will change the world and that organized, transparent, and asynchronous communication makes remote work possible. That’s why we built Twist.