COVID-19: In our rush towards working remotely, we mustn't ignore self-care & well-being

Remoter & Dr. Bosch have teamed up to conduct a research project that explores how personality impacts self-care & wellness for those working remotely.

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6 minute read

It would be preaching to choir to start this article with a list of the benefits remote work offers both individually and commercially. We could waste the first paragraph re-hashing what we all know already – that most people would love to do some (if not all) of their work remotely, that commuting sucks the soul out of even the cheeriest of people, that our planet would breathe a huge sigh of relief if we reduced the transport required to get people physically face-to-face for work purposes and so we could go on. Instead though, I want to address the skeleton in the closet. The dark side of remote work if you like. Those aspects that don’t fit with the Insta-worthy snapshots of laptops on the beach and remote working meetups in the far-flung jungles of our world.   I am talking about the isolation. The loneliness. The disconnect. The paranoia that can emerge from clumsily worded communications and the distress that can follow. Work-place stress and burnout are not new concepts. We are well-versed in the human and financial costs that stress, depression, anxiety and burnout cause each year in lost productivity and personal suffering. 

But surely remote workers have some sort of immunity from all that, right? I mean, they don’t have to put up with the usual “pain-in-the-bum” aspects of work, do they? No forced chitchat waiting around the communal microwave. No noise pollution from gossiping co-workers. No one walking past their desk micro-managing and nit-picking. And don’t forget the golden egg of remote work – being free from a physical office or location. The ability to work from anywhere. Anywhere! Where shall it be this month? The Maldives? Bali? The new coffee shop that has opened down by the harbour? 

If only the reality was as glamorous.  

The technology that allows remote work is the same tool that shackles remote workers to their devices and results in technoference that makes it nearly impossible for them to switch off. The boundaries between work and non-work for remote workers can be described, at best, as blurred and at worst, as non-existent. Work is life and life is work. There is no demarcation, neither in terms of time nor location. 

Would you be surprised to know that 41% of remote workers report high stress levels? ‘Ok, no big deal’ you are probably thinking and perhaps not. But what if I told you that the same research found that only 25% of office workers reported experiencing the same feelings of high stress?  Would it surprise you to hear that more than 50% of workers who worked some of the time from home reported feeling left out and mistreated and unable to deal with conflict in their workplace? 

The virtual world of work lends itself to transactional relationships. An employer has a need. A worker fills that need. The employer has another need, the worker continues to service those needs. However, this ignores the very awkward fact that we are human-beings (and, as the old joke goes, not human-doings) and our mental well-being depends on more than just ticking tasks off a never-ending list. 

That is why we need to shine the torch into those dark corners of the remote working world and start to look at how and why remote workers are increasingly experiencing stress, depression and burnout. Put against the backdrop of the expectations we set up around remote work – that it is the golden ticket out of the rat-race and the ultimate achievement in work-life balance – it is probably not surprising that people are suffering in silence. Who wants to be thought of as a complainer? And that doesn’t even touch upon issues of job security and fears individuals have that they could lose their flexibility and professional reputations if they share their struggles within the wider organisation. 

We want to learn more about this. We want to understand more about what is going on with the mental well-being of remote workers. Some professions take self-care very seriously. They have to. For example, those at the front-line of disasters, first responders and those exposed to daily trauma all operate within systems that understand the importance of support and self-care. But the same imperatives aren’t always available to those working remotely – regardless of what type of stressors they are exposed to. Sadly, remote workers often suffer from an ‘out of sight out of mind’ mentality and as a result, can be left on their own to deal with any issues they may have.  Some people cope better than others and we are trying to find out why that might be the case.  But first, let’s look at self-care…

What does self-care look like for remote workers?

I think it is useful to think of self-care as falling into three categories: physical, emotional and social.

Let’s start with physical self-care. What does that look like? Well, this is anything that helps your body to feel nourished, energized and supported. Some examples of physical self-care activities/items include:

  • Aromatherapy or air diffusers
  • Good seating and lighting
  • Nice things to look at – whether that is a view out of the window, inspirational artwork or family photographs
  • Access to cold water and ensuring you keep yourself hydrated
  • Regular scheduled breaks for physical activity – whether that is making a call whilst walking or conducting standing vidcons, making sure you get some physical movement at regular times during the working day
  • Sleep – reducing the use of devices before bedtime and removing them physically to avoid the temptation “just to check…” whilst you are trying to fall asleep 
  • Access to healthy and nourishing food 

Then there is the emotional side of self-care. This involves strategies such as:

  • Making sure you have a mentor or colleague you can share experiences with and get a fresh perspective on things that are challenging you.
  • Being realistic with yourself. Look closely at your self-expectations and ask if you would consider that reasonable if a friend was asking for your advice.
  • Be mindful of how long you are spending alone and without any in-person interaction. Avoid long periods in your own company - talk a walk, go to a public space and just ‘be’ amongst other people. Even better if you start a conversation and make a connection! 
  • Try to notice any major changes in your emotions and mental well-being and decide in advance what your self-care plan is should you require additional support.

And finally, you need to think about social self-care. Make sure you:

  • Schedule regular catchups with people you like and who enrich your life. These are just as effective when done remotely as they are in person so don’t let geography stop you! And if you have friends and family who aren’t tech-savvy, offer to teach them.
  • Get out and about amongst your community. You don’t have to actually talk to anyone if you don’t feel like it but just seeing other people going about their everyday business will remind you that there is a big world out there and not to get too stuck inside your own head. 
  • Ensure your organisation has systems and policies in place to allow you to “meet” regularly with your team. Even “lame” activities like a weekly share a photo of your weekend on Monday morning helps enhance team spirit and a sense of connection amongst the group. 

So, there are some things we can all do to look after ourselves but obviously everyone will resonate differently with ways of approaching self-care and their own mental well-being. We need to find out how people differ so that down the road we can start to tailor and personalise wellness initiatives.  

We are conducting research that will explore the relationship between personality, self-care and perceived wellness in remote workers.  The ability to engage in self-care can be vital for individuals working remotely. 

We want to know:

  • How do remote workers rate the success of their self-care practices?
  • How do they rate their wellness level?
  • How does personality influence wellness?
  • How does personality influence self-care practices?

We are asking those who work remotely to answer a questionnaire that will take approximately 20 minutes to complete. By participating in this important research, you will contribute to our understanding of mental well-being in remote workers and assist us in developing intervention and development programs to better support individuals. 

Your contribution is important. Your experience matters – so please consider participating in this study. Together we can make a difference but to do that, we need to improve our knowledge and understanding.

Join us as we work towards improving the wellness and mental well-being of those in our remote working community.