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Physically and mentally taking care of yourself is vital as a remote worker, and requires good self-management. We’ll explore the practical techniques you can use to stay healthy.
Remote workers have more freedom to take care of physical health than traditional, office-based roles. Much of the advice below applies to anyone really, but people with more flexible remote schedules hopefully are able to take better advantage of these opportunities.
Getting Enough Sleep
Insomnia and not getting enough sleep is a major issue for many people, with 35% of Americans sleeping less than they should.* Remote workers are no exception, and a lack of clear boundaries, anxiety about your work, or feelings of loneliness can all contribute. There’s lots of advice out there on dealing with insomnia. Here is our best take on how remote workers can get enough sleep:
Set a clear schedule. This includes allowing for when you will and won’t be available to work, and ensuring you have enough time to wind down each night.
Turn off work notifications. Silence these when you finish for the day, so you’re not tempted to look at work-related interruptions when you should be relaxing.
Create evening and morning routines. Routines help set boundaries between your work and personal life that let you prepare to unplug from work properly.*
Minimize screen time. Putting devices down an hour or two before bed is good advice for anyone, not just remote workers.*
Clear your brain. A good method is to write down what you need to do the day before you need to do it, so you’re not kept awake thinking about it.
Getting Regular Exercise
It’s easy to be sedentary as a knowledge worker, and you may be less inclined to “get out of the office” if you’re working from home. Exercise is one of the very best things you can do for your overall health, and here’s some advice for remote workers who want to get moving:
Get up and move. It helps to get away from your desk for five to ten minutes each hour and take a walk around your home or otherwise separate yourself from work. This can include taking some time to stretch and do strength exercises, especially if you’re sitting for long periods of time.
Go for a walk. We recommend leaving your house for at least 30 minutes a day to go for a walk—not only is this good exercise, but it also helps you feel more connected to the world around you, which can boost your mental health.
Take a class. You may find it beneficial to try out an exercise class, running club, or sports team to connect with others while getting fit.
Taking Time Off If You’re Sick
Remote workers don’t run the risk of infecting coworkers if they get ill, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take time off. If you’re sick, it’s best to let your colleagues and supervisor know, and take some time to get better.
Eating Healthy Meals and Snacks
It seems obvious that we all should be eating healthily, but it’s harder than you think as a remote worker. Here are recommendations based on our conversations with a host of people working remotely:
Making a conscious effort helps you avoid highly processed foods like chips and cookies.
Staying healthy includes keeping an eye on your energy levels, and having a bite to eat if you feel yourself flagging.
Batch cooking food for lunches and dinners at the weekend lets you save time and always have something delicious on hand so you can spend time actually enjoying it.
A meal planning app is a good investment for easier grocery shopping and preparation.
It’s best not to eat at your desk!
Pre-preparing your lunches helps you expend minimal effort to make sure you eat—and that way you can also spend some quality time away from your desk.
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.Amir Salihefendic, founder and CEO, Doist*
Burnout in Remote Workers
importantThis section contains information for remote workers to help them focus on their mental health. But it’s important to note that mental health is not solely the responsibility of individual employees. Burnout in particular is a systemic problem that more often stems from organizational priorities and dynamics, and only somewhat relates to individual overwork. We cover this in depth in Morale, Mental Health, and Burnout in Remote Teams, notably in regard to what managers and leadership can do to ensure the mental health of their remote teams. It’s critical that remote employees are not left isolated and expected to monitor and manage their mental health on their own.
When it comes to what remote workers can control, unplugging after work and managing feelings of loneliness and isolation are two key things that individuals can focus on.*
Unplugging and Creating Clear Boundaries
[The transition from home to work] is more difficult where the borders between home and work are intentionally blurred, as is the case for remote workers. The effect is that work pressures spill over into non-work life as reflected in the inability to ‘switch off,’ and [in] the difficulties encountered in unwinding at the end of the work day.Alan Felstead and Golo Henseke, New Technology, Work and Employment*
caution It’s easy for a remote worker’s home and work life to bleed into each other. This makes it difficult to switch off, can increase anxiety, and may be a potential contributor to burnout.
There are several practical steps for helping you to get good boundaries in place (a number of which we covered in the productivity and time management sections as well):
Managing expectations around your availability. This is important both at home—to reduce distractions—and for your team, so you have established norms for when you’ll be available for meetings or collaboration, and when you need uninterrupted time to focus.
Managing device interruptions. Set the “do not disturb” mode on your mobile devices to prevent you from being bothered by notifications outside working hours. It helps even more if you have a separate phone for work, and keep all work-related apps off your personal phone.
Clear goals and expectations for your role. If you don’t have these, or they aren’t clear, you’ll want to set time to discuss with your manager. A lack of clear goals and outcomes is a strong contributor to overworking or working on the wrong things, both of which can lead to exhaustion, frustration, and a lack of motivation.
Connection outside work. You can build connections by planning activities with your family and friends, and being vigilant about not being tempted to “just check” your work tasks or communications.
Staying focused and productive. The more you set yourself up to get everything done each day, the less you’ll feel guilty about closing down the work computer at the end of the day.
Taking regular breaks. An office provides lots of built-in reasons to get away from your desk and computer, so you need to plan and stick to options that work for you to be able to clear mental space away from your work.
Taking time off. Remote workers tend to take less time off than their in-office colleagues. Whatever your company’s vacation policy is, it’s a good idea to make the most of it. The more remote employees model this behavior, the more it will be an established norm that taking vacation helps make you a better remote worker.
story “I find that it’s helpful to have a ritual of some kind that signals to your brain that it’s time to shift into or out of “work mode.” When I used to work in an office, this was a lengthy process of getting dressed in business casual clothing, commuting to the office, checking voicemails and turning on my computer. (Then the reverse in the evening.) Now that I work from home, it’s much more casual, but I drop my kids off at school, go for a brainstorming walk, update my to-do list for the day, then sign into Slack to get my mind focused. In the evening, I “clock out” with a similar routine—I create a to-do list for the next day, report on my accomplishments and say goodbye to teammates on Slack, then leave my workspace at a certain time and immediately start a personal activity (like cooking dinner, running an errand, or going to the gym). It might sound too rigid for some people, but after years and years of falling into the remote work trap of overworking, this is what helps me personally stay accountable and balanced.” —Laurel Farrer, CEO, Distribute Consulting*
Loneliness can be a persistent problem when you’re working from home. A lack of interaction with others, limited social contact, and just you in front of your desk can drive feelings of isolation. Fortunately, you can take steps to connect and feel a part of something bigger:
Reflect. Not everyone spends time thinking about how they prefer to communicate, if they have more energy at certain times of the day, and whether interacting with other people recharges or drains them. Introspecting about yourself this way helps you think about how to structure your day, when and how you should reach out and get some personal communication and connection, and whether you should mix things up and not stick to the exact same routine day after day.
Move. If you work from home, it will help to get out of your office at least once a week. You could try working from a communal space or a coffee shop, or even go into your company’s office(s) if that’s a possibility. Many remote workers factor in daily walks, dog outings, gym sessions, or other forms of physical activity, which research shows is a key part of maintaining good mental health.
Talk with your team. It’s easy to start feeling like a lone wolf, so it’s important to talk to your peers and team members—especially other remote workers—about how they deal with feelings of isolation. Many companies create virtual (or real life) groups where you can check in and chat. And we advise people not to hesitate to use interactive, synchronous communications, like video conferencing or phone calls, rather than less personal tools like Slack or email. Building social time and chatting into your day will help you feel a part of something bigger.
Connect outside work. It’s wise to plan time to spend with friends and family during a lunch break or when the work day is over. Social activities are an important type of self-care that is even more important for remote workers. You can develop creative outlets and hobbies to enjoy outside work, especially if they have a social element. This can include checking Meetup and similar sites to see if there are groups with your interests meeting in your area; perhaps there’s even a group of remote workers where you live.
Because loneliness and isolation are issues for remote workers, we talked to some experts about practical advice for dealing with them.
Further Reading on Personal Health for Remote Workers
Now you should have a clear idea of what your remote working will consist of, together with advice and techniques to maximize your chances of success. Remember, too, that nothing about your approach to remote work is set in stone. Each person has different ways of working, and tweaking these approaches to your unique needs will be an ongoing process.
Remote Employees vs. Contractors: An Important Distinction
Companies typically hire employees and engage a mix of freelancers or contractors. Until more recently in the U.S., this was simply a matter of cost and strategy—hiring contractors helped outsource some work, especially to accelerate a specific project or initiative.
cautionFor U.S. businesses, hiring contractors is financially appealing, as companies don’t need to handle payroll and tax withholding, or provide healthcare or other benefits. It might seem like an easy and less expensive way to expand your remote workforce. But there are federal laws about when someone can be considered a contractor vs. an employee, and getting this wrong can be very painful and expensive.
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