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How to Protect Your Mental Health as a Remote Employee

Prevent burnout and optimize your work-life balance as a telecommuter.

Woman standing typing on laptop with glass of milk on counter

In previous times, improved work-life balance used to be the No. 1 benefit employees cited for working from home. However, today many remote employees and others who work from a home office name work-life balance as their greatest challenge.

As more companies offer telecommute and hybrid work options, the demands on remote employees are growing. As these demands intensify, so too does the need to understand the unique causes of stress for these workers.

In various studies, remote employees mention the following as major sources of job dissatisfaction:

  • They feel pressured to correlate their schedules with employees in the home office (Gilrane, 2019).
  • They feel disconnected from the team (Gilrane, 2019) or isolated in general (Mautz, 2019).
  • They feel the pressure (either internal or external) to be perpetually “connected”—visibly working so that management does not think they’re goofing off (Kelliher and Anderson, 2009).

Of course, working from home brings real benefits too, such as not having a commute (which helps the environment as well), the potential for increased productivity, and a more fluid blending of work, family, friends, hobbies, and exercise.

The problem is that flexibility is both a boon and a curse. It can help you thrive, or it can lead to burnout. Here are four strategies for optimizing your work-life balance and protecting your health as a remote employee:

1. Work in 90-minute power increments.

As someone who has worked remotely for ten years, I am no stranger to the feelings of “remote work guilt” that cause telecommuters to feel like they have to stay glued to their desks during normal business hours no matter what. Recently, though, I experienced a revelation while reading Noah St. John’s Power Habits®: The New Science for Making Success Automatic®. St. John explains that in the 1950s, researchers William Dement and Nathaniel Kleitman discovered that humans sleep in 90-minute cycles, moving from light sleep to deep sleep to light sleep again. They conducted another study a decade later that found that this 90-minute cycle applies to our waking lives as well, except over the course of 90 minutes, we cycle from a state of peak focus into a state of fatigue.

Based on this and other studies, St. John concludes that although our conditioned response to cues that our cycle is nearing its nadir (e.g., fatigue, tight muscles, restlessness) is to push through them and complete our tasks, doing so will only hinder your productivity and negatively impact your mental health. Instead, you should time yourself as you work, and at the end of 90 minutes (or when your body is signaling the need for a break), pause your work and do something to rejuvenate yourself. Take a 15-minute walk, power nap, or reading break. Do some stretches. Tackle a (short!) chore like putting dinner in the crock pot. Enjoy a guilty pleasure like scrolling your social media feed. Do whatever you need to do in 15 minutes to feel refreshed and ready to enter into another high-focus period.

Of course, this advice is relevant to employees who work in office settings as well, but one of the benefits of working remotely is (oftentimes, not always) having a wide variety of break activity options. You might not feel comfortable doing 15 minutes of yoga in your cubicle, but at home the option is probably more accessible.

2. Track your time.

Tracking your time to chart your 90-minute productivity cycles not only will help you establish a healthy work rhythm and accomplish more in less time; it will also prevent you from overworking yourself.

Yes, although the stereotype about remote workers is that they’re lounging around in their PJs watching reality TV while dinking around on their laptop, the vast majority are experiencing burnout because they are working above and beyond their allotted hours. The problem is, it can be difficult to identify how much remote workers are actually working because they might be starting and stopping more frequently than in-office workers—but then working non-traditional hours to compensate. Although their in-office counterparts don’t count socialization with their colleagues as off-the-clock time, remote workers are often hesitant to treat small personal tasks as embedded within their work day. While I’m certainly not condoning taking a bunch of personal time within the work day, I do think remote workers tend to lose a sense for how much they are actually working and so end up overworking by adding in a bunch of morning, night, and weekend hours.

To prevent this, it’s crucial that you know exactly how much you are working. I use a free timer through the website Toggl, which is great for designating which task you are working on so you can get a sense for how much time individual projects are taking. You can also produce reports to show clients if you need evidence of a project’s duration. But there are a variety of free options out there. When I started tracking all my time—down to the minute—I discovered that all those early morning and weekend hours were adding up faster than I realized, and so although I was afraid I wasn’t working 40 hours, I was actually spending 50+ hours a week strictly on job-related tasks. Tracking my time has helped combat that pesky remote work guilt I mentioned earlier and has kept me from teetering into a state of burnout.

3. Draw firm boundaries.

It is so difficult for family and friends to understand that when you’re working from home, the same respect needs to be paid to your time as if you were working in an office. Yes, it’s “easy” for you to do some meal prep, pick up a child from daycare, run an errand, or handle the calls your partner has been meaning to make but hasn’t been able to do from the office, but that doesn’t mean that it’s your responsibility. Your work time is your work time, and you should protect it by treating it like you’re in an office with standard job expectations.

If at the end of one of your 90-minute work cycles you opt to cross a chore off your personal to-do list, that’s your prerogative, but you should never feel pressured to handle household responsibilities yourself just because you have the more flexible work arrangement. If you get dragged into too many personal tasks, two things happen: first, you end up having to work odd hours to complete your projects, which increases the odds of burnout; and two, you are forced to start and stop your work more regularly than your natural productivity cycle would call for, preventing you from getting into a nice work flow and leaving you feeling harried and disconnected from your job.

4. Schedule regular face time.

To prevent yourself from feeling too isolated as a remote employee, you should plan a weekly call with a work colleague. Ideally, this call should take the form of a video session, so you can receive the benefits of enhanced connectivity and community that face time provides. (Another plus of using a video call is that it will force you to get ready for your work day, which will increase your productivity by making you feel more put together, motivated, and confident.) But if a video call isn’t an option, a phone call is better than nothing. By checking in once a week, you’ll be forced to record and report on your weekly tasks, which will enhance your productivity, and you’ll also reap the benefits that workplace socialization provides. You’ll experience enhanced job satisfaction because you’ll feel more of a connection to your work, a greater sense of commitment to your team, and the boosted mood that comes from phatic communication like small talk and light humor.

Work-life balance isn’t something that comes naturally; it takes planning, effort, and intentionality. With these four strategies, you’ll be less likely to experience burnout as a remote worker and more likely to enjoy the many benefits that come with working from home.

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