What Most Remote Companies Don’t Tell You About Remote Work

Isolation, anxiety, and depression in the remote workplace and what we’re doing about it

mental health and remote work
Illustration by Yin Weihung

Articles about the remote work lifestyle have tended to focus on drinking piña coladas on the beach, traveling the world, and otherwise enjoying a life that inspires envy in your social media following.This is not one of those articles.

To be everywhere is to be nowhere

everywhere nowhere quote

When I was 23 years old, I broke up with my girlfriend, sold or gave away most of my stuff, packed a single suitcase, and booked a one-way ticket from Denmark to Taiwan. I was living a traveler’s dream with no strings attached. At the time, I had no idea that this would be the start of the unhappiest period of my life.

For the record, ending a long-term relationship and moving away from family, friends, and any other meaningful human connections you might have in the world is a terrible idea. Couple that with a non-existent work-life balance, and you have an excellent recipe for misery.

Loneliness isn’t something that many traveling remote workers write about.You won’t see it in their Instagram stories, but I guarantee you they’ve felt it.When you travel for extended periods of time, you lose your social circle, your sense of belonging, and the everyday routines that keep you grounded and healthy.

You also quickly discover that meeting new people is easy, but making new friends — real friends — is hard, especially if you’re starting from zero.

It’s ok to prioritize friendships, community, and your mental health over traveling.

I lived in Taiwan for about a year before I returned to Europe. I learned some hard lessons as I went through a cocktail of depression, anxiety, insomnia, and loneliness. It took me a few years to fully recover from that experience.

There are people out there who love the travel-and-work lifestyle, but for many it’s nothing like social media would lead you to believe. As humans, we need real friends, loved ones, and a place where we belong. Extensive research shows that people with strong social ties live longerhealthierhappier lives. No matter what Airbnb might tell you, you cannot “belong anywhere” instantly. Community takes time to build — there are no shortcuts.

Doist is a remote-first company. That means people can work from anywhere in the world as long as they have an internet connection. Yet 95%+ of Doisters aren’t nomads. Most people choose to put down roots in smaller cities surrounded by their friends and family. The beauty of remote work lies in the ability to optimize your location for your well-being.

Remote workers shouldn’t feel like they have to travel to lead interesting, fulfilled lives. It’s ok to prioritize friendships, community, and your mental health over traveling. It may not look as glamorous on Instagram, but you may end up a lot happier for it.

The trappings of working from home

The obvious alternative to traveling the world while working, is working from home. But that can be equally isolating in its own way.

I’ve never worked from a real office or even had a “real” job. I co-founded my first company remotely, and I’ve always had a hard time separating life and work. Initially at University, I worked from my dorm room. Living with fifteen other students meant that social interaction was just a door knock away — balance was built right in. I would do my university work or make progress on side projects, and when I stepped out of my dorm room, I would play Sensible Soccer on an old Amiga or drink a beer with a dorm mate or join in on whatever people happened to be doing.

At some point, I started earning enough money to afford my own apartment. As an introverted programmer who values silence and focus, I thought living alone would be a better setup for me. It didn’t take long for me to discover how wrong I was.

Living by yourself is hard, especially when you’re young. Most days I spent just working. Even though I knew I should create boundaries for my work, I just couldn’t seem to do it — there was always more stuff to get done. As a result, I started a terrible habit (non-habit?) of not making an effort to go out and see friends.

When you work from home, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and spiral downward.

Over a period of months, the constant work and social isolation slowly got to me. I started having bad days — feeling down and anxious — more and more, until the bad days outnumbered the good ones. Some days I would go to bed 3am, others I would sleep until 2pm. My productivity suffered which only made me feel more anxious and depressed. My mood was completely unstable. I tried to create routines and boundaries between life and work at home — getting up at the same time, stopping work at a specific time, taking more breaks throughout the day — but none of my solutions lasted for very long.

It got to the point where I realized I had to make drastic changes for the sake of my mental health, so I rented an office close to the university. Yes, I was still just working by myself in a different place. And yes, it cost more than just working from home and added a commute into my day. But it was worth every penny and minute. I needed that hard physical separation between work and the rest of my life. Work had a definite start and end time. Getting out of my apartment made me more social again as I would do lunches, dinners, or sports with friends while I was already out. Slowly the good days started coming back. I began showing up to work with energy again. Stressors became easier to handle.

Knowing the things that make you happy, healthy, and productive is very different from actually doing them. When you work from home, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and spiral downward. There’s no concrete start and end time to structure your day around. There are no coworkers to get you out of your own head. It’s hard to know when you’ve accomplished enough to feel satisfied. It’s tempting to tack on extra hours today that you’ll pay for in fatigue and burnout tomorrow.

Why remote companies need to openly acknowledge the mental health challenges of remote work

My story isn’t unique among remote workers. 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 spiral that’s hard to see the way out of.

Most of us at Doist work from home and find ways to strike a healthy balance. Doing both is possible. My point isn’t that every remote worker needs to stop traveling and go out and rent an office space. It’s that 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 — ignoring your mental wellbeing and defaulting to an unhealthy situation with zero work boundaries or social interaction.

In 2016 I was on the Reboot Podcast talking about Embracing Both Sides of Yourself — the ambitious side that’s never satisfied with the way that things are and the human side that wants to be content and happy. After the interview, I decided to join one of their CEO Bootcamp leadership retreats.

The experience opened my eyes to the internal struggles that even very successful people face. I discovered that I have my own issues that I need to resolve to be a better leader, husband, father, friend, and person. You don’t have to be clinically depressed or anxious to struggle with depression and anxiety. Everyone has issues. But can we talk openly about them? Can we get the help and support we need to address them? In too many cases, the answer to both of those questions is no.

When you don’t see your coworkers in person every day, it’s easy to assume that everything is ok when it’s not.

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 talk about remote work as the 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 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.
sick day mental health
Mental health is as important s physical health.
  • 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.
A daily reminder that mental health is important.
  • Lucile and Andrew have recently spearheaded a Mental Health Monthly initiative where they post on a new mental health topic each month.

It’s up to leaders to set the tone of an organization – including how mental health issues are approached. Our online handbook, Leading Distributed: The Remote Guide to Management, dives into how managers can create a balanced environment for their team, including mindful communication and encouraging time off.

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 makes 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.

I’d love your take on this. How do you prioritize mental health while working remotely? What things do your companies do to help? Reach out to me with questions or comments below.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that digital nomad and serial entrepreneur Pieter Levels had settled down in a home base of Amsterdam. He assures us that is “fake news” and he continues to travel as always. You can read about his experiences traveling the world while building businesses here.