Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Lucia Ziyuan. Her opinions are her own.
Back in 2013 I was busy keeping my head down at my first job right after college. One hour or more commute to work was the norm, and a lunch break longer than 30 minutes was not accepted. When my coworker negotiated to telecommute due to her new-born son, I thought the only way to escape the 9-to-5 routine was to settle down and have kids.
Fast forward to 2019, the idea of the daily commute is now alien to me. I’ve been working remotely for 3+ years now. And I’m not an exception – remote work is here to stay. Most recently, IBM caused a huge public backlash when the firm started calling thousands of its remote employee back into the office. What did we learn from Yahoo’s failed attempt to force employees to be “physically together” back in 2013? Knowledge workers demand autonomy and flexibility. Remote working fits the bill.
In a 2019 “State of Remote Work” report, 99% of all respondents said they would like to work remotely at least for some time, listing “flexible schedule” as the top benefit. Remote is no longer a temporary solution for new moms, but rather a viable career path with competitive pay.
But the flexibility to work anytime and anywhere we like has its downsides. In my case, the lack of self-care when I worked on my laptop all day while traveling to remote places led to chronic lower back pain. I’ve learned my lessons since then, and hoping to share my two cents on self-care so you can enjoy a lasting remote career.
Potential Health Risks For Remote Working
We’ve all heard about the perks of remote working: flexible work schedule, less commute, reduced stress, and fewer disruptions, to name a few. Remembering that colleague who always pokes his head into your cubicle without an invitation? That is not going to happen when you can build your work environment to avoid interruptions.
But freedom has a price. The ability to choose wherever you work from also means settling for places that aren’t built for work. The freedom to focus without interruption could lead to isolation. And working with multiple timezones could mean serious struggles to unplug after work.
Here are a few health issues I faced after 3 years of traveling and working remotely:
Risk #1 – Poor Posture Problems
Working between my dining table and my bed is comfy at its best but detrimental to spinal health at its worst. Laptops are designed to supplement desktop computers for no more than 2 hours at a time. Research shows that prolonged use of laptop can contribute to pain and discomfort, as well as lower productivity.
Many remote workers work from coffee shops with tables and chairs poorly designed for ergonomics. Even coworking spaces often lack ergonomic furniture. Collectively, they spend less than 10% of their expenses on equipment, according to this 2017 global survey.
As many remote workers start to travel and work from exotic places, spinal health issues become even worse. I’ve seen many Instagram shots of “Digital Nomads” working from the beach, and it deeply worries me. I’ve worked from my laptop on a sunbed by a pool, and it was far from comfortable.
It’s crucial to work from workstations that are set up with ergonomic furniture and computer accessories. If you are unable to commit to a desktop computer, at least try to get a laptop stand for better spinal alignment. The top line of your screen should be at or just below eye level, and it’s best advised to position your screen 18-24 inches away from your face.
Risk #2 – Inconsistent Sleep Schedule
In my first year of remote work, I was living in Bali while working on a SaaS product with a team located in Maryland. While the benefit of cross-border work was exciting, I started to notice how badly the late night work calls affected my sleep schedule.
I would stay up until 11pm and wait online for my colleague to wake up to my Slack messages. Little did I know that exposure to the blue light emitted from device screens affect our ability to fall asleep. To make things worse, the work conversations and unresolved matters lingered in my head, making it impossible to wind down when it’s sleepy time.
On top of the multiple timezones, traveling makes a consistent sleep schedule even more complicated. Since a lot of remote workers start to take advantage of their location independence, many of them start to combine work and travel. One could practically be traveling full-time, as long as they always find reliable WiFi to get back to work.
The sacrifice though is an inconsistent sleep cycle due to change of timezones. According to this research article on webMD, disruption of your routine sleep can increase risks for diabetes and heart disease. Similar to social jetlag that leaves you feeling grumpy and mildly depressed after a night out about town, long-term jet lag from traveling can lead to reduced memory and cognition.
Risk #3 – Lack of Breaks from the Desk
The sedentary position is probably the most common occupational disease of our time. The most popular remote jobs such as programming and customer support are desk-bound jobs that involve all-day sitting. In traditional offices, meetings and in-person interactions naturally pull you away from the desk. In comparison, a remote setup makes it a lot harder to take breaks.
In my case, I struggled very hard to break extend inactivity until it got too bad. This is a widespread health concern. I’ve met many developers who have suffered life-damaging conditions due to the sedentary lifestyle. Some of them even had to go through surgery. The physical damage is just the tip of the iceberg. Medical research such as this one has shown a strong linkage between inactivity and higher blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, etc.
Even light exercises that break up the workday can make a huge difference. Since I discover the benefits of wearables such as their ability to remind me to move, I now wear a Fitbit tracker that alerts me to take 250 steps every hour. There are plenty of free stretch reminder apps to download too. The key is to make it a priority to take breaks, even when you are in the thick of something.
Risk #4 – Mental Health from Isolation
Let’s face it – remote work is not for those who love the water cooler chitchat. Most of the time, we are alone in our home office or shared coworking without any teammates sitting next to us.
Todoist, one of the most successful remote companies out there, openly talks about mental health risks for remote work. In one tweet, the company’s COO shares that “For ten years I fought depression despite living the life I always wanted traveling the world”.
In another post by a remote developer Benjamin, he shared the dark side of remote: he was barely leaving his apartment. He stopped dragging himself to go to workshops and meetups. Other than his spouse, he would go on for days without having any meaningful human interaction.
Essential Self-care Tips for Remote Working
The definition of “health” according to the World Health Organization is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
While the exact meaning of “well-being” can be subjective, it is important to note the three aspects of health are equally important. One could be physically fit and unhealthy if he/she doesn’t take care of the mental side of health.
Below are some of the strategies that helped me to reclaim my holistic health with simple steps:
Tip #1 – Schedule Regular Breaks Away from the Desk
I learned to listen to my Fitbit “reminders to move” that goes off every hour. The break is not only beneficial for physical health but also can serve as an inspirational walk. Now that I live in sunny Lisbon, I take the chance to step outside and soak up on the sunshine whenever I get a chance.
Tip #2 – Carve Out Small Spaces for Physical Exercise
Exercise doesn’t have to entail hitting the gym or running a marathon. It can be a quick at-home workout in your pyjamas. Invest in a yoga mat, and stretch often. I’ve taken up pilates which can be easily done in a tiny living quarter. 15 minute a day is all you need to stay active.
Tip #3 – Stick to a Consistent Sleep Schedule
My circadian rhythm was all over the place when I was working multiple timezones and traveling at the same time. It’s hard work to stick to the same sleep schedule when you don’t have a fixed work routine. You need to be fully committed to your own well-being. There are small steps you take to improve sleep include limiting caffeine intake and avoiding long naps.
Tip #4 – Get Out of your Home Office and Socialize
Building a social life for remote workers involves socializing outside of work. It can be very beneficial to commit to a coworking space and immerse yourself in the community. You can also meet friends at local meetups, social events, and learning opportunities. It is hard work but will pay off in the ned.
Tip #5 – Build A Virtual Support Network
Last but not least, the internet is a magical place to make great connections happen! You can reach out to like-minded people online or even join a virtual community where you can feel safe to open up. There are lots of forums, Slack groups and Facebook groups where other remote workers hangout no matter where they live in the world.
Remote working has its limitations, but all in all, the new way of working has more pros than cons. I hope my insights can help you better prepared for a remote career that can last not just years, but a lifetime.