Work From Home Works Until You Need Time Off

wildpixel/istockphoto.com

How do we “take a day to stay home” when we’re already doing everything from home?

The change started about a year ago. I had just finished cooking my Thanksgiving turkey. I’d picked up smoking meats as a hobby during the first year of the pandemic, but that day, I couldn’t really taste much. Later that night, I wasn’t able to smell anything. Soon I was quarantined in a room in our house. For 11 days my wonderful, patient wife would bring bottles of Pedialyte to my door. I was scared. I was in pain. My internal temperature oscillated between freezing cold and boiling hot. My brain felt like it was bouncing around in my skull. And yet, I grabbed my laptop with the urge to work.

I timidly emailed clients to let them know that I had COVID-19 and would “be up and running in a few days,” asking them to be patient with me. I was terrified to dial back my workload even a little. I had acted this way ever since I started my own remote business in 2012. Thanks to two customers who had been particularly cruel to me—one screaming at me for my brief absence during a product announcement because of a surgery, and another for missing a single meeting after a car crash—I’d long ago decided that being sick was an insufficient excuse to not work. After all, it was so easy to just open the laptop and keep typing.

[Derek Thompson: Winners and losers of the work-from-home revolution]

I expected my clients—even in the midst of the pandemic—to respond with disgust when I told them I needed to slow down. Instead, I received numerous emails telling me not to worry, and that their business would be there when I got back. I delegated tasks to some of my team, apologizing profusely, to which they said that I should go back to bed. This is the same way that I treat my employees when they’re sick, telling them to get off Slack and sending nice but firm reminders to rest when they answer work emails. But I have long struggled to internalize these same messages. Before the onset of the pandemic, I had, in the space of eight years, taken a pathetic 35 vacation days, or just more than four days a year, excluding weekends but including sick days.

Contracting COVID-19 was a turning point in two specific ways:

  • Try as I might, my body was simply not interested in putting in a real workday. Whether I wanted to or not, I could not power through.
  • This was the first time in my life (thankfully!) when I had a reason big and meaningful enough that nobody on this Earth would question whether I needed time off.

For similar reasons, I’d never really considered the idea of burnout until the end of last year. I didn’t realize how the accumulation of mental stress could affect me, because I didn’t perceive my stress as real. I refused to see that I’d taken on way too much. I told myself I was lucky to work from home, to work out from home, to write a newsletter five times a week, and I thus did everything I could to fill every minute of my working day. I eventually hit a wall when I found myself apologizing to random Twitter users for not publishing a free newsletter, and forgetting to do things that were otherwise elementary to me. I was burned-out emotionally and mentally, which eventually translated to physical burnout, which eventually stopped me from exercising, which made me feel bad.

In time, my wife said: “Hey, maybe you’re burned out.” She insisted that we take a trip. I agonized over the days I’d spend away from work, idiotically worrying that my company would collapse, and she said that it would be fine if it did, that we would survive, and that she loved me. Although this wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear, it was definitely what I needed to hear. Despite how “easy” it may be to log on and start typing while on vacation, that was still work, and although the actions of work may feel easy to do because you don’t go to an office, they still exhaust you. As with taking time off to deal with COVID, taking an actual vacation somehow did not bring the world to a stop.

[Read: Only your boss can cure your burnout]

Over the years, I have felt privileged to run my company from home, and have powered through numerous colds, sicknesses, and varying levels of burnout, likely exacerbating and prolonging my suffering because of my own stubbornness. I told myself that I didn’t work in a factory, I didn’t have to be on my feet all day, and I was being a lazy ass if I complained. But COVID and my wife’s intervention made me realize that the flexibility of working from home—something I continue to evangelize—was starting to feel like a productivity trap.

We need a solution for the intrinsic tension that exists in both the beginning and end of our workday, and the murky terms under which you “can” be sick or burned out. It’s hard to articulate what a remote worker does when they’re sick. You’re not really “staying home” when you already usually work from home, and if work is right there, you have to stop scratching the itch that says It’s just one email. It won’t take long. (To be sure, this is a problem that also applies to working in an office; before launching my own company, I’d get endless requests on my work email—connected to my smartphone or personal laptop—and still found myself checking on work stuff all hours of the day.)

Physical sickness is one thing, but, as a worker problem, burnout is significantly more insidious. I’ve previously written about how it isn’t simply a case of being tired, but the result of feeling overloaded, helpless, and hopeless. It isn’t just too much work, but the sense that it will never end, that you will never get relief. Americans view burnout as a problem that’s fixed by the boss but blamed on the worker. Companies love to tell workers to practice “self-care,” or to meditate, or to “take some time off” rather than evaluate what’s causing them to burn out in the first place. In my case, I am the cause of my own burnout, because I have chosen to put the largest burdens of the business on myself and I control the flow of work to other people. I remind myself that the boss, not the worker, controls working conditions, hours, responsibility for failures, accolades for successes, and so on—these are all factors that contribute to burnout, and companies have tried to obfuscate their direct role. In response, many white-collar workers in industries such as media and entertainment are staging union drives, for both higher salaries and better working conditions.

[Ed Zitron: Why managers fear a remote-work future]

Earlier this year the dating app Bumble gave employees a week of paid vacation to “deal with burnout.” This is a lovely idea, and, taken at face value, it’s a generous olive branch. But the plan has one fatal flaw: By having everybody off at the same time, you’re just delaying work that needs to be done, rather than relieving people of work. With this approach, an employee’s burnout won’t be solved, because you, the boss, are not solving it; you’re simply putting it off, which is how a lot of corporations seem to deal with their workers’ problems in general. If companies want to stop burning out their employees, they need to mandate when the workday begins and ends, and make clear that there is no punishment for “missing” an email outside of working hours. Nobody should be hearing the nasty little pop notification from Slack after dinner, and nobody should be sending, unless absolutely necessary, a single email outside of those hours, especially on weekends. When I say this, I do not mean that someone can send an email on Sunday disclaiming, “You can reply to this Monday”; I mean “do not send weekend emails or messages at all,” because it is anxiety-inducing to know that something is there you can’t do anything with, or that you feel compelled to respond to.

The problems I’m highlighting aren’t really inherent to remote work but exacerbated by it. My first boss in PR—back in 2008, when I worked in an office!—would send noxious emails at all hours of the day. Old-school management culture may want us back in the physical office, if only to keep tabs on what we’re doing. Even though we appear to be coming out of the worst of the pandemic, bosses will still bug you with emails when you’re on vacation, or text you with a “quick question” that “will just take a few minutes.”

Companies would be smart to reconsider standard working hours, and to apply parameters rigidly. Remote workers are putting in longer hours in part because it’s that much harder to stop—you’re already home, you don’t need to commute, and so on—and because management has been taking liberties with digital communication, as it has for years. Research shows that we naturally overestimate the expected urgency of our responses, and thus we’re going to want to respond to things as we receive them. The idea that we could get an after-hours email is enough to give us what the Virginia Tech researcher William Becker calls anticipatory stress—that in order to excel at our job, we must always be ready to read and respond to a work email. Again: This is not a worker problem; it’s an organizational issue that can change the moment a boss wants it to change.

In my case, I’m the one who sets policies and boundaries, and although I might be generous and careful with my expectations of others, I’m still learning to set them for myself. My workday may end at 5 p.m., but I still find myself checking emails many hours after that, ever ready for something to happen to prove my anxiety right—that if I look away for two seconds, everything will fall apart. But I’m slowly learning that a few hours, or a day, or even a week away won’t bring the world to an end, and that those emails will be waiting for me when I’m done relaxing.

This article was originally published in The Atlantic. Sign up for its newsletter.

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.