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19% of remote workers say loneliness is their biggest struggle
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The last thing on my mind when I left my editor job at a magazine to become a freelance writer was that I’d feel lonely.
At the time, I was consumed with excitement (and fear) about being my own boss. More paramount were big-picture items, like finances and how to structure my workday. But one year in, loneliness has proved an unexpected challenge, and it comes in waves. While I love the solitude that comes with working from home solo, without a built-in social structure I often find myself missing the minute details of my former office life: grabbing morning coffee with my work wife, the background buzz of cubicle conversation, and yes, even the meetings.
I’m not alone: A recent report on the state of remote work showed 19 percent of survey-takers chose loneliness as their biggest struggle with working remotely (second to unplugging after work). Additional research suggests that younger generations are the loneliest, and those who work more than desired tend to feel lonelier. I, for one, can certainly attest to overextending myself in order to feel like I’m working “enough,” and the tendency to overwork is a common one. Yet, we can’t look at the loneliness of remote work in a vacuum. It can stem from social isolation, or be a symptom of (or a way to cope with) stress, depression, anxiety, fear, and even burnout.
“We can work at home and not be lonely, but there's a negative spiral that's happening for so many of us who do this more isolating type of work,” says Shelley Prevost, a psychologist and life coach.
Funlola Coker, 31, a jewelry maker in Memphis who works from home, says she’s an introvert and not inclined to tune in if she’s lonely. More pressing for her are other freelancing gripes, like earning enough to sustain herself while not burning out from self-promotion. “I love working by myself, but I know that for my brain to stay healthy, I should see other people,” she tells Supermaker. Traveling has helped Coker get out of this rut and offset social isolation and loneliness on her terms. Last year, for instance, she went to New York City Jewelry Week, took a friend’s knife-making workshop in Montreal, and attended craft schools in Maine and North Carolina. “It's good to get exposure and experience from other people's stories,” Coker says.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University who studies loneliness and its health impact, says, “Some research shows that introverts are at greater risk for isolation and loneliness. Loneliness is the discrepancy between one's actual and desired level of connection. That desired level may differ, but any discrepancy is still going to result in loneliness.”
But loneliness proved to be more omnipresent for freelance journalist, Sara Radin, since she started working for herself in the spring of 2018. “It took a lot of time to understand the lifestyle of a freelancer and how to maintain my wellbeing and creativity,” says Radin, 30, who writes about culture and mental health, and her experience with anxiety and depression.
Soon after going freelance, she joined The Wing, a women-focused co-working space and social club. Having previously worked as an editor in an office, Radin says being part of that community—and meeting other freelancers who’ve experienced the same highs and lows—has helped her feel less alone. “It was scary to invest money in belonging to a space so early on,” Radin says, “but just having somewhere to go and interact with people—from ordering coffee to running into someone in the bathroom line—and being around other people doing inspiring things [has] inspired me in my own work.”
Holt-Lunstad’s and other research points to the increased health risks of social isolation and loneliness across generations, like inflammation, heart disease (and even premature mortality), as well as the protective effect of social connection. By simply being around other people, Prevost says, “All these good neurochemicals are released. We are a tribal, social species.”
For Arshia Mufti, 23, a remote infrastructure software engineer at Stripe, the distance between herself and her coworkers exacerbates her loneliness. Mufti, who’s originally from Kashmir, works from Toronto, Canada even though her team is based over 2,000 miles way in Seattle. She says the process for getting a U.S. work visa would have likely presented challenges, and she prefers to live in Canada, where family is also nearby. “It’s a professional loneliness because it’s just me in my city from my team,” she says.
Mufti rents a coworking space, but sometimes there’s no substitute for the loneliness—say if she’s having trouble with code or if her team goes for lunch. “Sometimes you just need someone physically around you to be like, here's how you fix this,” she says.
With her manager’s help, though, Mufti has introduced norms from another remote team she worked on—like scheduling video chats with her coworkers to talk about things other than work and having morning Slack check-ins. These small changes plus informal gestures, like her team sending her pastries for Thanksgiving, have helped to make her feel more connected. “It's been an exercise in building empathy and talking about my experience,” Mufti says.
Prevost encourages remote workers to invest in existing personal relationships and find community, do inner work to identify their values and strengths, and then welcome risky experimentation. And yet, cautions Prevost, the antidote isn’t always just to go be with people. “You're not always in control of your day, and that’s really loud when you're by yourself in your house,” Prevost says. “It's like: what choice do I have right now? Do I need to talk to somebody? Do I need to do something physically for myself? There are other needs that might be bubbling up.”
Ultimately, remedies for loneliness will look different from one remote worker to the next (I’m still figuring it out, embracing the feelings, and facing them head-on as they come). And whether it’s joining a professional network, a co-working space, or connecting with other remote workers to brainstorm ideas, Holt-Lunstad says there’s evidence that suggests having a diversity of relationships and social roles is good for our health and can also fulfill many of our different needs and goals. “You might have to be the one to initiate, and that can be hard,” Holt-Lunstad says. “But it also has the potential to be incredibly rewarding and benefit others in your same situation.”
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