There is a growing body of opinion that suggests that remote workers are more likely to become depressed than their office working counterparts. But is this true and if so, what can we, as digital nomads, do to protect ourselves?
There is no strong correlation that remote work causes depression at this moment in time. The evidence that does exist is mainly anecdotal. However, it’s fair to say that remote working can lead to social isolation and that in turn, is proven to be linked to depression.
So, hold that thought and let’s look at what we can do to prevent remote work from making us depressed.
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What Are The Risks Associated With Remote Work That Might Lead To Depression?
From what we can tell there are a few things that might trigger depression or depression-related symptoms in someone who is remote working.
Before we get to those, we’d just like to emphasize the positive. In particular, research has shown that most remote workers are less stressed than their office-working colleagues.
Stress and depression are linked and thus this evidence suggests that most remote working individuals are getting a pleasant inoculation against depression rather than getting a one-way ticket to feeling terrible.
Now, about those risks:
Many digital nomads are solo travelers. They work by themselves and they travel by themselves. This is not a problem. There is nothing wrong with being alone. In fact, there’s a huge body of research that demonstrates that if you want to succeed in life – you ought to spend time alone with your own thoughts, something that our “always-on” lifestyle can often interfere with.
Being alone for long periods of time is not social isolation. Social isolation is where, for reasons beyond your ability to control, you find yourself not getting as much social interaction as you would choose to. For a more familiar word, this is not “being alone” but rather “loneliness”.
Perceived work pressure
One of the things about working by yourself is that if you’re quite conscientious then you can find yourself desperately trying to prove that you are “adding value” all the time when your clients or employers can’t see you.
I have fallen victim to this myself in the past. It leads to you working longer hours than necessary and marking yourself online more than you need to. It can also make it hard to separate work and real life. You can see that this is likely to lead to stress which as we’ve already said is linked to depression.
There’s nothing people love more in today’s day and age than to denounce their own privileges. As the digital nomad’s friends and family take special time out to tell them how lucky they are to be able to work remotely – it’s entirely possible that the remote worker starts feeling guilty about this.
They’re doing nothing wrong, of course, but the envy of their peers doesn’t make them feel good – it makes them anxious and unhappy. These feelings along with the guilt are definitely linked to depression.
A history of depression and/or anxiety
If you’ve already spent a period of time in your life depressed or anxious; it’s fair to say that you are at an increased risk of it happening again. This may or may not be linked to your remote work, it’s hard to separate work from who we are in our modern world.
It is, however, just worth acknowledging that whether or not it’s linked to the work – it’s still a risk factor that you may become depressed again in the future.
I can’t stress this enough: Social media is proven to damage the mental health of its users. Stamford University showed that even “power users” (those previously assumed to get huge benefits from social media due to extra large followings) don’t benefit from using social media.
There are two clear issues with social media; the first is our tendency to compare our lives to the imaginary lives that others illustrate on their social media (as people tend to select only the good bits of their lives to share – this comparison is unrealistic, the person you see still has problems – they’re just not sharing them).
The second is the deliberately addictive design of social media. It is designed to trigger dopamine releases in your brain for certain behavior. The trouble is that over time, it’s harder to get your “hit” and thus you may feel “bad” about it.
Both of these traits of social media may lead to depression. The jury’s still out on this but the evidence gets stronger day-by-day.
What Can You Do Counteract These Risks Of Depression As A Remote Worker?
The good news is that you can take positive steps to prevent yourself from becoming depressed by firstly, taking action against the individual risks and secondly, by taking more general actions that have been clinically demonstrated to lower the risk of becoming depressed.
Now, it’s important to note here: you can become depressed even if you do “everything right”. People are complicated and if you do feel depressed, the best action you can take is to talk to a medical professional. Don’t rely on the Internet to help you pull out of it.
The Four Most Important Things You Can Do To Try And Avoid Depression
- Eat well. That means a healthy, balanced diet. Being overweight is not, sadly for me and everyone else, “differently healthy” – it leads to both anxiety and depression and serious health problems later in life, too.
- Exercise regularly. 30 minutes a day and medium intensity. That is brisk walks or swimming, no need to run or go kickboxing (though you can if you want to). Regular exercise boosts your immune system, reduces inflammation and is positively correlated with not being depressed too.
- Sleep well. That is a minimum of 8 hours a day every day. You can get away without sleep for a while but after that, it has a hugely negative impact on your body and your mental health. I had insomnia for a month once, I was pretty much ready to die by the end of it. If you can’t sleep for a long period of time, seek medical help.
- Make connections. We’re social creatures. You may prefer your own company, but you need the company of others too. No excuses and yes, this may mean that in some parts of the world that you’ll need to get right outside of your comfort zone. There is no huge community of vegan runners waiting for you in Battambang, Cambodia for example – you’ll just have to go to the pub like everyone else. You can always drink water. This also combats social isolation, obviously.
Tackling the other stuff
- Perceived work pressure. Talk your concerns through with your management and your peers. Clarify what you need to do to show people you’re taking things seriously and achieving then give yourself permission to do that and switch off when you have. Unless you have been underachieving, most work pressure is self-inflicted, and you can un-inflict it too.
- Possible guilt. You can’t get rid of guilt easily, but you can try meditating which can help you see emotions for what they are and move past them. You could also try, if you’re the religious sort, seeking external forgiveness for it. Alternatively, forgive yourself and then point out to others that you’re not “lucky”, you worked to get where you are and if they wanted what you have, they could work for it too.
- Social media. Switch it off and where possible delete your accounts. Go out and enjoy the people in the places you travel to. There’s something a little sad about the number of digital nomads who seem to actively avoid participating in a new culture or seeing any of its highlights. Cheap beer and good times are nice but the chance to broaden your horizons is the real perk of travel; why waste it?
There is no proven link between remote work and depression. However, there are anecdotal claims of such a link and the truth is that digital nomads certainly aren’t immune from becoming depressed. The advice above is drawn from the latest research on the subject of depression which is prone to change at any moment in time.
The best advice of all is that if you feel depressed – seek medical advice. If you feel suicidal – talk to The Samaritans immediately. You’re always important to the world even if you feel that you are not.