Work-Life Strategies & Solutions

On the Evolution of Work Systems in the Digital Economy

Things To Watch Out For While Working Remotely: Addressing Burnout with Nermin Hajdarbegovic [Abridged]

Submitted by Irene Papuc of Toptal

Authored by Nermin Hajdarbegovic, Technical Editor at Toptal

This abridged version was edited by Lynn Patra

TopTal has published numerous lifestyle posts encouraging people to give working remotely, or even the nomadic lifestyle, a try. We are a distributed team whose day-to-day operations involve much online communication between people in different time zones, working from home offices, co-working spaces, or holiday spots. We’re proof that remote work, for lack of a better word, works.

Researchers find that most remote workers are more productive than their office counterparts. Remote workers have fewer distractions, more flexible working hours, and less time commuting and preparing for work. No traffic jams, no office drama, and at face value, less stress. However, they are prone to burnout.

Years ago, a clever ad for a savings scheme for young families showed toddlers playing at home with a simple, true caption: The job they will be doing when they grow up hasn’t been invented yet. At the time, I dabbled in 3D graphics, a concept I didn’t try explaining to my parents who were born in the 1940s. I was born when computers were emerging in homes and offices, and when space flight was routine (until the Challenger disaster). My dad was born before the advent of the first digital computer, when the only objects piercing our stratosphere were V2s raining down on London and Antwerp.

The world around us was not created by my generation but, rather, theirs. Remote work felt odd when I tried it in 2007. Much seemed missing, and many thought I was weird for not taking an office job, suit and tie included. It still feels weird occasionally, but it’s not because of the infrastructure or the work. It’s due how I organise my time and daily routine, and it’s due to the human psyche.

Remote jobs are beneficial but, depending on your character, can also have unpleasant side-effects: stress, burnout, anxiety, caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, etc. – remote working’s dark side.

I don’t have medical training, so here’s some experience-based advice: If you need help, reach out to colleagues, friends, and your doctor.

Let’s examine what makes remote workers prone to burnout, and why it matters.

Home Is Where The Broadband Is

Remote workers can turn almost any spot into an office. Whether taking conference calls in a parked car or beach café, we can make it work. Our office is in the cloud, not in dad’s office building.

What’s attractive about working remotely is you can work while traveling, visiting parents, skiing, island-hopping in the Aegean and Adriatic, or in your pajamas at home. Sounds stress-free, right? Wrong.

Remote jobs coupled with a nomadic lifestyle can be just as stressful as 9-to-5 office jobs

Remote jobs coupled with a nomadic lifestyle can be as stressful as 9-to-5 office jobs.

For nomads, travel can be stressful without the added burden of working at airport terminals. Nice scenery and picturesque cities are alluring but distracting. However, the mind can adapt to almost anything. The buzz from seeing a new place may fade, but travel-induced stress may not.

Unlike hard-core nomads, people extending holidays by a few weeks have a home to return to. After years on the road, eventually you’ll detach from old friends and lose the familiarity and certainty of home. You can turn any place into your home, but eventually you won’t feel at home anywhere.

Social support is important. Independence is relaxing if you don’t overdo it. Eventually, many settle down, start families, and play with offspring – those bundles of joy that will apply for the jobs we invent today.

Isn’t remote work beneficial? What could go wrong?

Burned Out And Bummed Out

Recall how remote workers are more productive than their office counterparts? There is a cost to extra productivity. Remote workers don’t chat with co-workers at the water-cooler, go to lunch with colleagues, or go for beer or wine together after work.

Workplace bonding is good. I met many close friends through work, which is almost impossible on a remote gig. Office chitchat enforces breaks and interactions with others.

So, there is no commute, office gossip, coffee or lunch breaks with teammates, and almost no human interaction. This could be disastrous for those prone to burnout. You might push yourself harder than you should and, since nobody’s around to notice you need a break, you might not figure it out until too late. It happened to me. I spent three years in a war-zone but experienced burnout in my cosy home office.

Collaboration technology enables efficient, productive remote teams, but the human body is the weakest link in a distributed workforce infrastructure. Routers, servers, fiber-optic cables, processors, and RAM don’t experience burnout. People do.

90-hour weeks aren’t just a part of 1980s tech folklore. They are very real for many developers

90-hour weeks aren’t just part of 1980s tech folklore. They are real for many developers.

Ambitious freelancers, which most Toptal members are, can be too dedicated. They want to prove themselves, be more productive than the next guy, and achieve excellence. They rack up man-hours like there’s no tomorrow. Industry culture somewhat encourages this. Cool-headed, experienced professionals have broken down halfway through a project because they pushed themselves too hard and developed health problems.

You can bounce back from damaging your professional or private life. If you damage your health, it’s harder, sometimes impossible to. If you don’t care about health, you risk destroying your career and personal life in one blow.

My close friend ditched his job three years ago and started a healthy lifestyle. He was a consultant for a major tech firm but, as a workaholic, the six-figure job took a toll on his health. He gained a lot of weight, stopped exercising, and started smoking (again).

One day, we hit the slopes for some morning skiing, just like the good old days. Glancing at the cloudless winter sky, crisscrossed by shimmering contrails, he said, “There’s gotta be a consultant like me on one of those planes, heading to a new job. Boy, am I glad I’m not that poor bastard!”

Over the next two years, he lost weight (about 35kg/70lbs), dropped unhealthy habits, and sharpened his professional skills. Earlier this year, he got a better gig. The two-year hiatus worked. He saved his health and is better off professionally and financially.

Burnout Symptoms

That may sound drastic, however even a two-week hiatus can make a difference provided you catch burnout symptoms early.

Burnout affects your whole body. Remote workers can easily overlook many early symptoms.

Burnout affects your whole body. Remote workers can easily overlook many early symptoms.

Burnout symptoms:

  • Anxiety and depression
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Anger and irritability
  • Various physical symptoms – e.g., indigestion, headaches, heart palpitations
  • Lack of motivation, degraded job performance
  • Cognitive issues, inability to focus, forgetfulness

This is not a checklist. You don’t need to exhibit all these symptoms to qualify. For example, my burnout symptoms included anxiety, fatigue, heart palpitations, and inability to focus. I’ve always been an irritable person however.

I am not a doctor, so if you suspect burnout, perform research, take an interactive test or two, and consult your physician. After all, this is a tech blog, not a health blog.

Early recognition of symptoms is important.

Simply put, the longer you’ve been in this condition, the longer it takes to recover. The problem with remote workers, myself included, is most work alone. We don’t notice what’s wrong and work longer than office workers. For example, I was anxious about driving for months before noticing what was wrong, a much bigger problem if I had to commute. I might have caught and addressed the symptoms sooner though. Failing to act on early symptoms worsened it.

Remote workers are more prone to burnout than their office counterparts for a number of reasons

Remote workers are more prone to burnout than their office counterparts for numerous reasons.

Another issue for freelancers is jumping from project to project, client to client, over months. In this case, most communication involves people who are unfamiliar with their personality. After spending five years sharing an office with people, they’ll probably spot your burnout symptoms before you do. If your work involves remote clients, they will not get to know you well enough. Digital nomads and offsite consultants have it worse due to more social isolation.

What Can Remote Workers Do?

The Internet contains good and not-so-good information on tackling burnout. The good information includes: take a break, work less, exercise more, and eat healthily.

Just because you haven’t experienced burnout doesn’t mean you won’t. Sure, you can work 12- to 14-hour days and weekends. I did. But you can’t do it forever. That’s how burnout got its name.

If you are aware of the risks, look out for symptoms. As mentioned, this can be more challenging for remote workers than office folk.

Prevention is best practice. Warnings like these years ago would have saved me trouble as well as visits to the doctor’s office and emergency room. Hubris landed me there, and I hope my experience keeps you out.

The best way of combatting burnout? Be informed and take steps to prevent it altogether

The best way of combating burnout? Be informed and take steps to prevent it.

To prevent burnout:

  • Don’t put your social life on the backburner
  • Take breaks
  • Exercise
  • Create a workable routine
  • Prioritise your work and your life
  • Take quality time off
  • Don’t be overconfident
  • Be careful with caffeine, sugar, booze

Social lives are a starting point. Ensure work does not interfere with social activities.

We spend hours glued to computers, so physical activities are important. Go out for breakfast or coffee, take walks, or do housekeeping.

Exercise. You don’t have to hit the gym every other day, but you must walk a lot to compensate for your sedentary lifestyle. Exercise helps keep stress and anxiety at bay.

Establish a routine that works for you and that you can stick to. Restrict most, or all, work to hours when you’re productive. Consider less efficient habits. When going to lunch, don’t restrict yourself to places minutes away from your home or office; take the long route, create errands that take you outdoors and take your mind off work.

Quality time means setting clear boundaries. For some, it’s no work after a certain time of day, while others don’t work during weekends. Our office is anywhere we want it to be, but we don’t always have to be in it.

Overconfidence and biting off more than you can chew is a bad idea. As mentioned, hubris was responsible for my burnout. I thought I could handle everything until I was hospitalized. Be reasonable and take it easy.

Eating healthily. An often overlooked problem involves stimulants, ranging from your morning coffee to your nightcap. Many stressed-out freelancers are hooked on caffeine, alcohol, and over-the-counter medications.

What To Avoid

Caffeine over-consumption causes problems. I don’t suggest you stop drinking your morning coffee, but if you drink a lot of caffeinated beverages, consider slowing down.

Caffeine can worsen anxiety, damage your digestive system, increase sweating, urination, etc. Energy drinks contain loads of caffeine and sugar, both of which can have side-effects when combined with stress. Spicing your morning coffee with a cigarette is especially bad. Remember, for every cigarette you smoke, God takes a minute of your life and gives it to Keith Richards.

How about a beer or two after work? There is nothing wrong with a couple of beers or glasses of wine, especially if you get good stuff and enjoy with a nice meal. However, if you are stressed and burning out, alcohol may mask burnout symptoms and lull you into a sense of well-being.

A lot of things can help you prevent and overcome burnout, but even more things can make it worse

There are ways to prevent and overcome burnout, but there are many more ways to worsen it.

Don’t misuse over-the-counter medications either.  Consult an expert in case of underlying conditions.

When stressed, don’t abuse alcohol or prescription medications as this worsens your condition in the long run. If you are considering getting some recently legalised herbs, think again. This can cause withdrawal symptoms if you are suffering from burnout, anxiety, depression, etc.

The takeaway: Beware of risks and take immediate action upon noticing burnout symptoms. Notify superiors and clients, consult your doctor, reach out to friends, and take quality time off.

The original, unabridged article appeared on Toptal.


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