The Hidden Dangers of Remote Work 😱😱😱

by Melissa Smith - Tue, 08 Sep 2020

In the last issue of the newsletter, I teased that I was cooking up something exciting. It’s still cooking; no risk of whatever the newsletter equivalent of food poisoning from serving half-baked ideas. Nope. I don't want to spoil the day after the weirdest Labor Day ever. (Happy Labor Day, btw).

Instead, let's get a head start on the Halloween season by talking about the potential horrors of remote work. Lately, I’ve seen a lot of articles about the dangers and pitfalls of working from home and being socially isolated. What's missing from those articles is usually the specifics and nearly always some solutions. I’ll tackle this issue in the next couple of newsletters.

First, let’s look at some examples of how this social isolation might play with your perceptions in the workplace.

We’re evolved to be social creatures. We are considerably less social when working remotely, unless our companies have a great remote work culture. If we’re cut off from people physically, our brains can start to freak out a little bit. While we logically understand what’s going on, our little caveman brains that depend upon social structures can start to create all sorts of destructive stories about what’s going on.

Here’s just one example of what can happen when we’re separated from our co-workers: Everyone else’s struggle is invisible. When you don't see your co-workers throughout the day, you miss hearing them grumble about how their project isn't going well or that client who’s hard to manage. Simply put, you’ve lost some channels of information that tell you you’re not alone in whatever you’re struggling with. Your problems can feel unsolvable and uncommon.

Here’s some other examples that stem from having incomplete information:

  • Everyone else’s work looks effortless.
  • No else has a learning curve.
  • Everyone else is slacking off.
  • Conversely, I’m slacking off and everyone else is working really hard.
  • Person X isn’t doing any work.

You probably get the idea at this point. Our brains can be really bad judges of what’s going on, especially if they feel like we’ve been cut off from the herd. We are the lone antelope surrounded by imaginary lions.

Now, let’s talk about some solutions! It’s not all doom and gloom, I promise. There’s a way out of the darkness.

Generally speaking, one of the big problems we have is that we have less information to disprove our confirmation biases when we’re isolated. Confirmation bias is our human tendency to give heavier weight to evidence which confirms our existing theories and disregard or downplay evidence which might disprove it. This is a helpful shortcut usually -- it saves us having to re-prove gravity every single day. Confirmation bias helps us make sense of the world -- it serves an evolutionary purpose. But what happens when the idea that gets stuck in your head is one that causes you a huge amount of anxiety such as, “I’m going to lose my job if things don’t change.” That sort of thought is almost as unshakeable as it is miserable; your brain will do all sorts of mental gymnastics to disregard evidence to the contrary.

So here’s the short term way out.

Step 1. Give your amygdala a big old dose of validation for whatever it is that’s bothering you.

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about amygdala days, where your brain’s emotional centers take control and cut off or seriously impede your brain’s access to the higher order thinking skills in your pre-frontal cortex. Skills that, well, many of us get paid to access these days.

Our amygdalas HATE it when we aren’t truly listening to them. And sometimes that just makes them dig their heels in further (or more insidiously, e.g. mega insomnia). The key to unclench your amygdala's hold is to validate what it's feeling, even if other parts of your brain are screaming that your amygdala is dumb and illogical. Tell those judgey parts of your brain to hush up for a minute (or we will NEVER get the amygdala to calm down).

These two articles about validation really resonated with me a couple of weeks ago, and they can explain much better than I can how to validate someone else. So read them if you have a chance… and then use them on yourself.

It will go something like this. “Oh, amygdala. It’s terrifying to think about losing your job. No wonder you’re so worried and anxious.”

And your amygdala will say, “OMG. Thank you. Yes, I am so exhausted from being worried. I’m going to go take a nap and rest, okay?”

I mean, it may not play out exactly like that, but seriously, there is enormous relief in just validating what your amygdala has been jumping up and down about at 3 AM trying to warn you about.

Right, so while your amygdala is napping and catching its breath, you can proceed to step two.

Step 2. Figure out the logical fallacies that were at play.

So what was going on with that confirmation bias? How did your brain develop its weirdo, fringe conspiracy theory based on two facts with no context and the remote work rumor mill? Behold, this list of cognitive distortions holds the keys to what went awry. Now that our amygdala is snoozing, examining the list of cognitive distortions can help us see the world differently and perhaps even see that alternate views of our situation might even be more believable or potentially likely enough to ward off 3 AM existential crises.

That’s it for the short-term steps. We’ll talk again about some long term steps to help guard against the pitfalls of remote work.