Working from home can be incredibly isolating. Here’s how to find human connection.
More often than not, when I tell people I’m meeting for the first time that I’m a freelance writer who works from home, they generally reply with something like, “Whoa. Not having to commute? Working in your pajamas? That's the dream. Can we switch lives?” In response, I say that working from home has its perks, sure: I rarely set morning alarms; I run errands when most others are at their 9-to-5, avoiding crowds; and if I need a day off, I don’t have to clear it with some sweaty boss wearing a tie.
But my work conditions have big-time drawbacks, too. People who head into a regular ol’ office every day get to look forward to going home, while I can’t wait to get the heck out of mine. And entire days frequently pass without me speaking to another person. All that solitude can make lonesomeness very palpable — and likely exacerbates the anxiety and depression I already live with.
It has long been understood that social connection contains wide-ranging benefits for an individual’s general health. Citing many studies, one piece from Psychology Today notes that social connection may boost self esteem and empathy, lower rates of anxiety and depression, strengthen our immune systems, and lengthen our lives. Meanwhile, a lack of social connection is believed to be a greater detriment to our health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure.
Finding a balance between person-to-person interactivity and being able to work shirtless in the summer — like I am right now — is almost a job unto itself. But also a very important one.
“I think people are unaware, if they do have a tendency toward depression, of how all that solitude [in the freelance life] can really activate it,” says Jonathan Detrixhe, a psychologist who sees a number of clients who work in the gig economy. Some of his patients have disclosed that, at first, when they went freelance, they were excited about the flexible hours and types of jobs they could take and of course, the comfort of working at home. However, “If you are someone that really needs to be around people to feel good,” Detrixhe continues, “suddenly you will not be, and the depression effect can be really massive.”
Having a typical day job in an office, a strict work structure, and just generally going “out into the social world,” does create some healthy habits, Detrixhe observes, because you have to look presentable and function on a more standard schedule. Of course, that rigidity can be annoying at times, but it does help people feel good about themselves. Generally, if you work from home and stop working at noon to play video games for two hours, “you’re not gonna like yourself,” he says.
One fellow NYC-based freelance writer, John Surico, who typically works from home, says he sometimes tries to be around other humans by going to a café to work instead. But he says most of the people working there usually have headphones on, which translates to, I’d like to be left alone.
“If I have more leisurely work and I can take my time with it, I actually talk more with people who own the café,” Surico says, “because I feel like they’re a lot easier to approach.” He’ll also meet with another freelancer and work side-by-side with them at a café, as just the option of having verbal backs-and-forths helps mitigate feelings of isolation. “You kind of have to make your own office acquaintances because you don’t have an office,” Surico says, of freelancers. “I do think there is social currency and social value in community.”
Looking to spark more connections, Surico recently organized a freelancer’s mixer at a nearby arts and culture event space, inviting everyone in his network. Though he hoped the conversations wouldn’t end up being too “transactional,” he did think they’d lead to collaborations along with some friendly, get-to-know-you banter. Surico also went through a period not long ago where he was working part-time in an office and teaching a journalism course at a university. Both gigs landed on the same two days of the workweek, and he appreciated being part of a team and engaging in some light watercooler chitchat, while still working from home the other three days.
“I got that taste of what being a full-time staff member is like,” Surico says, but adds, “I like it up to a point; I like the option of being able to escape it when I want to escape it.”
Similarly to what Surico had arranged for a time, Detrixhe advises clients who may not be reacting well to self-employment solitude to take advantage of the presence of an office, if one exists for a company they might work for, and go in however often they feel comfortable. He also suggests not just going to a café or a group workspace to do some work, but trying to strike up a conversation with at least one person there. “Even though that seems very difficult, other people may be looking for the exact same thing,” he says.
If the opportunity presents itself, perhaps a freelancer can seek to land a client with an already built-in community they can become a part of. That’s what Melissa Vitale, a publicist with her own firm, did when she began working for the New Society For Wellness (NSFW), a New York City sex and cannabis digital agency and club. Not only is she a member, but the allure of NSFW is something she uses to network with media industry folk who may help get NSFW — or other clients of hers — some exposure.
Vitale will also sometimes work out of the NSFW club headquarters or another client’s office, but prefers to work at home because there are minimal distractions. “I can get so much more work done [there] than if I have someone chirping in my ear” at an office, Vitale says. “However, it does get very lonely, very quickly, and it gets to a point where I need to either work with someone or work alongside someone.”
For Vitale, such an arrangement does supply some accountability, as well as personal connection. “It’s a nice change of pace,” she says, of meeting up with people to do some work, but doesn’t mind going a full day only talking to herself and her cat.
Some people do thrive in isolation, Detrixhe notes, and may engage in “solitary coping” — preferring to be alone when they’re dealing with pain instead of seeking support from another. Therefore, before committing to the freelance or work-remotely life, “It’s important to know who you are,” Detrixhe says. “Are you someone who does really well being by yourself, or are your attachments and social interactions more important to your mental health?”
But complicating that is the fact that “our culture definitely is going to mark people for reward if they are social,” Detrixhe adds, so there’s pressure on everyone to venture out beyond their front doors and connect with others, whether they want to or not.
Some predominantly freelance jobs do shine a light on the individual worker, while also providing a community virtually by default. When she’s not working from home alone, stand-up comedian Brandie Posey says she, like many other comics, will write material in the company of colleagues, bouncing ideas off them. She also says, in the struggle against loneliness, comedians have an advantage because several of them can easily connect at a club show, before or after their slots on a bill. And, in her opinion, the perception that comedians are too competitive to get along with each other isn’t entirely accurate. In her experience, they’re quite supportive of each other.
“At the end of the day we do kind of have each other’s backs, by and large,” Posey says. “There’s cattiness day-to-day, but it’s like how you fight with your siblings [who you love].”
Posey says she used to have an office job, but prefers the freelance life, and believes getting a dog has also helped kick any solitary-stoked blues. “He’ll sit next to me and it doesn’t feel like I’m totally alone,” Posey says, “and I have to go on walks, take him out, and we go to the park and that gets me around people as well.”
Posey’s also not averse to working a part-time job that’s not directly related to her career, from time to time — at a pop-up merchandise store for a recording artist, like she recently did, for example — or logging into the ride-sharing app she sometimes drives for, even if she isn’t particularly short on cash. She goes off on such a professional tangent, if only briefly, to “just be around people for a while” and possibly mine some comedy material as well.
For me, a freelance writer, I just look for any excuse to be in the company of others. Fortunately, living in New York City, there’s tons to do and 8 million people to bump into. But when it comes to work, instead of scheduling a phone interview, for example, I’ll try and conduct it in person with the subject, in a place of their choosing.
Sometimes they’ll be really appreciative and thank me for meeting them on their turf. “No problem,” I’ll say, secretly thinking about how they've just saved me from myself.