Tuesday, January 29, 2008



Apologies for the very long URL but it's a good one from today's New York Times. The article is concerned with the the ups and downs of working at home. This is a topic I can speak with authority on since I've spent over a year now firmly planted in my home office in the back yard. My office, or the 'Little House', sits all by itself about 10 steps from the 'Big House' as me and my dog have come to call the place where we all live. I spend most of my working days in there and have heating, cooling, technology and scented candles. With windows all around, I feel like I am actually in the garden.

So what does this have to do with future health trends? Well, according the NYT article, there are more and more people working from home and a good portion of these folks feel at increased risk of social isolation (obvious) and depression (less obvious). Personally, I have experienced neither in my year at home but then I've always liked being by myself. I do the odd lunch to keep in touch with friends and ex-colleagues, and I network on line like a mad woman. I miss certain old friends of course, but not enough to consider going back to the office environment.

A second issue for homies, is that they have trouble organizing their day without the enforced rules of the corporate office. Now this I identify with. There are some days when I cannot seem to get anything done and others where I work like there is no tomorrow (sometimes, there isn't....deadlines being what they are). However, I do find this work easier than any I have ever had to face in the past. Probably because it is my choice to do it for the most part, and also because I actually enjoy it. The hours in meetings at my previous work places, while neat and well-scheduled, were often tedious and non-productive in a real-world sense. Now, I do feel guilty when I am not working sometimes, perhaps because somebody else did not sanction it. It can be hard to justify a day off, or even an hour off, when there is work to do and no boss to say--go ahead, relax, you deserve it. Such is our conditioning that we feel we must work an 8-hour day no matter what (see 'The 4-hour workweek' by Timothy Ferris-an excellent read on this topic).

The home-office worker has to be disciplined but the self-employed have to play many roles themselves. Deciding how to structure the day is a challenge I did not see coming when I left the corporate office. I actually missed the structure at first. I think I grieved for it a bit. It was like an old friend providing security and easy gratification. If all else failed, I knew I had to be there at x o'clock, ready for the next strategy meeting/performance review/IT meeting/etc/etc. Just being there on time and prepared garnered a sense of achievement that I didn't recognize as such at the time. Now I have to be the meeting organizer, the confidante (no, I'm not schizophrenic and I don't have multiple personalities (although some might beg to differ on the latter), but I do have to talk to myself, if only to get to the truth of what I am feeling), the sanctioner of 'off-time', the patter of the back when things go well, as well as the actual decision maker on what to do. It's a lot to fit into a day.

So back to the future of health. There are some downsides to working at home and the article referenced above articulates them well. I've thought of a couple of others too. What happens if you have a heart attack in your home office and there is no-one to revive you? Worse still, if you live alone, it may be days, nay, weeks, before you are missed! Add that to the depression that can go with isolation, and the stress of having to make your own plans every day-and stick to them- then working at home does come with potential health issues. As more of us do it, will we get better at dealing with them? Support groups for the lonely home worker anyone? Government subsidized work conclaves so people can cheaply rent communal office space to get their social fix a couple of times a week without losing work time? Or maybe the three day weekend (that should surely be just around the corner for an advanced civilization such as ours) will take care of it when it gets here.

In the meantime, I will continue my occasional morning coffee/lunch with friends, and make sure if I'm having any chest pain, that I leave the office and hang out in the front garden until it goes away. Just in case...
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