Employers are increasingly investigating the best ways to incorporate self-care and mental health services into employee benefits packages. It’s a good thing too, because earlier this year, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that a negative work environment can adversely affect overall wellness.
Personally, nothing has affected my wellness at work more than office politics. Long before the conversation about wellness at work gained traction, I dealt with workplace issues ranging from minor inconveniences to lasting problems that made me dread pulling into the office parking lot every morning. Like many other women in the workforce, I spent so much time at work that it was difficult not to be affected by it in ways that I didn’t even realize.
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For example, I once worked with an assistant director who would ask me to do work that his assistant failed to do. I did not report to him and the work he assigned me was outside the scope of my job, but he required me to do it anyway. When I brought this up to my supervisor she empathized, but did not feel there was anything she could do. He had a lot of clout in our office, and my supervisor did not feel she could compete with that. Before long, I became frustrated with being stretched in multiple directions, only to have the credit for my work given to his assistant.
This experience was a part of a troubling pattern that I would see in future jobs as well. Between company leaders asking for personal favors, men in the office making inappropriate comments about women, and unfair treatment from leaders that often went unaddressed, I was mentally worn out. So, when the opportunity to work a 9-to-5 from the comfort of my own home came along, I took it. On-site coworkers and friends cast doubt on my new work setup.
Many said they’d never be able to do it: No people? No one to talk to?! I'd go crazy.
However, I welcomed the solitude. After all, it was the people who had driven me into working from home in the first place. Over the years, I’d worked with way too many people who came to work to do everything except work. In many cases, doing my job well and exceeding expectations was not enough—I was also expected to be more social than I felt comfortable with while on the clock. The idea of working from home meant that I could do my work and (mostly) cut out the “fat,” which was anything that didn’t pertain to my job or my team.
In the process, I saved money on common commuter expenses, which also brought me greater peace of mind. I maintained a level of productivity that kept my supervisors happy and achieved a work-life balance that, for me, was ideal. Surely, it wasn’t the best fit for everyone but it worked well for me. Not to mention, it was so much easier to get out and stretch my legs between meetings or head to the gym during lunch. Although my situation wasn't perfect, it was the highest level of physical and mental wellness I’d ever achieved at work.
About one year later, I decided to venture into a new work environment on a college campus. I was quickly (read: immediately) reminded why the in-office life was not for me. Everything from the people to the culture was…off. I found myself stress eating to get through it, and I ended almost every work day with a headache. I was restricted from doing the job I’d been hired to do and was constantly chastised for occasionally eating lunch on my own, closing my office door to eliminate distractions, and presenting new ideas. To put it mildly, I was miserable.
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But again, I wasn't alone. Many of my friends from college griped about similar issues. My mom and sister, who had long been my favorite people to talk about work with, shared their workplace horror stories, too. It wasn't long before I realized that our experiences were not unique. Many of our workplaces didn’t align with what we needed in terms of leadership, pay, fairness, and culture. Although it is common to have some of your needs go unmet at work, these were major areas in which satisfaction is key.
So, after a lot of thought, I returned to working from home; this time, as a freelancer. It took some time but with the help of my husband and family, I created a home office that was solely dedicated to work. I established regular office hours and began developing a reputable name for myself. I even secured some cool speaking engagements and projects, which I had to fight for at previous jobs. Most importantly, I abandoned the idea that I had to embrace the unhealthy parts of the workplace to be successful. I created a job for myself where I could be productive without succumbing to the people, politics, or pressures that I'd begrudgingly dealt with while working in an office.
Some days, I'm still trying to find a balance in my job. After all, it takes time no matter where you work. But at the end of every day, I know that I work in a place that is most conducive to my health and wellness.
I get the chance to engage with people without letting them determine the way I work. And the moment this job compromises my wellness, I'll take a step back and try something else.