It’s finally done. You emailed the report to your boss. Back when you went into the office, you sat right across from her. As soon as it landed in her inbox, you could gauge her reaction. Maybe you’d get a smile or a nod. Maybe even a, Hey, great job. You chew your fingernail.
Suddenly, your inbox pings with a notification. Thanks.
Thanks!?! What does thanks mean? Thanks, I hate it? Thanks, I know you’re due for a promotion next month and this put you over the edge? Thanks, you’re fired?
Work paranoia is bad enough (does anyone really need a note that says swing by my office at 4pm or a mystery calendar invite with no subject or description?) but work from home paranoia—the self-doubt and insecurity that can crop up as you overanalyze remote interactions (or worse, silence!), digital communication and miscommunication, and the lack of facetime and feedback—can be even worse.
Although remote work has been a long-standing norm for some people, it’s the new normal for many others—and plenty of companies and teams still haven’t been able to pivot enough to create an environment that affords us the psychological safety and security we need to do our jobs with confidence.
Whether you’ve merely tolerated working from home from the very start or the months have begun to wear you down as they’ve gone by, here are four ways to help you manage work from home paranoia.
Is your calendar constantly packed from morning until night? Do you find yourself postponing things week after week when more “urgent” items creep in? Do you double-book or multitask to keep up, taking opportunities when you’re off-camera to catch up on work or checking emails while someone else is talking? Do you agree to anything that falls into your inbox, whether it’s a meeting or a new project?
Some people use remote work as a chance to catch up on their latest Netflix binge or even have a second job, but if you suffer from work from home paranoia, you might swing the opposite way and completely overcompensate by saying yes to everything and letting people walk (or book meetings) right over you.
When you first start to put boundaries into place at work, it will likely feel scary since you’re not used to having them. Part of the reason your new boundaries will scare you is because when you don’t feel entitled to your own energy or space, boundaries can feel like you’re taking something from someone. And, in a sense, you are. With boundaries, you are actually taking your time, energy, and space back.
While you might not be able to “prove” that you are working by being in the office—and the facetime or “butts in seats” approach never actually meant work was getting done, it just made managers feel better—your work can still speak for itself, especially if you practice open, honest, and confident communication.
It might sound counterintuitive, but creating boundaries can actually garner more respect than having none at all. Saying something like, I’m so excited to talk about this project. I just wanted to let you know that I have a hard stop at 4pm today is way better than starting to sweat at 3:50, starting to squirm at 4:01, and holding back tears at 4:15.
When an email lands in your inbox asking you to take on yet another task that you don’t have time for, instead of saying, Sure, I can handle that, respond and say, This new project X looks like a great opportunity. Right now I’m focused on Y, which currently has a deadline of Z. Please let me know if you would like me to continue to prioritize Y to hit that deadline, or if things have to be extended in order to accommodate both.
Sometimes, thanks just means...well, thanks. Think about your work. Is there any real reason why someone would doubt your ethic or ability? If so, you can go into problem-solving mode. If not, and your feelings are remote work paranoia rearing its ugly head again, look at what your brain is telling you.
Will it help you to get worked up over a simple thanks? If someone responded to something you said in a group chat with an eye-roll emoji, does that reflect more poorly on you or on them? If your boss continues to push your one-on-one meetings to the next week, do you think she doesn’t want to talk to you, or is it possible she’s as overbooked as you are? Maybe she’s so confident in your work that she doesn’t see why you need to connect. Either way, it’s a good idea to just ask her.
Instead of sending a report into the universe and hoping for feedback, learn how to ask for what you need. Even saying, Here’s the report. I’d love to hear your thoughts in our 1:1 this Wednesday, lets the other person know exactly what you’re looking for and it can give you some peace of mind that you’ll get more than a simple thanks.
Another way to put things in perspective, which can be even harder to do these days, try to think back to a time a year ago when you were in a similar situation. Did it feel as grave as this one? Can you even remember what happened a year ago? If things that were super stressful at the time now seem sort of fuzzy, you can be confident that the stress of this current instance might fade with time as well.
Similar to setting expectations and creating boundaries, this one can feel a bit backward. If you’re suffering from work from home paranoia, wouldn’t you want to, well, work more so you can prove yourself?
Again, the more paranoid we feel, the more we overcompensate by agreeing to take on more work, attending every single meeting we’re invited to, overflowing our to-do list, and working extra hours. Unfortunately, those things can lead to burnout.
(Want to prevent burnout? Here’s what therapists want you to know about burnout prevention. Not sure if you’re burned out? This questionnaire will help you to evaluate your level of burnout as it relates to your day-to-day job stress. Already burned out? We asked our therapists who specialize in burnout some of the most common questions we hear about recovering from burnout—here’s their advice.)
When you’re alone in your home office and your inbox continues to grow and Slack continues to ping and your phone is going off and your calendar is booked solid, take a step back and pause.
You know that you could work twenty-four hours a day and the work would never end. You know you’ll never actually “finish” your to-do list—there’s always something new coming down the pipeline. The occasional late night, early morning, or Sunday work session is nothing to beat yourself up over, but scope creep is real and it will never end if you don’t start to respect your time.
The mental health days and summer Fridays and workshops about burnout are trying to counteract the fact that your boss or company are probably never going to ask you to work less. You have the power to turn off and you’re the only one who is going to do it for you. Working a set amount of hours and getting your job done without completely running yourself into the ground for days and weeks and years on end is just fine. And when you’re truly rested and not being pulled down by fear and stress and paranoia, you might find that it’s easier and more enjoyable to go above and beyond.
We’re not here to fuel your paranoia—we’re here to help. And sometimes, help means asking you: do you think your paranoia is trying to tell you something?
Once you’ve gone through the other steps, if your gut is still telling you that something is wrong, it might be right.
Again, open and honest communication will help you here. Instead of sitting alone at home, biting your fingernails, if you feel cut out of important meetings or like your emails are going unanswered for a reason, ask someone to talk about it. And if you’re worried about sounding, well, worried, take a team player, solutions-focused tone:
If email, Slack, or other forms of written communication still leave you feeling uncertain, pick up the phone. You don’t have to be on video; even someone’s voice can give you the insight you need to figure out if something is going on below the surface.
Above all, you deserve a worklife that is fulfilling and a workplace and team that value you and your contributions. No one deserves to sit at home, melting into a puddle of paranoia every working day. Protect your time and your mental health by managing your remote work paranoia and, if all else fails, find a place that won’t add fuel to it in the first place.
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Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.