The office is making me sick. Where to next?
January 13, 2017 10:53 AM   Subscribe

Office life just isn't working out for me. For health reasons, I need to find an environment that's going to suit me better. Where can I look for an alternative, such as non-office environments, remote working or more flexible working?

I've been working in office environments in fairly generic admin and finance roles for a few years now. Currently, I'm temping here, there and everywhere which means I'm experiencing a lot of different offices and it's led me to the conclusion that I need to get out and do something else.

For health reasons - both physical and mental - I need to find a working environment that's going to be a better fit for me. Being in a typical British open-plan office leads to all sorts of issues for me - I get awful migraines triggered by harsh fluorescent lighting, constant noise, poor seating and bad quality workstations with awful posture and cheap and nasty screens and keyboards. I also - and this is embarrassing to admit - suffer from anxiety if I feel trapped away from home. Sometimes, I just need to not be in that environment anymore for the rest of the day, I need to go and lie down in the dark, and the rigidity of the timetable means I can't do that. That makes me feel even worse and makes me panic. Additionally, although I've never put too much stock in this kind of thing, I have pretty much all the traits of a "Highly Sensitive Person".

For example, I'm working at a place currently where they tell you off if you take too many bathroom breaks in a day. I drink a lot of water to try and stave off the worst effects of the migraine, which means I end up having to go to the bathroom. It's that kind of pointless, anal rigidity that I want to get away from - the tyranny of the clock, the big screen on the wall showing everyone's daily 'productivity' as a percentage in a league table, the presenteeism, the people waiting to have a go at you if you were out of the room for 3.5 minutes instead of 3.

It's not the work itself, which I'm able to do competently and to a good standard. It's the environment - the lighting, the heat, the constant noise, the pressure to always, always be socially 'on', the open-plan hubbub, the increasingly painful commute, the non-stop politics and whinging. I'm just surviving, not living, dreading Friday on Thursday, and Monday on Friday night. I get home from the office and just end up sitting in a dark, silent room because it's all I can deal with.

Working remotely from home appeals for a lot of reasons. I love the idea of being able to control my environment to suit how I'd feel most productive and content at any given time - music or silence, heat or cold, bright or soft lighting - or simply close my eyes for five minutes without getting told off. I've spent a reasonable amount of money on putting together a half-decent workstation at home with a good quality screen, mechanical keyboard etc. so that I can use the computer without injuring myself. But then I get in the car and go and spend all day sitting in front of someone else's inferior equipment in an environment that's literally hurting me.

I live in a culture that's not great about mental health. People with any sort of mental health issue are seen as weak and unemployable, especially when you're a disposable temp, so it's best to hide it from employers. But that only works while you can hide it - eventually, these things always rear their head and you end up having a panic attack at work or something. I attempted suicide at the end of 2015 after a long spell of this. (I'm now getting good treatment.) Saying you're feeling dizzy and panicky and need to go home often simply leads to them saying "okay, go home and don't come back on Monday".

I'm not going to be able to get the kind of job I'm doing now but work remotely. In my experience, admin-type jobs are some of the worst for presenteeism. I think I'd be able to handle doing technical support on a remote basis very well - I'm good at communication, I'm good at explaining stuff to people and I've done it before as an office-based job (B2B rather than random people shouting "internet's down!") and really enjoyed helping people solve problems and fix stuff. Where should I go to start looking for that kind of job that's open to people from Britain? The usual go-to sites, WeWorkRemotely etc, are very US-focused.

Also, I can't be the only one in the same situation. If you found office work simply too taxing on your health, what did you end up going off and doing instead? What environments did you find worked for you in place of the office? How did you make the transition? I've got a business plan together for a little self-employed side thing that's slowly starting to generate a bit of income, but I can't keep it up when I'm constantly exhausted and sick.

Thank you very much in advance for any thoughts you might have - I'm at the end of my tether with this!
posted by winterhill to Work & Money (13 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I wonder if trying to find a better employer would help? Not all office jobs take place in fluorescent hellholes. I only suggest this because in my experience, it is not normal to have an office job where you are yelled at for going to the bathroom too much.
posted by cakelite at 11:28 AM on January 13, 2017 [10 favorites]

I also despise working in offices. My solution? Working for myself.

If you're an admin, how about working as a virtual assistant?
posted by jcatus at 11:43 AM on January 13, 2017

You might find something on We Work Remotely, a job site dedicated to remote jobs.

EDIT: Oops. Missed that you mentioned this in your post already. But does it matter if it's US-focussed if they're remote jobs?
posted by howling fantods at 11:58 AM on January 13, 2017

Came in to suggest a different employer as well - I'm not sure if you were being facetious or not, but if they really care or even notice if your bathroom break is 3 vs 3.5 minutes, that's not anywhere I'd want to be at the very least. There are places that are not like that.

As part of the interview process for a new job, ask if you can have a tour of the area in which you'd be working.
posted by cgg at 12:29 PM on January 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

One possible option, if working remotely isn't working out, might be to look for jobs with cultural institutions such as museums and libraries, or maybe even schools. My impression is that they generally seem to have more humane policies towards staff (though I'm sure there are exceptions).

If you find the secret to landing a remote job as an admin-type person, please let me know!
posted by whistle pig at 12:30 PM on January 13, 2017

See if any of these are better in terms of not being so US-centric:

The other thing I will suggest is you try to find non-office work. I have never followed up on that possibility, but I have considered looking into jobs that would routinely put me out in nature, with few or no people around. The US is very big and we have jobs in the middle of nowhere in National Forests and that sort of thing. I have surfed such listings, but never found anything I genuinely wanted to apply for.
posted by Michele in California at 1:51 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you need to shift environments asap. Is there a local spa /massage /chiropractic /accupuncture place that you could get hired at for admin work as a temporary measure? The kind that has a lobby with soft lighting and soothing music? These places tend to have much better atmosphere and since they are typically owner-run you will have a lot more flexibility.

Once you are not in a place that is making you sick, you can double-down on your self-employment and / or remote work.
posted by ananci at 2:01 PM on January 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Re: the comment above about bathroom breaks, it's real. I've lived it, in one of the top IT consultancies in Europe. It's a thing here. See, hereabouts we have better employee protections than in the US, so top management try to find any little thing they can to write up people and presenteeism is a major one. I've seen people get written up for taking four bathroom breaks a day after being told three was the max acceptable. Another of my colleagues got yelled at in front of everyone after having stayed in the bathroom "too long" (she was a woman, and yes, it was that time for her – our boss didn't care).

There's more and more remote admin work. Working at home is pretty great when you have a dedicated office space – just have to be careful to have clear-cut working hours and never work outside your dedicated office area. Otherwise your home loses its relaxation qualities.

Also, not sure how freelancing and contracting works in the UK, but I know that here in France it's possible to be self-employed and get both remote and occasional on-site work through companies who centralize work offers. It's like a cross between a temp agency and an employer. I know a few people who sell their services as IT experts in certain in-demand areas, charge a fee where they know they'll only have to work X days a month to live off it (usually 10-15 max), and do that. They use the rest of their time to work on other income sources. The centralized offer places basically do the heavy lifting for finding contracts, which means the freelancers can get into larger companies they otherwise wouldn't be able to bid for (because they disallow directly contracting to freelancers).
posted by fraula at 2:25 PM on January 13, 2017

You might look into doing transcription from home to make a little extra money while you try for something more in line with your interests. I signed up with It's not for everyone, but could be worth a try. At the very least, you'd be able to do it from home and enjoy your own space.

Also, I give you my full-throated permission to be as vague as humanly possible when telling people why you're going home sick. Instead of saying you're feeling dizzy and panicky, just tell your manager that you're really not feeling well, with a serious and concerned expression. Kind of imply with your tone and body language that it's better for them not to know the details.

People might object to that advice as dishonest, but I think that mental distress is as bad as physical distress, and it's no one's business which of those two forms of discomfort is sending you home for the day.
posted by delight at 1:19 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also, I wonder if having some soft lighting (like a small lamp) on your desk might make the overhead lights less oppressive. And maybe a plant -- something with a nice, organic texture. Just a small remedy that might make you more comfortable while you ponder the broader career questions.
posted by delight at 1:23 AM on January 14, 2017

There are also plenty of smaller offices where some of these problems around set-up would not present. Also, there are plenty of offices where the culture is different.

I've worked in several different office environments in the UK and nobody ever cared about bathroom breaks. When I did admin type work it was clear that I'd need to keep to some kind of core hrs pretty much everywhere and might need to align lunch breaks with others to ensure minimum number of people ere araound at all times. But even then the closest anybody came to challenging my attendance and presence was when a supervisor signed my time sheet and asked about why I was working 8.30-16.30 as opposed to 9-5 after my first day. They left me to it, after I explained I had asked the other supervisor to change on day 1 because that would reduce my commute by 20 mins each way due to traffic. For what it's worth I had got the change approved, not sure if they checked or not.
posted by koahiatamadl at 2:30 AM on January 14, 2017

But even then the closest anybody came to challenging my attendance and presence was when a supervisor signed my time sheet and asked about why I was working 8.30-16.30 as opposed to 9-5 after my first day.
I had an arrangement like that at most of my past jobs. It made it far more tolerable, because I live in an area with particularly poor infrastructure and it more than halved the commute so I wasn't arriving home just in time for bed. But some places lie about it - for my current gig, I directly asked at interview whether an early-start-early-finish would be okay, they said yes, and as soon as I started it was 09:00-17:00 to the minute, if I arrive early I have to sit in my car in the car park until 08:55 and I got lectured like a small child for asking about it. I'm tired of being treated like a naughty child. I'm no psychologist, but I think a lot of it is down to the people who work in these shitholes full-time being fed up with their lot and loving having someone lesser than them to take it out on.

Thanks for all the links above to remote jobs. I agree that it shouldn't matter what country you're in - and I'd be open to working a different timezone if required - but I think a lot of employers understandably don't want the hassle of dealing with employing and paying people in lots of different countries with weird currencies and banking systems. So I think EU companies or those which specifically say you can be worldwide are a good place to start.

I guess I just feel like life shouldn't be a cycle of Mon-Fri getting progressively more sick and then two days of recovery where I can't do anything fun because I'm exhausted and burned out. What is the point?
posted by winterhill at 2:41 AM on January 14, 2017

Former/current freelance translator & "language guy" here. Something happened last year/this year where clients are piling on and saying no felt wrong, so I started hiring bilingual friends to do the same thing I did. For all the reasons you've mentioned, it was an easy sell, and business is good. Now I'm incorporating and such.

Here's the thing - I'm not alone. The language industry is layers upon layers of freelance outsourcers and project managers who collect a cut because they know where the talent is. I do primary translation, I manage other translators, I do review, AND somehow I have to bill, do payroll, do taxes...

Now, I haven't put a public face out there yet (in fact I think this is my first time mentioning the fact that I have actual hiring capacity in a public forum), but you gotta know:
1) You're not alone. Lots of people are sick of it, and they want alternatives.
2) I'm based in Beijing, but my people are all over the globe, as are my clients. That's how the language industry is, the experts and jobs are out there, someone has to put them together, but they are, by the nature of the job, often not in the same place. We're as global as it gets.
3) Coordinating this stuff is a nightmare, and if you're willing to buy a freakin' mechanical keyboard, chances are you're the type who will go all out to get it done, which is what this kind of coordination takes.

My point is, if you're looking for a direction, language services and translation may be it. And even if you don't have the language skills, the admin skills are a badly needed adjunct. We're linguists, not business managers, not secretaries. We suck at this. I highly suggest you do some homework on the industry and see if you can't find a way to help a few freelancers manage their businesses. My only two caveats are that, with such a low barrier to entry (internet + computer + claim that you know the right people), there are a lot of outright conmen, and there are far more people willing to take you for a ride or pay you under market, so be thorough and paranoid until you know the market. Also, a lot of it is project-based and freelance, so the stability isn't there, but if you're in an admin/management/secretarial role, you should be insulated from the worst of that.

Will I hire you? Not right now, because I have people I promised that role to. But, it exists, and as much as I can, I'll try to point you in the right direction. PM me if you'd like, I'll talk your ear off about it!
posted by saysthis at 4:41 AM on January 14, 2017 [1 favorite]

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