This week, the government announced that due to coronavirus cases spiking across the UK, anyone who could work from home, should do so. The latest guidelines suggest that these new coronavirus restrictions for England could last for up to six months.
With this in mind, it is important to note that working from home for long periods of time can negatively affect our mental health. Working at home during a pandemic is slightly different to working from home pre-pandemic. I find myself in a situation where both myself and my husband are working from home at the same time. Practically this means that space and quiet is often hard to come by, stress levels increase and heated ‘negotiations’ often take place!
While working from home certainly has its benefits, you may also be experiencing some of the following feelings
- Feeling isolated, lonely, or disconnected from other people – socially and professionally
- Feeling stressed and overwhelmed
- Being unable to ‘switch off from work’
- Having difficulty staying motivated
- Having difficulty prioritising your workload
- Feeling uncertain about your progress, and whether you’re performing ok
- Insomnia and sleep problems
So, how you can protect your mental health while working from home?
Set up routine and structure for your workday — create boundaries between ‘work time’ and ‘home time’
We are creatures of habit so establishing a routine and sticking to it when you are working from home is a good way to keep your motivation and productivity on track.
Define your work hours – if you find yourself staying up late or waking up early to meet deadlines, professional and personal boundaries will become blurred. Try to get up at the same time during the work week as you would if you were going to an office. Stick to predetermined break times and block out time to get up from your desk to stretch and move about.
Change out of your pyjama’s and into different clothes for working in. When the routine of getting changed into new clothes for working at home is practiced enough, psychologically you become conditioned to associate the changing of clothes with a change of mindset, preparing you for the working day ahead.
Stay consistent and ‘leave work’ when your working hours are over. It’s very tempting to ‘just answer one more email’ when you don’t have to leave to catch a train or avoid the rush hour.
This will help you switch off from work at the end of the day and minimise the possibility of work intruding into your family time.
Set up a specific ‘work’ place in your home (avoid your bedroom)
It is important (where possible) to create a designated work space that (pardon the pun) ‘works’! Try to ensure you have access to a desk, a comfortable chair and plenty of natural light.
Creating a specific work place will help you follow a disciplined work schedule when you’re at home – when you sit or stand there, you’re working and when you leave that place, you’ve left work. Because of this, it is suggested that you have “your own” work area at home (and in an ideal world in a separate room.) This may prove a little challenging if you have limited space, more than one person home working and/or a big family.
If you don’t have a specific room to work from set up a separate space (for example, in your living room), somewhere that is quiet, with good light, that allows you to focus, where you can have a comfortable table and chair to work from.
It has been well documented that working from home can interfere with sleep, especially for those who find it difficult to switch off from work. Avoid working from your bedroom if possible so that it does not become associated with being alert, awake and switched on.
Get a good night’s sleep
It may be tempting to do ditch your sleep routine while you’re working from home. Maybe you fancy grabbing a lie-in instead of your morning commute, or maybe you don’t see the need to go to bed as early. This is counterproductive if you want to continue getting consistent, high-quality sleep. Disruption to routine can cause the circadian rhythm (the sleep-wake cycle) to overcompensate, which can lead to you to being sleepy during the day, and alert when you go to bed. Try and keep the same sleeping and waking hours you did before the pandemic. It may not feel like it first thing in the morning, but it will definitely be worth it in the long run.
Maybe you’re finding it difficult to sleep due to increased feelings of worry? We’re living through anxiety provoking times where it is often difficult to detach from the very real fear we are faced with – even when you’re trying to relax. While worry can be a very natural response, it is also an unhelpful one. Try to be proactive about addressing your anxieties. For example, set aside a time before bedtime (preferably not too late in the evening) where you write down the things that are worrying you so that they’re out of your head for the night and allow you get a good night’s sleep.
Treat your ‘at home office’ as you would if you were in an ‘office office’. During working hours, be clear that you are unavailable for anything outside of your job duties. If you live with other people, let them know that although you might be ‘physically at home’, you are not mentally there – you are working and not available to do chores or have random conversations at any time, (and if you live in my house, not answering the front door to take in a parcel when the postman is pressed up against the window looking at you – this really irritates my husband when he’s ordered something for delivery and I don’t answer the door!)
Think about creating an action plan to deal with distractions and help you stay organised when working from home. Consider establishing cues for other family members. Maybe a closed door means ‘do not disturb’ or if you’re wearing your headphones or sitting at your desk, it means that you’re not available to speak or answer any question, unless it is an emergency (the same type of emergency for which they would call for when you’re at the office). Whatever your plan is, communicate it to others to minimise distractions. Lastly, don’t panic if the dog barks or a child wanders into view when you are on a call – these are strange times and most people will understand the juggle act that takes place when working from home!
For many of us, most of our daily routine, our forms of self-care, and our general sense of safety and stability have been impacted by the pandemic.
Make a conscious effort not to become distanced from your work colleagues while working from home. Not being in the office means that spontaneous meet ups and conversations with colleagues don’t happen. Be proactive in organising meetings and social networking. Maintaining emotional connections, having clear work-life boundaries, and increasing self-care strategies are key to helping reduce stress levels, reducing feelings of isolation and staying productive.
Reduce screen time
While technology makes it easier to stay connected 24/7, the downside is that it can make it difficult to switch off, and separate work and home life. In addition, with so many people using video conferencing apps, many of us are feeling drained while working from home. So much so, the term ‘Zoom fatigue’ is being used to describe this particular feeling of exhaustion. Try to avoid back to back video calls and take regular breaks to reduce the time you spend in front of a screen. Switch off notifications for work emails at the end of your working day and give your brain a rest from ‘work time’.
Try a digital detox to help you switch off from work, and spend quality time with your family, or engage in activities that give you a sense of pleasure and/or achievement.
Take regular exercise
Engaging in regular exercise can help curb feelings of anxiety and depression. When you exercise your brain releases serotonin, which positively impacts your mood and helps you to feel better. It can also help to improve your appetite and sleep cycle. Set aside time to stay active during ‘work hours’ and break up your day with regular screen breaks. If you’re not self-isolating, try to get outside at least once a day. Go for a walk and get some fresh air. If you are self-isolating, walk around your garden, up and down your driveway or onto your balcony and embrace fresh air.
Focus on the ‘positives’
Working from home can have many benefits. It can improve productivity, reduce distractions, reduce stress, improve work satisfaction, lower the time (and cost) you spend commuting, give you greater sense of control over your workday, and can even help to avoid challenging colleagues!
In addition to the tips listed above, don’t forget to maintain positive mental health through
- Exercising, getting a good night’s sleep and eating well
- Engaging in activities that give you a sense of pleasure and/or achievement
- Staying connected and seeking out support
- Managing stress through problem solving, relaxation and/or meditation
- Reframe your thinking to look for the positives in a situation