Kim Mooney, CBT therapist and personal coach at MYNDUP
Many people have been required to work from home due to the widespread emergence of Covid-19 in March 2020. However, home working has been gaining popularity for many years. In fact, home working can be viewed as more effective due to technological advancements. It can reduce office space requirements and commuting times, benefiting employers, employees, and the environment.
This shift to working from home was thrust upon us whether we liked it or not from circumstances that were entirely out of our control 18 months ago. Nearly everyone has experienced levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and trauma due to the impact that Covid-19 has had on our lives, and we have had to make significant behavioural and cultural changes, which have impacted us psychologically.
In a study conducted earlier this year by the Royal Society for Public Health, it was reported that 45% of people thought that home working was beneficial to their health and well-being, compared to 29% who thought it was worse. However, it also found that people who switched to home working due to the pandemic took less exercise, complained of poor sleep and musculoskeletal problems, and stated feelings of disconnection from colleagues.
It is also important to note that the boundaries between work and home have become less defined and more fluid. Pre-Covid, for most of us, there were very distinct geographical boundaries. Of course, many will not miss the commute, but I wonder if the commute functioned as a buffer to allow us time to transition between our workplace and home environment?
Our movements and social contacts have been legally restricted and, as a result, our day-to-day physical world has shrunk dramatically and suddenly. This has resulted in our perception of safety shifting significantly and it is therefore no surprise that our anxiety levels have risen. Our moodsand stress levels have suffered with the adaptation to home working, as we have been required to juggle work, domestic life, caring roles, and educational responsibilities all within the same space.
The mind and body are interlinked, and as humans we are hardwired to detect danger and keep ourselves safe. There is a physiological response when we perceive danger (real or otherwise). Hormones are released, which prepares the body to either deal with the threat directly or escape. This response, as you may have guessed, is known as the fight or flight response, which affects our heart, circulatory system, lungs, respiratory system, liver, skin, and eyes.
We may feel numb and our responses may become frozen. Our thought processes can become fixed, in an attempt to manage the threat, and we may appraise the meaning of these physical changes within our bodies as catastrophic by telling ourselves, for example, “I’m going crazy” or “I’m having a heart attack.”
With this in mind, here are some basic principles to help maintain mental well-being when working from home:
- Ensure you have a designated workspace. There may be barriers to this depending on the suitability of your property and family life, but try to apply the same principles as you would in the office regarding your chair, desk, lighting, and IT equipment. Here is a good guide to sitting at your desk correctly https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/how-to-sit-correctly/.
- Make others in your household aware of your working hours, so that they can keep interruptions to a minimum. At the end of the working day, if you do not have an office door to close, then put your laptop away somewhere out of sight.
- Establish a daily routine to ensure consistency when working from home. For example, get up and goto bed at the same time, or eat regularly throughout the day. Have breakfast and get changed out of sleepwear into comfortable workwear before logging on. Of course, your work clothes may not be as formal if working from home, but it is still essential to maintain a professional appearance. Try wearing clothes specifically for work that you may not wear for socialising.
If possible, try to work regular set hours and take frequent breaks every hour moving away from the PC. Plan and take a 30-minute lunch break, commit to finishing at a specific time, and do not be tempted to check work communications later on. It is imperative to consider the overworking culture that has thrived in recent years, particularly now that work has become so entangled in our personal and domestic zones.
- Schedule short 5-10 minute breaks hourly to manage your stress. Set reminders to take the time to focus on your well-being. For example, move out of your chair and walk around. If you can, go outside into the garden or to a nearby green space for exercise and fresh air. Become aware of sensations in your body, notice your breathing, and focus on your breath for a few minutes.
- Working from home can be lonely. We gain a lot from social interaction with others, even in the workplace. Remote working means that we are missing connections and respect from others, thus impacting our self-esteem. Video and phone calls help keep us connected with others. However, be aware that regular video calls can cause us to feel fatigued. Plan regular virtual ‘check ins’ with colleagues individually and as a team.
- Self-compassion is important, as sometimes we do not achieve what we need to and our thoughts can become self-critical. Recognise what you have achieved and what has gone well, and congratulate yourself. You also need to set realistic goals and write them down, so that you can see what you have done.
- Schedule in time to relax. Many people find mindfulness/meditation techniques useful in calming the body and the mind. These techniques have been found to slow down the thought processes, let go of unhelpful thoughts, slow the heart rate, improve immunity, promote sleep, and reduce stress.
This website offers a good introduction to mindfulness/meditation:https://www.verywellmind.com/mindfulness-meditation-88369. There are a variety of techniques that can be used and they do not need to be time-consuming. The headspace app offers a free trial https://www.headspace.com/. Some people may benefit from a more intensive course of mindfulness that is delivered by a qualified mindfulness and meditation coach on a 1:1 basis or in a group.
- Research has shown that exercise can benefit our overall mental and physical well-being. Planning in purposeful physical activity over the working week will help to reduce stress and anxiety levels, and boost your overall mood. Studies have recommended that low-intensity exercise (30-35mins for 3-5 days over a period of 10-12 weeks) enhances our mental well-being.
- Finally, getting a good night’s sleep is vital to our overall health. Poor sleep affects our concentration, attention span, and energy levels, and increases our risk of physical health problems. Most adults need at least 7 hours of good quality sleep.
To promote good sleep, establish a regular night-time routine, go to bed at the same time each night, and ensure that your sleeping space is comfortable. You should avoid caffeine, alcohol substances, and reduce your screen time before bedtime. Having a restful night’s sleep will better equip you for the next day’s challenges, maintain your productivity levels, and promote good relationships with others.