Working From Home While Looking After Your Mental Health
We’re all living through an unusual time at the moment. COVID-19 has forced us to stay indoors and minimise social contact. Even for roles that wouldn’t justify it weeks ago, employees are being asked to work from home
Working from home sounds like a easy ride. Talk to anybody who already does this on a regular basis and you’ll hear it’s not as easy as you think.
I’ve been working from home on a permanent basis for around 9 of the last 15 years. And on a regular basis for the rest of that time. A friend in COVID-19 lockdown recently said to me it was the hardest they have ever worked and asked how I do it.
Working from home provides me with the flexibility I need. It gives me the opportunity to have the work life balance that is so important to me. My goal is to work to live and not live to work. But achieving this is not easy. It requires discipline, focus and vigilance. My mileage with this varies!
One of the most important and difficult things to manage when working from home is mental health. Working from home generally means working on your own. It means lack of social contact. It means grabbing a coffee by yourself. It means no ‘water cooler’.
I’m not a psychologist, a mental health professional or qualified to give you advice. So I’m not going to. Mental health is something we all have and need to look after. So I’m going to tell you what works for me. It might not work for you, exactly. It might not work at all for you. That’s okay. We’re all different people. But I hope you get something out of this.
Work And Home Separation
During the work week you get up, have a shower, grab some breakfast, get to the train station, train, walk, office. You do what your paid to do. Then you put on your coat, leave the office, walk, train, train station, home. That’s a typical day. That’s a work routine. You do this every day. You work in an office. A building many miles from where you live. It looks and smells different to your home. There are people there that are not in your home. There is a hierarchy that you don’t have at home.
When you’re at work you’re in work mode. When you’re at home you’re in home mode. You leave work at the office. You leave your Xbox at home. You have separation of those parts of your life. You leave that horrible client at work. You leave the stresses and strains of your job in the office. Your home is a safe place. It’s a place you can escape, recharge, relax and recover from the day. That separation is good for your mental health.
The work and home separation is important for your mind to be able to separate those roles you play in your life. When you bring work to your home it’s important to keep that separation as best you can. This helps to reinforce that message of work and home being separate to your brain.
There are lots of articles telling you that you need a home office or some separate part of your home, it’s not. A work routine and a work space is what you need. If you can keep some of your current work routine then it will make the transition easier. Some people advocate continuing to dress in your work clothes when working from home. Replacing one routine with another is difficult. The less you have to replace the less difficult it will be.
Your new ‘start work’ routine could be as simple as clearing a table, and grabbing yourself a coffee in your ‘work’ mug. Yes it’s a good idea to have, or bring home your ‘work’ mug too. The ‘finish work’ routine could be putting away your laptop and clearing the table again. You can even throw a sheet over it to cover it and keep it out of sight, and out of mind. The routine, whatever it is, will help to trigger that mental switch into ‘work mode’ and then out of ‘work mode’.
I have a home office. But I’ve not always had a home where that’s been possible. Sometimes I worked from the dining table. Sometimes a little side table. The better your workspace the better you work, but we need to make do with what we have.
Your working day has a start and finish time or number of hours. A lot of us work a little bit extra or leave a little bit early. It’s how stuff gets done. Give and take. Working from home should be no different. Those hours still stand. But it’s easy to keep working to finish that next ’thing’.
When you’re working in the office you know when it’s time to go home. You can see there are fewer people in the office. You can see people putting their coats on and saying goodnight. You have a train or a bus to catch at a set time. Or traffic to get through. Going home is an operation that you plan every day. It likely the same plan as yesterday. Whatever it is, you’re keen to get going so you can get home! But if you’re already at home then there is nobody getting their coat and saying goodnight. There is no train or bus to catch or traffic to get through.
It’s easy to keep working when you work from home. Your 40 hour week turns into 50 hours or 60 hours. You’re seeing less of your family. And you’re doing less recharging and relaxing than you did when you worked in the office. You need to have that separation from work and home as I mentioned before. Your work routine helps maintain that separation. Working your normal hours helps keep that work and home separation in your head.
If you put in extra hours each day then it’s going to be okay for a short period of time. But it’s draining on your physical and mental health. It can lead to burnout and stress both of which can lead to other conditions. It’s a lot more than being ‘a little bit tired’. Look after your mental health by working your normal day. Remember that recharging and relaxing is important to allow us to keep functioning. Forgive yourself when you do work extra hours but do so in moderation. But also enjoy your relaxation and make sure it doesn’t involve work.
I work extra hours when I need to. But I try not to do it. I’ve used an app for many years to keep track of it but you can use apps, alarms, your partner, the kids, whatever. But make sure you use something to remind you.
The biggest killer of productivity is distractions. Interruptions can take you 15 minutes to recover from. At home there are so many more of them than at work.
It’s important to try to minimise those distractions when working at home. If you have a partner or kids then make sure they know when you are working. This could be that you are in your home office, at the desk or whatever. I read a tweet recently that suggested wearing a ‘work hat’ when you are working. Remember to take it off when video conferencing! If you have very young kids this isn’t going to be an option, but you get the idea.
By the way: YES THIS IS AN ACTUAL HAT, otherwise, no one can see it and it doesn't work.— Julie (Mae) Cohen (@julie_cohen) March 26, 2020
One thing I found in the early days is that a partner often thinks that working from home is an easy gig. So they ask why you didn’t do the housework while you were at home. You wouldn’t do these things while you were at work so why would you do them at home? A partner who expects you to do housework while you’re working at home adds more pressure and stress. You should sit down and talk to them as it’s important you have their support in this.
Because you are working from home doesn’t mean meetings stop. They go online. No matter what video conferencing tool you use there are a couple of dos and don’ts:
Minimise noise - kids, pets need to be quiet;
Be professional and presentable;
Make sure your background is tidy;
This ordinarily would make perfect sense. But we’re not in ordinary times. You need to cut yourself some slack as does your manager:
- When working from home, dogs bark, cats jump onto your desk, the kids scream. normal life. People working from home long term work around and manage this. But you cannot expect people thrown into working from home to do so. Kids are home and will likely make noise. People should understand. Remember that we’re all humans with families trying to do out best in difficult times. I would rather see a loving parent take care of their kids than ignore them.
People struggling with their mental health might need extra support as a result of the coronavirus crisis. If someone reaches out to you, listen and take it seriously. pic.twitter.com/eWu030tZlk— Time to Change (@TimetoChange) April 2, 2020
Being professional and presentable still holds true. Don’t go onto a video conference in your pyjamas.
Opening up your home, or at least the part of it everybody can see over your shoulders, can be stressful. If you can’t get a good position for your background then there are some technical solutions to this. Microsoft Teams has the ability to blur the background. Zoom allows you to set a virtual background. Other tools may have other options. But you may be able to use a green screen (you can pick these up cheap) or drape a sheet behind you! Do what you need to do to make you more comfortable.
Don’t put any more pressure on yourself by forgetting that you are a human being at home with kids, pets and a family. You can be professional, presentable and human.
When I video conference I have a wall behind me full of certificates, pictures of the kids and drawings. I’ve only had good comments from people.
Keep Social Contact
Working from home removes the ability to physically interact with your colleagues. With the COVID-19 lockdown, contact outside the home is also restricted. People need social contact. It’s good for our mental health. But in these unique circumstances we have to go to Plan B.
To get that interaction with your colleagues, create a regular ‘water cooler’ meeting. It’s not as good as being around people physically but it’s a good substitute for the time being. There are two rules for water cooler meetings:
- No talk of work. That’s really important.
- See rule 1.
A good example of this is having a working lunch via video conference. Sounds weird but works well.
Awesome turnout for #PowerLunch today! Find us in the #PowerShell Discord/Slack for the link to join us.https://t.co/VCcG1kX0UJhttps://t.co/Fg7FOAkgjT pic.twitter.com/pkBa2Q7sfD— Thomas Rayner (@MrThomasRayner) April 1, 2020
If you need to contact a colleague or a client then use it as an excuse for social contact. Call, or better, video chat with them. They will more than likely welcome the contact themselves! Every social contact is beneficial to your mental health.
Before the COVID-19 lockdown I would work in the morning from a local restaurant. I got to talk to the staff there. I got a coffee or two, and I worked somewhere a little different. This helps to minimise that feeling of ‘cabin fever’. And that social contact continues to help my mental health.
There are some considerations to when working outside the office or home:
- Secure your laptop with a lock;
- Encrypt the laptop disks so that nothing is recoverable if your laptop lost or stolen;
- Use a privacy screen so others can’t see what you are doing;
- Use a secure connection or VPN;
Those issues aside I recommend getting out of the house a couple of times per week, if you can.
Be Kind To Yourself
The current COVID-19 lockdown affects everybody. It’s important to cut everybody some slack and be kind to yourself. We’re all doing our best through this. We’ll get things wrong. Some things will be harder than others. All that is okay. If we acknowledge that it will be better for both our mental health and our relationships.
There are many resources available for mental health. In particular I enjoyed a talk by Ryan Yates on the Swimming Pool Analogy at Microsoft Ignite 2019.
I recently wrote about a new analogy I came up with called the #SwimmingPoolAnalogy as a way to describe current state of #MentalHealth in an easier more visual way.— Ryan (not yet a Dr) | ❤️ conquers over hate (@ryanyates1990) April 5, 2020
You can read up about it at https://t.co/PvZxl39ABj
I hope you find it, and this post useful. Do you do anything different that helps your mental health? Let me know in the comments below.