For the past several years, remote work has been high on the list of coveted employee benefits. In fact, as Fast Company previously reported, 99% of respondents to a 2019 Buffer survey want to work remotely at least part of the time for the rest of their careers, and 67% of respondents to a survey by Staples would quit if their workplace became less flexible.
Now many employees who are able to work from home—28.8% of wage and salary workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—have been asked to work remotely, they’re faced with an imperfect reality. Many are understandably fearful about COVID-19, as well as its economic and labor market impact. They may be trying to figure out the best tools to allow them to work from home, especially if they’ve never done so before. And, in some cases, they’re confined to houses or apartments with family members, children, or roommates who have their own work or school demands.
“Fear right now is just rampant because of the unknown,” says clinical psychologist Lori Whatley, Ph.D., author of Connected & Engaged: How to Manage Digital Distractions and Reconnect with the World Around You. Even settling down to focus and work is hard, she says. And the combination of stress, fear and other strong emotions, and the demands of home and work life can take their toll on mental health. Here are some steps to help protect your mental health during this challenging time:
Acknowledge the impact
Working from home can be more challenging than it seems, says clinical psychologist Kevin Gillliland, PsyD, executive director of Innovation 360, an outpatient group of counselors and therapists. “Prepare to be surprised at how difficult the transition is,” he says. Your home is filled with distractions you simply don’t encounter at work, especially if you have other people living, working, or trying to get school work done.
As a result, it’s essential to be as patient as possible, says Maurya Glaude, PhD, an assistant professor at Tulane University’s School of Social Work in New Orleans. This is not the time to expect perfection. You need to give yourself some time to adjust to the new normal, figure out your schedule and how to work effectively from home, as well as what habits and tips work for you.
Create a routine
Glaude recommends that remote workers create routines. While there may be many factors beyond your personal control now, including a loss of predictability, you can exert some control and familiarity by sticking to a schedule. If you have young or elderly people in your life, that predictability can be very comforting, she says. So, get up at a reasonable time, get dressed, and have a plan for your day.
At the same time, don’t be too rigid. Try not to overschedule yourself and include breaks if you can. Think of it as a “summer schedule,” which may be somewhat more relaxed than a typical routine, she says. “We have to be very flexible during this time with our young people, our elderly people, for taking care of family members, and then with ourselves,” she says.
Manage your information intake
While you’re home, it’s easy to check in on social media whenever you like and perhaps have the television on in the background. But the constant barrage of news is only going to elevate your anxiety and stress, Gilliland says. It’s important to stay informed, but you probably don’t need to listen to every breaking news report, which just stirs anxiety throughout the day without adding anything you need to know. (Some professions are media-centric, so it isn’t always an option, he admits.) If you feel compelled to know what’s going on, watch a half-hour of news in the morning, then check a news website or two in the afternoon.
Recognize your needs
For some people who crave the social interaction of the office, working from home can hold unexpected drawbacks, says Laura Hamill, PhD, chief people officer at Limeade, an employee experience company. “If you’re an extrovert and you really are driven by being around other people, and then all of a sudden, maybe you’re working from your home space and you don’t have that in-person connection, that can be really hard. And then of course, if you are a person who needs privacy and you suddenly have your three kids and a spouse at home, it’s not normally [the environment] you are in,” she says.
If you’re feeling isolated or lonely, Hamill recommends using group chats, videoconferences, and more frequent phone calls to get the connection you need. And if you are someone who needs time alone to think or recharge, discuss that need with your family and work on getting that time into your schedule, she suggests. Also, pay attention to how your energy ebbs and flows throughout the day and try to schedule the best tasks to your energy level accordingly.
Hamill says we all have to acknowledge that this is not a normal time. Trying to pretend that you’re just doing business as usual, but from home, isn’t accurate, and adjustments need to be made. Work with your team to identify essential areas of focus and save your energy for those tasks, meetings, and priorities.
“Here at Limeade we’ve been talking about what are meetings that maybe we don’t need to have right now, maybe they’re not the highest priority, and especially for people who have kids at home or they’re taking care of elderly parents,” she says. “Let’s just focus on what’s the most essential and give a lot of flexibility to our employees around those things.” If you’re an employee, think about pushing back on some requests that aren’t as essential, both at work and at home, she suggests.
Keep up your good practices
While some joke about binge-eating or drinking to manage the stress, it’s more important than ever to keep up your healthy habits, Whatley says. Stay hydrated, get some exercise and fresh air if you can, eat healthfully, and avoid too much alcohol or sugar. Taking care of yourself in these ways is also going to have a positive impact on your mental health.
In addition, it’s a good idea to add some practices that may bolster mental health, she adds. Start each day with a gratitude practice, listing a few things for which you are grateful. YouTube has free yoga and meditation videos. Practice deep breathing exercises throughout your day.
Gilliland says it’s also important to monitor your mental health, especially if you’re prone to anxiety or depression. If your inability to focus or your feelings of sadness or being overwhelmed are making it hard to function, look to what has worked for you in the past, he says. Reading, staying connected, or even remote therapy might help you cope in the age of social distancing. Check with your physician, insurance company, or mental health practitioner for remote therapy options. Amwell and Talkspace also let you search for an online therapist.
Working from home has its advantages, but significant disruption and change can take their toll on your mental health. Be mindful of changes in your mood or behavior and ask others in your life to do the same if you’re concerned.