Uninspired, unproductive and unhealthy?
How to survive the monotony of home-working
The last couple of weeks have brought welcome news and signs of hope, with plans being laid out for a release of restrictions and the start of a return to life 'bc' (before covid!). But even as some companies reassure that their intention is to return to the office eventually, many are confirming this will not be for some months yet with some releasing official guidance that the majority of workers are unlikely to be back to office working until the Autumn.
So many people, particularly those in desk jobs or larger firms based in big towns and cities - will eventually have endured over a year of continuous home-working with little to break the monotony. And whilst there are some benefits to working from home (shorter commute, ability to work in sweats, limited requirements to brush hair etc), for most people the isolation and repetitive nature of home working is starting to become a challenge. This hits in several ways: boredom obviously, but also the brain with difficulties concentrating, low productivity and impact on mood. The reality is that prolonged and persistent home working in a pandemic is more than just a joke about groundhog day - it has some real risks associated with it.
Think about it. You may be lucky, with a nice home office, designated space, or the opportunity to still get out occasionally to meetings or site visits. But many are less lucky and find themselves having to work from small, ill-designed spaces, or managing as creatively as they can. And working at the kitchen table, sofa, or even sat on your bed if you live in a shared house, negotiating over who gets to use communal spaces when others have long zoom meetings - this has not been an easy transition for many people.
Whilst we can adapt practical arrangements - and most companies were swift to deal with health and safety elements and work station adaptions, providing additional screens etc - the emotional and mental health implications are much harder to manage. And research is confirming these concerns: although initially the release from some sources of stress such as commute time did have a positive impact for many, studies are now resoundingly showing people reporting working from home is leaving them more stressed, less focused, less productive and more miserable. The lack of social stimulation - and even just the loss of a normal varied routine, seeing different spaces and places in your working week - is taking a very real toll on people's wellbeing. This is particularly a concern for those in stressful jobs or long hours work cultures who may be becoming very isolated, and who have lost the banter and social contact that usually buffers the impact of their work, resulting in increasing levels of anxiety and depression. And as the weeks drag on, many people who have never struggled with their emotional health before are finding themselves starting to struggle - meaning burnout is a real risk not just for those keyworkers 'out there' on the frontline - but for many who are not even leaving their homes.
So if this is you, how do we get through the rest of this working-from-home-season with your sanity and relationships intact? Because the reality is you ARE human - you DO have limits. No one ever things burnout is something that might happen to them - but it may be that if you do not make some positive changes to your working pattern at home you may become at genuine risk.
Here are 5 things you NEED to think about…
1 - Boundaries: have some
One of the biggest challenges of working from home is the lack of boundaries. No longer is there a moment you ‘leave’ work, and particularly if you are having to work from a common or living space (including your bedroom), your mind begins to associate that space with work, making it much harder to switch off. And the temptation is therefore always there, in a dull moment (and lets face it there are plenty of those in lockdown), to return to work, open your emails, deal with a few loose ends. This means your mind never really switches off - raising your background stress level and making good relaxation and fun time much harder to settle into.
Good boundaries are essential for good mental health: being able to switch off properly and get away from work sometimes really matters. And for those you share your home with, the spectre of your work ever present will also produce additional tension. So do what you can to recreate some good boundaries: if you can work in a different room where you can shut the door at the end of the day, do. If not, try to create clear messages to your mind that ‘work time’ is over: close your laptop and put it away, or put a sheet over a desk if it is in a living/relaxing space. Have a routine of setting out - and then putting away - your work, the repetition of routine helps serve as a reminder to your mind.
And hey - resist the temptation to be always in work mode. It may be ok to live like that for an unusual couple of months but this is a MUCH longer season and your mind - and family - needs some times you aren’t in work mode. So decide when you are going to finish each work day, and when your days off are - and stick to them. Just because you so easily could work the odd extra hour here and there doesn't mean you should ...
2 - Reintroduce a ‘commute’
Yes, I know, you are thinking ‘are you kidding me?’ - this is the one thing about home working you like: no commute!! But in losing your commute, whether it was ten minutes or over an hour, you have lost the buffer zone between work and home, the time to switch off, time to ponder and process, and - practically thinking - often a time with SOME kind of exercise or movement!
So one helpful addition to your routine might be to introduce something that gives you back some of the positive gains of your daily commute (check out this article about people who have done exactly that if you need inspiration!). Could you take a quick walk or ride at the end of each day? Or is there another ritual or rhythm or routine you could add which fulfils this role of signalling to your mind that the working day is over? Ideally do get OUTSIDE - this is getting easier now the evenings are becoming lighter and on some days you may even be lucky enough to get some evening sun!
If going out just feels crazy - if the weather is less kind and it is cold or dark, think about other things you can do to mark the transition between work and life. Do you have a routine for how you end each day? A final check of emails? Signing off with colleagues and saying goodbye, have a good evening etc? Think about what you used to do when you left work and whether there's a way you could replicate that at home - for example a chat or WhatsApp group with colleagues to say good morning at the start of each day and goodbye at the end?
Or maybe it is about what you usually do when you get in from work to mark the start of the evening - that first cup of tea, catching up with the rest of the household on how their day was, or sitting down to watch the news or read the paper. Keep it simple - but try to get into a rhythm as the pattern will help your mind learn to switch off.
3 - Vary location - where you can
Now this one may be rather limited under lockdown, when isolating, or afterwards if you area remains under higher tier restrictions - but where you can, do try to avoid always working in exactly the same space. This creates a real monotony for your mind - and because it cannot distinguish between different days, the perception of productivity or just getting somewhere in your work life is lost and it literally feels like groundhog day, every day. This really affects wellbeing and can make you feel useless or like you are not getting anything done.
So where you can, try to find breaks in your work routine to move. If you can’t leave the house/flat, as most of us cannot at the moment, could you change location IN your house/flat? Work at a kitchen table for a change?! Sit in front of the fire? Move your desk so you can look out of the window?! I know working at home spouses who swap studies periodically for a change! Think about what might work for you …
Then when you can, as restrictions start to lift - is there another space you can sometimes work from? Coffee shops vary (if they are allowed to open, or operate a sit in service in your area) in how happy they are for people to use their spaces to work - so make sure you are reasonable, buy something (why not great breakfast whilst you are there?!), support these reopening businesses well, and don’t stay all day on one small black coffee! Some shared space work environments are also open/reopening - usually with limited space to keep distancing requirements - so do check out websites and look at your options.
And don’t forget the great outdoors! Getting out is a win in so many ways - but when working from home in the middle of lockdown we generally just don’t move very much - the furthest you might walk most days is the distance between your work area and the kitchen! I know, you’re busy - but think about how you can work AND still get out for your daily exercise. Can you do a call whilst going for a walk? Or if you have colleagues locally can you do a meeting over a walk instead of zoom (one to one of course whilst still in lockdown or tier 4)? Be creative - those little moments of variety make all the difference.
4 - Be realistic about productivity
This is important - and is a good thing to be aware of. There's a vicious cycle associated with home working, where people start to fight a background frustration that they are just not getting things done very well. This frustration builds, and makes you start to feel down - resulting in another drop in productivity as concentration becomes harder - and it spirals on and on. This is all the more nasty if exhaustion or low mood or general stress is making you more prone to feeling less effective than usual - if you just don't feel properly on your game. At its worst people then start to try to work more and more to 'regain' the lost productivity - and just become more and more exhausted and down.
Hear me people - the likelihood is, it is nothing like as bad as it feels.
There are several factors at play here. Firstly. you are probably overestimating how much you SHOULD be doing. When in work there are so many interruptions to your working day: meetings, walking between meetings, people popping in to say hello … you spend a lot less time just sat at your desk working on your own than you do at home. So most of us are relentlessly beating our minds trying to work in a much more non stop way than normal - and it turns out the human brain is not very good at that.
Paradoxically you may find your productivity increases if you break things up more: try getting up once an hour, calling someone for a quick hello, taking a really clear lunch break, grabbing a quick walk outside for fresh air - these things breaks up the day but actually help your mind function better. And remember in terms of actual working focused hours you are probably hitting many more than in your normal working life - so whilst it may feel like taking 20 mins out for a quick walk is wrong, actually its just matching what your normal productivity would look like.
Secondly, be aware that stress and exhaustion have two main impacts on your brain. Firstly they decrease your ability to focus well and get into ‘the zone.’ If your mind is overwhelmed and on high alert, it just isn’t a good time to become totally absorbed in a task. So, good sleep, rest - and the boundaries we have already talked about will actually help you work more effectively. Got behind? I know this is hard but don't work longer trying to get things done. Stick to your boundaries and give your brain a break instead.
And finally - be aware that when close to overwhelm and overload, your mind starts to try to make the world a simpler place. This could be because of sheer volume of work, stress of constant change or worry about loved ones or risks. What happens is to reduce demand your brain starts to interpret things as though they were much more binary (black or white, one thing or another) than they really are. So something is either good or bad, you are either succeeding or failing, your boss is either pleased with you or utterly disappointed, people are either for you or against you … and guess what - when your mind is in overwhelm it is more likely to go for the negative option in each case. But it just isn't as bad as it feels - most of life is lived in grey areas and just because you didn't nail the 'win zone' doesn't mean the only other option is out and out failure. So your boss may not think this is your best piece of work ever - but hey, you’ve been living pandemic life for 10 months, as has s/he, and no one is in their best place ever right now. And maybe you had a slightly snarky conversation with a colleague but we're all a bit prickly and they may not even have noticed! Resist the temptation to beat yourself up, allow some grey and remember - it probably isn’t as bad as it feels.
5 - Avoid the ‘friendship funnel’
This is about your relationships - because the reality is that in normal life, a huge percentage of our person-to-person connections tend to happen at work. These aren’t necessarily your closest, longest friends - they may not be the people you’d call in a crisis or share your innermost thoughts with - but you see them most days, hang out together and share light-hearted chat, banter, jokes …
And in pandemic life we have lost a lot of this wider colour from our social world. Partly because we just don’t see people any more - friendship funnelling is a term that has been used to describe the way that most people reacted during the first lockdown, reducing their social world to the 2/3 most crucial friendships or relationships in their life. Connecting and staying in touch required so much more work that most people only maintained these key links - and most of the peripheral ones fell by the wayside.
The second reason is that when work life moves online we lose a lot of the more relaxed moments. That all day meeting? Now your lunch break is spent on your own, in your kitchen or catching up on email - not chatting over slightly dried out sandwiches someone laid out on a tray. Even in the meetings, it’s difficult to relax on zoom so the chatty moments are lost. Everyone wants to get things done as soon as possible, so the interactions become very functional.
And thirdly - connections on-line just are different. We cannot see all the little clues to how people are feeling, thinking or reacting, so we feel much more disconnected. The effort it takes to follow who is saying what means we find conversations much more draining than usual and more effort full. And there’s a phenomena that happens in online calls almost a bit like road rage - that slight disconnect caused by both these things makes people more blunt than usual and more likely to say things they might think better of in real life - so conflict, hurt and misunderstandings are more likely.
All this can be pretty depressing! Human connections and that sense of ‘meeting minds’ with another person are a vital part of life and wellbeing - so if you want to maintain your mood through home working it is really important to re-introduce where you can this wider social world. If you are planning work calls or meetings can you intentionally put aside 5-10 minutes at the beginning for some chat and catchup - informal, relaxed - just not viewing that as time wasted but recognising the importance of it? Or much as it may feel like the LAST thing you want to do, those planned socials which are about fun and laughter and chat actually are important. I know - the memories of the excruciating zoom Christmas social have not yet faded, but try to find ways to do those times that help people engage and relax - quizzes, themes, crossword puzzles, escape rooms, crafts - anything that works!! And think about the opposite of the funnel - how can you widen your friendships again? Is there someone from work you’d normally chat with regularly you’ve not seen for months? That person who works in your office or the guy you always chat to on the commute … could you arrange to catch up or throw out a text hello? It needn’t be intense, or the start of some in depth soul sharing friendship - in fact the light nature of it is why it will help you both so much.
So - as you face further months of home working monotony, make some decisions about how you are going to tackle it. We need to intentionally fight back against the sense of loss of control, low mood and apathy which can leave us feeling like there's nothing we can do to make things less awful. Recognise you can take some control back here and think about small changes you CAN make for these final months at home.
And whatever you decide to do, or feel will make the most difference, there’s one last tip: make a decision and stick to it! These things may NOT feel natural or instinctive but they are VITAL in helping you continue to work in this unusual pattern whilst maintaining your wellbeing. This matters for you - your team, your friends - and your family.
Remember the days when a day working from home was a pleasure, a break - or even a bit of a treat? We will get back to those times eventually, but for now let's recognise the continuation of an unusual and intense season - and do what we can to work with our minds rather than against them.