Working from home: Grief, stress, COVID_19 and healthy self-care
Updated: Oct 3, 2020
We are all experiencing the ups and downs of COVID-19 protocols where here in Australia we are beginning to ease some restrictions on movements, but we are still in need of physical distancing and modified social behaviours. Humans, or at least the very old, primal 'lizard brain' of humans, do not necessarily respond well to change - so our stress, anxiety, mood swings, and varying levels of engagement with the world are normal responses. However, we don't experience our responses as 'normal' because very little of this ongoing uncertainty feels good; we are all in grief. Grief is stressful, tiring, and unpredictable in that it often comes in waves at unexpected moments - but there are some very useful and simple things we can do to promote our own resilience to grief processes while maintaining physical distance.
A smart tip before starting to make any change is to remember that there is no absolute right or wrong order for doing healthy self-care, and practicing kindness towards our own selves begins with permitting small changes over time.
In this series of posts, Gentle Reader, we look at small, home-based steps for managing the grief of our large-scale social changes - today we look at working from home which may be the way many of us work for some time to come.
Routine and small personal rituals are incredibly helpful for grief processes, I have seen this time and again in the decades of psychotherapy work that I do. Grief is, after all, a long process of continual adjustment, not unlike the current COVID-19 social changes we are all seeing now. Establishing personal home office rituals will help to navigate the emotional shifts and individual responses we all feel as we move further into the effects of the current pandemic on our work and personal lives. The good news is that there are ways to embrace home-based work life without sacrificing personal time and an innate love of routine - and with some basic adjustments to our physical space and working rhythm, a home office routine which includes consistency and ritual/rhythmic practices can work for us, not against us, in terms of stress, grief and anxiety relief.
SEPARATION OF WORK AND 'HOME' AT HOME
With many people working from home for the first time, we have seen an uptick in burnout behaviours relating to boundaries blurring between 'work' and 'home'. Working from home self-care awareness is arguably more common for seasoned freelancers and remote workers, but if you are not connected to someone who works from home regularly then you probably aren't aware of how easy it is to elide time and attention boundaries and overdo the work-related stuff. With western culture so heavily invested in 'doing' as a status symbol, 'not-doing' all day every day while we are at home can contribute significantly to self-esteem issues, anxiety, fear and stress - all of which can be fed by a grief felt for the loss of our old routine and even our workplace/space. But it is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect to be ON all the time in terms of the balance of differing aspects of life which may include work, leisure interests, rest, and social interactions. Let's be honest - even at work we are not always doing work, and increased human creativity and output is clearly demonstrated to be linked with having a variety of activities as a normal part of life. Remembering that work is not the be-all and end-all while working from home is a key realisation, and an excellent permission to give ourselves right now. After all, working from home may be a common part of daily life and our routine for quite some time, even when restrictions are eased and lifted, so healthy habits formed now will serve you well later on, too.
Softening grief by practicing a consistent new normal Just because right now you don't have the traditional commute time to and from your place of work that would normally delineate your mindset and help you shut off from the workplace, this doesn't mean that you cannot create new rituals of practice that help you to shut off from work each day. Humans are - in the main - intensely visual creatures, so a good first step is to think about the physical location of your work space at home. The primary aim is to have a comfortable, welcoming space that allows you to concentrate on work, but one that will not be a tangible, visual reminder at all times that your workspace is in your home. Your home office may not be constantly in place (see the pop-up home office sections below), but you can still enjoy visual consistency and the routine of the familiar by having the same elements present when you set up a pop-up home office. For those who have room for a permanent home office space, consistency will be in the form of routine and office elements that will still require discipline and attention to detail. The appearance and layout of your home office needs to satisfy visual aesthetics, without compromising on efficiency and minimal distractions. An absence of clutter reduces stress and anxiety levels (which can feed grief when unchecked), which is quite important right now for all of us.
N.B.: One other particular point about visual prompts is that computer screens are rather like TV screens: they are giant 'eyes', and eyes demand our attention. So bear in mind that during non-work hours we want to be free of computer screens/eyes whenever possible which is why physically shutting down and closing work computers and laptops is a good home office practice. (And if you want to work out without thinking about watching anything, or to focus on a podcast or audiobook in your living room, throw a sheet or shawl over your TV screen - you will be amazed at how relaxing your listening or workout time will be.)
HOME OFFICE SPACE
A home office of one's own If it is at all possible to have a dedicated office space at home, try to set it up (or move it) into a room with a door that closes. A physical barrier, particularly one with a threshold, helps the brain to shift away from a focus on work and enables us to shift our mindset to non-work spaces. If you do have a separate room or space, keep it tidy, clean, and free of non-work clutter - it may be tempting to put the ironing board and your roller skates in this room 'for storage', but this will act as a distraction and re-blur the line between work and home that is the purpose of the room. Be disciplined about your space on a daily basis, too. Just as we wouldn't end a day without attending to our admin tasks (emails, invoicing, banking, client lists and updates, etc.) it is a good home office hygiene practice to do some or all of the following:
Clear away glasses, mugs, and plates
File away notes and attendant paperwork, and (if you are me) re-shelve the books that have accumulated on the desk during the workday.
Try to work the same hours each day with 2 snack breaks and at least one longer meal break built into your schedule every day. Set up alarms on your computer or phone if you are not good at time management, and research apps that can help you organise your time more effectively if you need some extra help in that department.
Rituals of time management, including breaks, clear-up and clean-up, and start/stop times will ease your stress and help you focus. A physically clean space is better for your mental health as well as your physical wellbeing. And the last thing you want to think about during a deadline or a Zoom meeting is cockroaches on your desk which were attracted by crumbs.
An end-of-day home office ritual may seem a bit strange at first, but this process becomes your 'commute' into personal time; to say nothing of the pleasure you will feel on entering your office the next day to see a clean, welcoming space. Tidy spaces are visually restful, and we need as much calm in our lives as we can cultivate right now - try it for a fortnight and see.
The pop-up home office If you don't have the space for a dedicated home office room then your routine will involve both a 'commute to work' and a 'commute from work' each day, but with some forethought this can be easier than it may sound right now. When your home space is small and/or shared, flexibility, clear boundaries, communication and discipline will come together in helping you create an effective pop-up home office.
While it may seem easier to just perch wherever you can to work each day, this lack of consistency will be stressful and distracting for you in the long-term - remember that lizard brain likes routine! And although it may sound as though I am asking you to do something onerous each day by taking a few minutes at the start and end of your work day to set up and put away your home office, this approach will simultaneously help to increase your output while reducing your stress. Honestly, a set-up/break-down routine does not need to involve much or take long, but the rewards will be far beyond your expectations.
Think about lighting, physical comfort, and access to your work space, and the ease with which you can set up and break down your pop-up office work space each day. At first this daily pop-up approach may seem a strange thing to do, but when your space is very small and/or shared it is not reasonable to expect someone else to give up space for your computer, camera, files, notes, etc. (Nor should you for them, by the way - pop-up home offices should be equal opportunity, respectful spaces.) A key aspect of a pop-up home office is also that of time consistency (like a permanent home office), and not limited to the place you work from each day. Set up at the same time each day - if you are an early riser then this may be closer to 7am, and if you are a night-owl then this may be 10 or even 11am instead. The time does not matter, as long as you begin and end your day at roughly the same time each day. Yes, Zoom makes this a little different sometimes, but I will discuss Zoom in a later section of this post. The main point here is consistency of hours worked, just as with a permanent home office - aim for 6-7 hours per day for a four to five day work week if you work for someone else and as many hours as you like that are healthy and reasonable if you work for yourself. Remember to build in your breaks at regular intervals; at a minimum you should have a morning and afternoon tea break with a meal break that is at about the half-way point in your working day, with bathroom breaks as needed, naturally.
Another aspect of your set-up and break-down each day is what your work space needs for you to work effectively. I always have water to drink on my desk, and when I have sessions with clients I also have a large mug of tea. As my psychotherapy sessions run for 90 minutes at a time - End of Life Consultant sessions including those for advance planning for funerals, memorial services, and health care plans may run much longer - I need to be prepared in advance. I am fortunate enough to have a dedicated home office space, so my filing cabinet is under my desk, however I do take notes during sessions of all kinds, and so I think a lot about stationery supplies and need to plan for these*.
*When I travel my headphones and stationery items come with me, so my travel pop-up is consistent with my home office - and yes, I put everything away at the end of the day, too. I mention this because travel will one day be possible again, and some of us may well be working with both home-based and travel pop-up offices. Planning ahead is a good thing to do right now, as long as we don't put all of our time and energy into this aspect of our work lives.
I always have paper, pens, highlighters and headphones at my desk, but I know people who work with multiple laptops or phones, so is tech something you need to put out and store safely for your pop-up home office?
Do you have a special mug or plate for snacks, is there a playlist that helps you work?
Write down a list of musts, then write one of wants - you will find a consistent set of musts and wishes/wants that will form part of your pop-up home office every day.
Don't be afraid to experiment a little from week to week initially, but do not allow yourself to be constantly distracted by new additions to your pop-up home office - this can rapidly become a time and attention suck that works to sabotage the process of a consistent pop-up home office and will negatively impact your work quality and outcomes.
Pop-up home office storage - putting your home office 'to bed' every day Journalists and field researchers, like end of life workers, are often quite good at having a pop-up or mobile office in a backpack or small travel suitcase (recorders, stationery, microphones, tissues, snacks etc.), so we can model a pop-up home office solution on this if possible - and this is also an opportunity to be creative about the practicalities of storing away your pop-up at the end of the day. Ensure you put everything away in the same container/space, preferably in the same order. This, in turn, means that you are unpacking each morning in a smooth, consistent order that will help get your mind and attention into work mode with a minimum of effort. If you have a suitcase or a plastic tub with a lid that can slide under a table, shelf or staircase, this will be ideal, because when your pop-up home office has gone to bed for the night you will not be tempted to go 'back to work'.
If you don't have a suitcase, tub or storage container, find a bookshelf, bag or backpack, or drawer where ALL your office items go at the end of each work day - and yes, this means washing and drying your cup, glass, cutlery and plate as well. This comprehensive approach to your home office contents offers you the equivalent of the permanent home office in terms of a calm space when you begin the day. If you need to wash your crockery before you begin work you may never get out of the kitchen at all as you focus on busywork not relating to your actual work. So, the discipline of cleaning and storing helps not only to ensure you 'end' your workday consistently, but you set yourself up for a consistent start the next day - which helps your focus, output and work quality, and so on, in a rather pleasing cycle. Oh, and remember to remove the batteries from your recorders and headphones when you put your pop-up home office to bed, too.
Remember: A pop-up office space is for YOU and about YOU and your needs; don't worry or fixate about which part of the home someone else might work from. For example the Australian author Tara Moss is open about writing from her bed because pillows help support her back more effectively than a traditional desk/chair arrangement, Irish novelist Marian Keyes reportedly likes to write from bed so she can stay in her pajamas all day, and Truman Capote reportedly liked to write from any flat surface, declaring himself "a completely horizontal writer". If your eyes are quite light sensitive it is important to have indirect light, and for those of us who like to work on the floor a space where you can sprawl out comfortably (and move around safely and easily) is going to be a priority. Think about how you work best - both physically and psychologically - and pick your pop-up home office spot with these priorities and needs in mind.
A special word about location for your pop-up office: If at all possible, select a spot that is not in a high-traffic area - this is a genuine priority when you share living space so that distractions and interruptions are minimised, but even if you live alone you will want a work spot that is not too distracting. If you must work in the kitchen, for example, try to ensure you have a clear space around you with no cooking utensils or food around you. This is not about limiting food when we are working from home, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with grazing or eating while working - however, physically getting up from your desk on a regular basis is an important part of working from home. Ensuring you don't have everything for snack breaks and lunch within easy reach mean that you will be prompted to get away from your work space several times a day, which is healthy. Your circulation will thank you later, as will your back.
Communication matters! Working from home while sharing space will not work without respectful interactions around boundaries and times when you and the people you share a home with are 'not available' due to work commitments. There are a number of ongoing solutions to home office and work communication relating to privacy and lack of distractions that include signs on doors, chalkboards, shared calendar apps, 'no go' zones of a home during certain hours/times of day, and good old-fashioned talking. Communication cannot be assumed based on a pre-existing relationship (spouses as well as flat-mates need to communicate clearly and respect boundaries and stated needs), and is something to work at over time.
If you are worried that you won't keep out of your work, shut your computer down when you finish work, and remove email apps and notifications from your tablet and phone. That way, even if you are streaming or gaming online on a device, you won't be interrupted by work.
ZOOM MEETINGS AND HOW TO SURVIVE THEM FROM YOUR HOME OFFICE
Online meetings can be wonderful - and are terrific for social occasions, too. However, Zoom meetings for work can be particularly tiring, as many people are now discovering. Partly this is in response to the relentless visual overwhelm on the screen - in a face-to-face meeting we can look up, down, away, or study something in front of us to give us a break from the micro-information we unconsciously process as part of prefrontal cortex action in the brain. Zoom meetings, however require us to deal with sometimes intermittent technology, and often multiple faces on the screen and it can be difficult to look away (see my earlier point about computer/TV screens as 'eyes' commanding our attention) to gain a visual break. With online communication we work harder to read visual cues, and the slight lag that internet video entails is quite tiring in terms of cognitive processing.
On the lighter side, performance reviews online will never be the same again thanks to BBC sports broadcaster Andrew Cotter, and is well worth watching. Timing is everything. If you are the person calling the meetings then you have the choice to stagger meetings so that you and other participants can have a break between video calls - in fact, when you email or call someone to arrange the meeting you can simply ask if they have a meeting just prior to yours. If the answer is 'yes' try to build a 15 minute space into your call's starting time to allow your participant a chance to use the bathroom, walk around and stretch, and get a drink or snack before they speak with you. We all do better when our blood sugar is at a reasonable level, so hydration and food are important (and sometimes overlooked when we get caught up in multiple online meetings in a day).
I frequently am in Zoom meetings for several hours a day, either with university teaching or clients, or both, so I can attest to the exhaustion of online work which is frequently coupled with technology issues like drop-outs and buffering. I do realise how hard I am working in Zoom sessions and meetings to see visual cues, and that silence (very normal in face-to-face conversations) may be perceived as threatening or undesirable in an online environment. The following may be helpful, but remember that if you really need a break then your pet is the ultimate solution for allowing yourself a break - we can even meet a potential rescue pet online now as this clip shows.
Move around in your chair - sitting is hard for the spine, and longer online meetings often don't allow for breaks. I use a tilt board under my feet to help circulation and to promote better muscle tone in my legs, too. If you need something quick try a couple of bricks and a piece of spare MDF; as long as you can move your feet up and down to change the angle it will work. This is also helpful for shorter people - the pressure on the back of the thighs is relieved with the movement, and your feet are further off the ground which can help with desk height.
Don't be afraid to excuse yourself. Use the chat box function to write something like "Excuse me, I will be back in a moment/few minutes" and ensure your microphone is on 'mute' before you leave your desk. If you have your camera facing the room then mute your video as well if you want to stretch, or if your bathroom door is visible to the screen and you don't think it appropriate to let your colleagues know where you are going on this particular break. Do not abuse the length of your break however, keep it to under 5 minutes, less if you can. Make a quick cuppa, empty your bladder, or answer the door, but then go right back. You don't need to re-announce your return on the chat box as turning your mic and/or video back on will let everyone else know your active status.
If you are not needed for a later part of a meeting, then offer your thanks and goodbye - either verbally or in writing via the chat box - and leave the meeting. Just because the Zoom meeting stays open does not mean you must perforce participate. Online meeting protocols can echo face-to-face meetings, and your presence may not be required for the entire meeting. Leaving earlier than the meeting runs, or entering late (or a combination of the two) are perfectly fine provided you are respectful and behave professionally.
If you are going to be late or need to leave early then it is sensible professional practice to email the meeting organiser, and anyone else of importance in the meeting, to let them know in advance. If you have multiple Zoom meetings in one day, and they are back to back, this is a good healthy self-care strategy anyway.
And finally for today
This sounds simple and certainly looks simple on the page. However, rest is now often considered a taboo concept and this works to our detriment. Every day, the afternoon around three-ish works well for many of us, take a minimum of 10 minutes to lie down and do - literally - nothing. This is actually harder than it may sound for many of us because we cannot 'do' anything during our rest time. No phones or screens, no calls, no messages, no talking, no TV or audiobook, no games, no podcasts, no list-writing. Rest means we stop and permit ourselves to sink into ease and inactivity at the emotional, physical and psychological levels. If you nap, great. If you don't and get up after 10 minutes, great too. The point is to get into the habit of taking a complete break away from everything just for yourself, every day. So yes, you need to be like Cully, Gentle Reader, seven days a week. Because grief is tiring, and can feel overwhelming and relentless at times - and our resilience in the face of grief may change daily, and sometimes hourly. Rest helps with grief; rest is wonderful and soothing, so I invite you not to fear rest but to embrace it. Working from home (or being at home while trying to work under incredibly adverse circumstances) will be eased as a process and reality.
If you would like support with grief and anxiety relating to COVID-19 stress - or anything to do with working from home - please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org for an online appointment. I am here for you and happy to help. Let's talk.