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.