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6 Ways to Boost Your Mental Well-Being While Working From Home

6 Ways to Boost Your Mental Well-Being While Working From Home

Feeling lonely and stressed out now that your home is your office? Follow these tips to ease your mind.

Additional reporting by Jenny Blair, MD

Updated on April 2, 2020 at 5pm ET

An abrupt, nationwide pivot to working from home would be jarring under any circumstances. But the current transformation is even harder.

Under the shadow of COVID-19, new teleworkers are coping not only with the logistical and psychological challenges of living and working from home, but also fears about what the pandemic might mean for them and their loved ones. Many also have their hands full trying to supervise and teach their homebound children.

Working from home can make it difficult to maintain boundaries and protect your mental health in even the best of times. Fortunately, some aspects of the experience are under our control, and being proactive about reducing work-related distress may help free mental resources to cope with other pandemic-related challenges. 

Everyone’s situation is different, and the COVID-19 outbreak continues to evolve. Plans made today may change tomorrow—or planning may be impossible, period. But taking the following steps may help you strike the right balance—and preserve your mental health

Set clear boundaries
When work takes place where you live, creating boundaries for your time, space and social interaction is crucial to keeping your stress levels in check. It’s all too easy to let work colonize hours you could have been devoting to home, family or other pursuits, or to let piles of work-related papers build up on the dining-room table. Add kids or a partner who assume your attention is always available, and boundaries become vital to just getting through the afternoon. Try these strategies:

  • Follow a routine. Start by making up a daily schedule—one that includes time allotted for your morning routine, a clear beginning and end to each workday, and breaks for meals, exercise and more. If you live with others, let them know when you’ll be working and when your work hours end. Close doors when you absolutely can’t be disturbed, if possible. This can help you maintain any work-life balance you may have achieved before the pandemic.
     
  • Step away from the screen. Remember that it’s essential to take breaks from your computer. Don’t be afraid to let your coworkers’ bids for your attention go temporarily unanswered—that’s what tools like voicemail are for. Replying to volumes of emails after work hours may demonstrate dedication, but can also lead to burnout.
     
  • Establish a workspace. Your physical space could benefit from boundaries, as well. While it’s tempting to conduct video calls from anywhere convenient, an area dedicated to work can help you mentally separate your job from your home life. You’ll also be able to keep needed supplies close at hand, as well, eliminating frenzied searches for headphones, documents and chargers.
     
  • Define kids’ boundaries, too. What if your children are home? First, let your colleagues know if they don’t already; odds are they’re in a similar situation. Then, dedicate a space for your kids’ schoolwork and provide them with a daily structure including start times, end times and scheduled breaks. This can help them understand your expectations and reduce distractions overall. Interruptions will happen, of course, but guardrails may lessen the volume.

Stay in touch
Working from home presents challenges to mental health aside from blurred boundaries. A prime example: loneliness. Indeed, the need to cultivate relationships with colleagues can be hard to fulfill with a couch-and-laptop-in-pajamas setup. And, during the pandemic, it’s no longer an option to pop over to the local cafe for a change of scenery and a friendly word with the barista.

To help you stay in touch with other people and keep from feeling isolated, make liberal use of video calls and apps designed for the workplace, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams. Try having a morning meeting with colleagues each day or setting up regular conversations with coworkers. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it; many of your colleagues are in the same situation.

Optimize your work time
Between constant distractions and a steep learning curve, working from home can make you feel frustrated, unproductive and incompetent—like you’re not getting your job done. You can help mitigate these emotions by employing a few key practices:

  • Set goals for each day. Whether it’s working a set number of hours or completing a certain project, hitting a goal can foster feelings of achievement.
     
  • Tackle tough stuff when you’re fresh. Schedule trickier tasks at a time of day when you have a full head of steam, or when distractions are minimal. If you have a baby or preschooler, for example, you may want to complete an item that requires a lot of concentration during naptime.
     
  • Play to your strengths. Try getting more done on days when you’re in the zone. Attack extra tasks if you’re on a roll or your distractions are fairly minimal, so you can ease up on harder days when things feel overwhelming.
     
  • Plug in strategically. Do you feel left out of the loop? Make sure you’re included on meetings relevant to your responsibilities. Or, if you have time, ask to pick up additional projects.

Limiting your news intake can boost your productivity and improve your state of mind, as well. Instead of constantly scrolling through social media feeds filled with worrisome stories, try tuning into COVID-19 news just once or twice daily, for a few minutes each time.

Don’t skip breaks
When you’re focused on work, it’s all too tempting to ignore scheduled downtime and keep plugging away. In short, don’t do that. Taking breaks allows you to decompress and recharge, even if it’s just throwing in a load of laundry.

If possible, try to get some exercise during your break. Physical activity stimulates endorphins and relieves stress. While hitting the gym is out of the question these days, you can still walk around your block, do a quick video workout or just stretch for a while.

If you have a mental illness
People who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition like anxiety or depression may face additional challenges when working from home during the pandemic. Isolation and loneliness can exacerbate psychological disorders, and the resources of normal times—such as in-person counseling sessions and support group meetings—are likely unavailable.

To cope with isolation, it’s especially important for people with mental health conditions to maintain their daily routine, such as keeping regular hours and getting dressed in the morning, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Face-to-face time with others is also important, advises NAMI, so opt for video conversations over phone calls when you can. Understand that some days will be worse than others, too.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) also recommends that homebound workers with mental health conditions stick to their treatment plans as closely as possible. Make sure you have sufficient medication on hand, and check with your healthcare provider (HCP) to see if you can pick up an extra 60- or 90-days’ worth. If you notice your symptoms changing or if you need support, try to schedule telehealth appointments with your therapist.

If you’re experiencing a mental health crisis, get in touch with your healthcare provider, text HOME or NAMI to 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 as soon as possible.

Go easy on yourself
That goes for everyone. These are tough times, so cut yourself and your colleagues some slack. Maintain realistic expectations. It’s hard to work and supervise your kids full-time, and managers may need to make allowances. Expect interruptions, roll with them and do what you can to minimize them in the future. With some intentionality, you can reduce work-from-home stress and focus on the things that matter most.

Medically reviewed in April 2020.

Sources:

Zara Greenbaum. “The future of remote work.” American Psychological Association: Monitor on Psychology. October 1, 2019. Vol. 50, No. 9.
American Psychiatric Association Foundation. “Working Remotely During COVID-19: Your Mental Health and Well-being.”
National Alliance on Mental Illness. “COVID-19 Resource and Information Guide.”
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “Emotional Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Outbreak.”
Crisis Text Line. “How to Handle Coronavirus.”

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