Staying away from crowds — maintaining what’s known as “social distancing” — is the right move during this coronavirus outbreak. But it also could mean that we are disconnecting from our support systems where straying from our social routines can take its toll on our mental health.
Stress can be particularly tough on people like me (and probably you) with preexisting mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.
My therapist offered these tips to cope with stress and worry during social isolation and I thought it’d be beneficial to share with all of you:
- Don’t beat yourself up if you feel more stress or are more worried than usual. Feeling that is expected and normal.
- Get the facts and understand the risks. Get facts from reliable sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and local health departments.
- Limit media consumption. Give yourself a limit or “news diet.”
- Connect digitally with the people who support you. Talking, venting and laughing together is an important way to relieve stress.
- Stick to a daily routine to keep a sense of normalcy in your life. Include time for work, exercise, hobbies or learning. If kids are out of school, give them a structured routine, too.
- Spend time outside.
- Keep a gratitude journal to avoid focusing on the negative. Write down three things you’re thankful for each day.
- If you have trouble paying bills or problems from a lack of employment, reach out for help. “It’s not a time to suffer in silence,” Cates said. “Make phone calls and find out what’s available.”
- Eat well. Get enough sleep. Get exercise.
- Keep a schedule. If you typically visit your grandmother each week but can’t because of restrictions on nursing home access, schedule a phone call on the same day instead. If you have a regular lunch date, connect digitally even though you’re eating in different places.
- Practice deep breathing, mindfulness meditation or other stress-management techniques. Consider the app PTSD Coach to practice some relaxation techniques.
Anxiety is to be expected in a situation like this, especially with a constant influx of information and few answers. We need to learn to manage the anxiety instead of letting the anxiety manage us.
Now when it comes to work, the risk is substantial. The lines between work and non-work are blurring in new and unusual ways, and many of us who are working remotely for the first time are likely to struggle to preserve healthy boundaries between their professional and personal lives. To signal their loyalty, devotion, and productivity, we may feel we have to work all the time. Afternoons will blend with evenings; weekdays will blend with weekends; and little sense of time off will remain. It is also possible that some of us may be asked to continue working remotely for several months.
HBR did a research that showed that workers often unintentionally make it hard for their supervisors, colleagues, and employees to maintain boundaries. One way they do so is by sending work emails outside office hours. In five studies involving more than 2,000 working adults, they found that senders of after-hours work emails underestimate how compelled receivers feel to respond right away, even when such emails are not urgent.
Covid-19 might amplify these pressures. Even for employees who have a natural preference to separate their work and personal lives, the current circumstances may not allow them to do so.
So how can employees continue to compartmentalize their work and non-work lives, given the extraordinary situation that so many of us are in today? How can we “leave our work at the door” if we are no longer going out the door? What can employers, managers, and coworkers do to help one another cope?
Based on that research and the wider academic literature, here are some recommendations:
Maintain physical and social boundaries
Put on your work clothes. Get your morning coffee, take that show and smell good. Transition from “home you” to “work you”. Try to maintain that when working remotely. In the short-term, it may be a welcome change not to have to catch an early train to work, or to be able to spend all day in your pajamas—but both of those things are boundary-crossing activities that can do you good, so don’t abandon them altogether. Put on your work clothes every morning—casual Thursday is fine, of course, but get yourself ready nonetheless.
Maintain temporal boundaries as much as possible
Maintaining temporal boundaries is critical for well-being and work engagement. Sticking to a 9-to-5 schedule may prove unrealistic. Employees need to find work-time budgets that function best for them. They also need be conscious and respectful that others might work at different times than they do. Employees with children can create intentional work-time budgets by adding an “out of office” reply during certain hours of the day to focus on work. A less-extreme reply might be to just let others know that you might be slower than usual in responding, decreasing response expectations for others and yourself.
Creating clear temporal boundaries often depends on the ability to coordinate ones’ time with others. This calls for leaders to aid employees in structuring, coordinating, and managing the pace of work. This might mean regularly holding virtual check-in virtual meetings with employees, or providing them with tools to create virtual coffee or workspaces. Through this disruption, keeping a sense of normality is key.
Focus on your most important work
This is not the time for busy work. Workers should be devoting their energy to top-priority issues.
While working from home, employees often feel compelled to project the appearance of productivity, but this can lead them to work on tasks that are more immediate instead of more important—a tendency that research suggests is counterproductive in the long run, even if it benefits productivity in the short run. Employees, particularly those facing increased workloads as they juggle family and work tasks, should pay attention to prioritizing important work.
Working all the time, even on your most important tasks, isn’t the answer. According to some estimates, the average knowledge worker is only productive on average three hours every day, and these hours should be free of interruptions or multitasking. Even before Covid-19, employees found it difficult to carve out three continuous hours to focus on their core work tasks. With work and family boundaries being removed, employees’ time has never been more fragmented.
Employees who feel “on” all the time are at a higher risk of burnout when working from home than if they were going to the office as usual. In the long-term, trying to squeeze in work and email responses whenever we have a few minutes to do so —during nap time, on the weekend, or by pausing a movie in the evening—is not only counterproductive but also detrimental to our well-being. We all need to find new ways—and help others do the same—to carve out non-work time and mental space.
These are just a few recommendations that can help us workers maintain boundaries between their work and their personal life and thereby avoid burnout in the long run. Employees will need the flexibility to experiment with how to make their circumstances work for them in these unpredictable times.