After a year spent working from home, the challenges of working outside the structure and social bubble of the office are becoming increasingly clear. Here’s how to make things a little easier, according to an expert.
If you’ve spent the last year working from home, chances are you began by thinking of it as a temporary arrangement. When the coronavirus pandemic first took over the UK and office workers across the country were forced to swap their desks for the dining room table, it seemed inconceivable that the whole thing would last more than a couple of months, let alone a whole year.
As a result, many people failed to confront the potential challenges of working from home, such as the back pain caused by WFS (working from sofa) or the added pressures of Zoom fatigue. And now, one year on from the start of all this, those problems are becoming increasingly clear.
This sense of realisation is something the author, journalist and podcaster Rebecca Seal knows all too well. When she first started working from home over 11 years ago, she too ‘put her head down’ and continued to work as she had done when working in the office. It was only six years later – when she found herself “unhappy, exhausted and very close to burnout,” that she realised things needed to change.
“I just hadn’t given it any thought,” she explains. “I worked from the moment I finished [my full-time office job] and gave no consideration to what I was doing. I didn’t think about what I needed, what my body needed and what my brain needed – to replace everything that I no longer had.”
Confronted with the realisation that something needed to change, Seal did some research, and quickly realised there was very little support or information for people struggling with ‘solo working’ – working from home without the support system, boundaries and social atmosphere that come with office life.
It was this which sparked the idea for her book Solo: How To Work Alone (And Not Lose Your Mind), which considers the latest research from psychology, social science and economics to provide solo workers with useful tips and tricks to help them cope with the challenges of life outside an office.
Although it was written before the pandemic, the book has become a helpful tool for workers struggling with the reality of WFH – whether that’s the sense of isolation caused by being away from colleagues or the blurring of work/life boundaries.
And now, building on the information she presents in the book, Seal is launching The Solo Collective – a podcast that sees her sit down with experts and well-known solo workers to explore topics including happiness, self-sabotage and burnout.
In short, she’s a bit of an expert when it comes to solo working and staying well while working from home.
So, with this in mind, Stylist sat down with Seal to find out about her top tips for making solo working easier – especially now that more of us are facing a future where WFH could become a more permanent arrangement. Here’s what she had to say.
1. Find new ways to connect
Although we can’t be around lots of people right now (there’s a pandemic on, if you hadn’t already noticed), Seal still recommends making time to be around people, whether that’s by walking around your community, picking up a takeaway coffee from your local café or even sitting on your doorstep and watching the world go by.
“Think about where you can get social interaction, and gift that to yourself,” Seal says. “One of the things we often find quite difficult to remember is that’s there’s psychological value to doing things like going and getting a coffee – just seeing another face and having the briefest of conversations is a measurable way of improving your wellbeing.”
To try and squeeze as much social interaction as possible into your day, Seal recommends trying to avoid doing things online wherever possible (“don’t buy postage online when you could go to the post office”) and simply trying to be out in the world when you can.
“One of the things I’ve done ever since of the beginning of the pandemic, and which has been quite profound, is sit on the doorstep with a cup of coffee and watch people go by,” she explains. “I’ve got to know the people who live on my road much better, and now the woman who lives opposite me comes out and has a chat. It sounds like such a small thing but it’s been so uplifting – I just take my coffee out and drink it on the doorstep, and it just makes me feel connected.
“Sometimes we think socialising is all about seeing friends and the big things, but its actually the little things that help us feel connected to a community.”
2. Walk and talk
While Seal is keen to stress the importance of the little moments, she’s also aware of how important it is to connect with friends regularly, whether that’s via zoom, a phone call or text.
“I try and make sure that I remember a couple of times a week to make proper time for a phone call with the many people I’m unable to visit right now,” she says. “It can be hard to do the things you know will alleviate your loneliness, but try and remember that when you do, you’re alleviating somebody else’s loneliness too.”
For Seal, another way to make making time for connection an important part of her routine is to walk while she does it – not only does that help you to get out in the community, but it also ensures you’re spending time in nature, something which is also crucial for your wellbeing.
“I walk when I’m calling my friends, so that kills two birds with one stone,” Seal laughs. “I’m trying really hard to get 120 minutes of outdoor time each week – it’s a number based on a study from the University of Exeter which showed that 120 minutes is what we need for our wellbeing, and combining that with talking to someone you care about is an added bonus.”
3. Think about the future
Thanks to the added pressures of lockdown and social distancing, solo working has become even tougher during the pandemic. So, if you’re stressing out about having to work from home longer than you expected, Seal recommends trying to put things in perspective.
“Working from home during a pandemic is not working from home, and that’s the most crucial message,” she explains.
“If you’re staring down the barrel of long-term solo work and you’re terrified, then you don’t necessarily need to be, because when things are less restricted it’s a completely different experience. I’ve been doing it for 12 years and there have been moments where I have felt unbearably stuck in the last year.”
Seal continues: “It won’t always be arranged like this and things will get better. For example, when restrictions lift, you won’t always have to work at home – you could do it in a rented office space, at your mates’ house, at a coffee shop or a library.
“All of these pressure relief valves are missing at the moment, so try to remember that if you’re frightened about what work might look like in a year’s time.”
4. Play with your environment
Most of Seal’s tips relate to things you can do outside of work – but there are some things you can do to ease the pressure of solo working and improve your wellbeing during your work hours, too.
“One really good thing to do is try and make sure that, wherever you’re working, it’s really close to a window,” Seal says.
“The level of light in a normal house drops really quickly as you move away from the window, and if you can be close to it, then you can get semi-normal daylight levels. This is important given that we’re not getting out as much as usual and we’re not really getting the doses of daylight that our brains need to moderate our circadian rhythm.”
Seal continues: “Lighting is a huge area you can make a change because you don’t have to deal with office strip lighting anymore, and you can gift yourself a window, rather than waiting for a corner office.”
Although solo working will always come with its challenges, it’s clear that there are things you can do to alleviate some of the pressure that comes with it.
The prospect of working from home for longer than expected may seem scary, but as Seal’s story shows, there are ways to make it work – especially as restrictions lift and you can get back to doing more of the things you love.
The Solo Collective is a Chalk & Blade Original production available on all major podcast platforms.
If working from home during the pandemic is taking its toll on your mental health, you’re not alone. From the isolation of being separated from colleagues and the stress of relying on technology to the threat of redundancy and the anxiety of applying for a new job, there are a number of reasons why you might find this time particularly challenging.
So, what can we do about it? We’ve got a plan.
Our Work It Out campaign, supported by Mind, aims to give you the tools and resources you need to take care of your mental health while you’re stuck at home. From completing your Work 5 A Day to dealing with issues including anxiety, loneliness and stress, we’ll be exploring all aspects of WFH wellbeing.
For more information, including how to complete your Work 5 A Day, you can check out our guide to getting started.
As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.