Working from home can increase stress and reduce wellbeing. Here’s how to stop that from happening.
Updated on 30 March 2020: Everyone in the UK is well aware that, as part of the government’s response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we’re currently in lockdown mode.
“From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction – you must stay at home,” Boris Johnson said in a televised statement last week. “Because the critical thing we must do is stop the disease spreading between households.”
“People will only be allowed to leave their home for the following very limited purposes,” he added, listing four reasons for which citizens can go outside; shopping for basic necessities, doing one form of exercise a day, providing medical services, or going to work… but only if it is absolutely vital that they do so.
Johnson said the measures will be reviewed after three weeks. Until then, though, unprecedented numbers of us are working from home – and many of us are already beginning to feel the pressure.
It’s no surprise, really, that people are finding remote working tough. Indeed, the stress and negative impact of WFH on our emotional wellbeing has been well documented.
The primary cause? A lack of feedback from line managers and senior colleagues. This lack of a benchmark makes it almost impossible for employees to judge progress, “which leads to increased feelings of anxiety and a concern as to whether we are ‘up to standard’,” as reported by The Conversation.
Here, Stylist’s Kayleigh Dray takes a closer look at the growing phenomenon of ‘digital presenteeism’, and asks a psychologist for their simple tips on relieving the pressure.
As reported on 16 March 2020: If I’m being completely honest with myself, I’ve always been something of a workaholic. When I was in the office, I’d do (almost) anything to ensure that I finished all of my daily tasks – even if that meant forgoing lunch. Or staying late, sometimes. You know: the usual little sacrifices we’re all guilty of making at least once in our careers, in a bid to prove to our bosses that our hearts are truly in this.
Now that I’m working from home, however, I’ve noticed that I’ve been piling enormous pressure upon myself to do better. To work faster, longer, harder than ever before. To prove to my manager, miles away and busily focused on her own duties, that I am 100% engaged and ready for anything.
I’ve started earlier, and finished later. I’ve skipped lunches, tea breaks, chats-with-colleagues-by-the-water-cooler breaks, even toilet breaks. And I’ve repeatedly stood up at the end of the day, stiff and aching, only to realise that I haven’t moved from my desk once.
It’s a hell of my own making, of course. Indeed, my brilliant editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski recently emailed everyone in the company to reassure us that we don’t need to “prove” that we’re working: she trusts us implicitly. And yet, despite this, I can’t shake the feeling that… well, that I’m going to be “found out”.
Seeking solidarity and advice from the brilliant Working From Home With Stylist community on Facebook (which has been set up to help people during this period of self-isolation, coronavirus quarantine and social distancing), I shared a post with the group.
“Does anyone else get ‘The Fear’ when working from home? Like, working harder and longer and skipping breaks to ‘prove’ you’re doing the job?” I asked. “Any advice would be much appreciated.”
As the comments racked up underneath my post, it quickly became clear that I was by far from the only one plagued by this problem.
“That’s me when working from home in a nutshell,” wrote one person. “The other day I worked from 8am to 8pm to meet an unrealistic deadline and avoid being accused of ‘not working hard enough’ when I’m working from home.”
Another added: “I used to answer the phone in the bathroom, just to reinforce the idea that I was available and engaged!”
And still one more said: “Same. I’ll not take a lunch break because I’m scared people will see I’m not online for a few minutes and say I’m not working.”
It seems this is a very real problem faced by the UK’s growing work-from-home force. And so, in a bid to help myself and my fellow sufferers of ‘digital presenteeism’, I reached out to mental health advocate Jo Love for some advice.
“Overcompensating due to the fear of looking like you might be shirking or slacking is a common problem for those of us who WFH. And sure, blitzing the to-do list, the non-stop working and saying yes to everything your boss throws at you might make you feel awesome in the short term, but if you try and keep that up for more than a couple of days it can have a dark side,” she told me.
“Working flat out is not sustainable and is more than likely to send you into a physical and emotional burnout spiral.”
With that thought in mind, then, I asked Love for her advice on protecting our mental health when working from home.
Here’s what she had to say…
How can I add more structure to my day without cutting down on productivity?
Starting your day with a clear list of goals will help you structure your day and help you stay productive. Without clear goals, you can’t set priorities, and without priorities, you can’t perform your job to the best of your ability. Instead, you’ll spread your energy over numerous, time-consuming tasks. You’ll lack a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, which will inevitably lead you to exhaustion.
Why is it important to take breaks?
It can be oh-so-easy to fall into a sedentary lifestyle when you live and work in the same few square feet. When we work in an office, without realising it multiple times a day we will be prompted to take a break either by smelling that freshly-brewed pot of coffee in the communal kitchen, or joining in the chat about the latest Netflix box-set.
Taking regular breaks from our work throughout the day has been shown to be good for our mental, cardiovascular, visual and emotional health. For maximum benefit, you should try and step away from the screen and really get the blood moving with a short walk, or even a quick workout or yoga session.
How can I make WFH feel more like a ‘normal’ working day?
As boring as it sounds, having a fairly rigid plan about when you’re going to get up, when you will start working, when you’ll have your breaks and what time you will stop working, will help enormously. Otherwise it’s all too easy to procrastinate or get distracted and lose focus.
If my workload is too large to handle, how do I tell my boss?
This can be an intimidating thing to deal with. Should you be honest that you’re swamped and risk looking like you’re lazy or can’t hack the pace, or do you just carry on feeling as if you’re drowning while making more and more mistakes in a bid to save time or cut corners?
As with most things, honesty really is the best policy but you might need to think about how best to broach the subject. It also it helps to be specific and give concrete examples of which projects are adding the pressure and why. And it can be useful to give an estimate of how much time it would take for you to complete each of the tasks you’ve been asked to complete and then the aggregate time to show how this isn’t possible.
Finally, it’s always a good idea to come with solutions when bringing any problems to your boss. For example in this situation, you’ll likely get major brownie points with your boss if you have already identified projects that can be delayed, delegated, deleted, or diminished.
I’m getting really overwhelmed with all the coronavirus news, and feel less productive than normal due to endless worrying. Is this normal?
This is very normal, and there will be a lot of people who understandably are feeling really anxious at the moment. Feelings of fear, anxiety, sadness, and uncertainty are completely normal during a pandemic. You can find some advice on how best to deal with these feelings here.
What are four tips everyone who’s working from home should follow?
1) Get out of bed
It can be very tempting to set up a mobile office underneath the sheets, but when you don’t physically separate where you work from where you sleep it really doesn’t help with separating the two mentally. This means you’ll find it harder to concentrate and more difficult to unplug at the end of the day.
2) Keep in touch
Let’s face it: WFH can be lonely, and it gets lonelier the longer it lasts. Daily check-ins with your colleagues, even if there’s nothing specific to report, will help maintain team spirit and help your mood, too.
3) Set those boundaries
Having a regular start time, break time and finish time, will make it clear to your colleagues when you’re available. It’ll also help you resist distractions when you’re working and give you a clear end to your working day.
4) Dose of daylight
Above all else, a lack of natural daylight can affect our eyes as well as our concentration and mental health. So try and get some natural light in your workspace, as daylight really can improve your mood.
Images: Kaboom Pics/Getty/iStock
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.