Working from home and suddenly hit a brick wall? Experts explain what’s going on

Posted by for Life

For digital writer Hollie Richardson, working from home for the foreseeable future was going OK… until it suddenly wasn’t. Here, experts explain the “brick wall” that she’s hit, and offer tips on how to overcome it.

I’m used to working from home. I freelanced for a couple of years and was already doing weekend shifts from my flat before coronavirus hit. I know the importance of getting dressed, eating proper meals throughout the day and not being tempted by the TV. Whether or not I follow my own advice on these rules is another story, but I’ve always managed to make it work for me.

When we went into lockdown and the whole company was told to work from home, I knew it was doable. I love cycling to the office and seeing my amazing colleagues, but I also feel OK working solo in my own environment with a few video calls and Slack messages to stay connected. Yes, I was terrified about the coronavirus pandemic. But I felt very lucky to be able to work from home, so quickly accepted a new way of working for a while.

I found comfort and positivity in our morning video meetings. I spruced up my desk space and ordered a new computer screen. I found inspiration from all the amazing people doing incredible things when it came to pitching articles. I surrounded myself with plants. I tidied up my balcony so that I could take lunch breaks sitting outside with a book. I chatted with colleagues about nothing and everything on instant messenger. It was a new situation that required us all to adapt, rise up to the challenge and give it everything – and I did it all at full speed.

Then I took annual leave and just… stopped.

The fear, uncertainty and sadness were still there. But I somehow managed to relax for the first time in weeks, reading books, baking treats and sleeping properly again. I “returned” to work feeling ready to give it all the same energy I had done since going into lockdown. What I’ve found though is that I have hit a brick wall. Despite my best intentions, I’m zoning out, staring at the wall and my brain feels mushy. After talking to friends and colleagues, it’s clear that a lot of people feel exactly the same way at this point in the coronavirus crisis.

Sarah*, who works in digital journalism, tells Stylist: “Working from home in these circumstances was fine for the first three weeks – I’m now on week five, day two and the ‘excitement’ has worn off. The joy of being able to walk from my make-shift desk to my kitchen at lunch has also worn off. And what I’m left with is a sense of despair that this is my new normal. It sucks. I’d give anything to be pottering back into work, chatting with my work friends over the kettle and eating a shitty Pret sandwich for lunch.”

Niki is used to working from home for her tech company, but she says: “Being asked to work as normal without the ability to leave my home and see friends means it’s no longer easy and my attitude has changed. Even though I know I can leave for exercise I actually find myself not doing that and working much longer hours to make sure I am seen as ‘important’ to the business. I find myself being really distracted with the news and friends messaging more than ever before. I know this is horrible to admit as many people are really struggling but I almost wanted furlough so I can spend this time not working. So, I took this week off… but I’ve achieved very little.”

Kylie, a digital content manager for a charity, experiences highs and lows working at her parents’ house, explaining: “Sometimes I find it very easy to work and other days I have to really push myself. I make a list and aim to cross off a certain amount a day. At least I know I haven’t wasted the day singing to myself.”

Is it any wonder our motivation, gratitude and energy levels are rapidly declining? Because, here’s the thing: we’re not just working from home; we’re working from home during a pandemic. And we need to recognise that these are two completely different situations to be in. 

“We’re in the midst of a collective trauma and if we don’t understand that, we’re really going to get into trouble and not be able to understand why we feel the way we do,” Michelle Scott, a psychotherapist from The Recovery Centre Group (TRC), tells me over the phone. “How can we not be affected by what’s happening to us? Even if you’re used to working from home, this isn’t the same – it’s completely different – because I’m sure you’re used to going out and separating home and work.”

Explaining why so many of us are feeling a sudden dip at the same time, she explains: “A lot of people are very good in a crisis, because our fight or flight system gets fired up. We’re hit with a sudden panic and we have a very handy system in our body that gets us ready for that and we can adapt quite quickly because we’re firefighting. That’s why [at first] we found new short term goals we could achieve to help us get through, like ‘how do I work Zoom? Do I need to order a new iPad?’.

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“These things don’t protect us from the threat of coronavirus but being able to focus on those little tasks gave you something to feel good, safe, in control. But that only lasts for so long and that’s what people are finding now. We’ve been so goal, task and fight-led that we’ve worn ourselves out. Our nervous systems can only work like that for so long.

“If what we’ve been doing is try to protect ourselves from the trauma and anxiety, in a way we’ve actually been sort of running away from it by busying ourselves. But the anxiety is still there and that eventually overwhelms us.

“What then happens is that we go into freeze or flop. The symptoms of freeze and flop are the ones you and your friends have been talking about: we become disassociated, we can’t think straight, we disconnect from ourselves and others, we feel lost and have no energy. It’s another surviving mechanism – flop.”

This makes total sense to me, and I 100% identify myself in flop mode while sprawled out on my sofa right now as I type, rather than doing the “right” thing by sitting at my desk with a straight back. But what can we do to tackle this mental brick wall when the pandemic continues to cause so much grief, terror and anxiety? 

Sleep and trauma psychologist Hope Bastine, a PhD researcher who is resident expert for sleep technology firm Simba, says: “The issue we have at the moment is that we continually have new information that throws us into an anxiety-hangover vicious cycle, which is blocking us from progressing through a ‘change cycle’ (acknowledging what has happened and coming to terms with it through a series of emotional stages). So here we have to problem solve and implement strategies of self-care.”

She continues: “If you are having an anxiety hangover, your mind and body is telling you to look after yourself. Practice the art of self-care and you will bounce back sooner than if you try to push through. Focus in on some of the key lifestyle factors that promote optimal well-being in this time of crisis.”

Bastine recommends focusing on three areas: the self-enhancing mindset, applying stress-reduction techniques and prioritising sleep hygiene.

Explaining the self-enhancing mindset, she says: “Choosing to focus on positive information – like how the virus recovery rate far exceeds the mortality rate – will not only help you cope with this stressful situation but also reap the immunity benefits. Take time every day to witness how humanity is coming together in this uncertain time, watch a comedy show, laugh at our mistakes, and dance to Pharrell Williams’ Happy.”

Having a better understanding of why we’re feeling a collective slump at this point in the crisis, and knowing the best tips on how to overcome it, can only now mean one thing: we’re going to smash through this wall together. 

You can read more about “hitting the wall” on TRC’s blog.

Anyone who is worried about their mental health during the pandemic can contact mental health charity Mind’s Infoline on 0300 123 3393. Alternatively, you can read their online guide sheet here.

*Name changed at contributor’s request

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Hollie Richardson

Hollie is a digital writer at Stylist.co.uk, mainly covering the daily news on women’s issues, politics, celebrities and entertainment. She also keeps an ear out for the best podcast episodes to share with readers. Oh, and don’t even get her started on Outlander…