COVID-19, Mental health blog, social work

Ten tips to achieve mental wellness when working from home

Many of us have transitioned to working from home during this challenging time in our history. First of all, I would like to acknowledge what a true privilege it is to be able to continue working from the comfort of our homes at this time. Many people are rightfully feeling stressed due to the uncertainty of layoffs and job losses. Others are feeling anxious about continuing to work on the front-lines of this pandemic. So, I just want to honour what a blessing it is to work from home right now.

Having said that, this transition does come with a unique set of challenges that can quickly impact on our mental health and wellness. These challenges look different for everyone. Some people are transitioning to sharing a workspace with their partners or roommates who are also working from home. Some people are homeschooling their kids or managing incessant pleas for attention from their fur babies. Some folks live alone and are no longer connecting with other humans when they are used to seeing their colleagues, friends, and family every day. Whatever your situation, there is a transition period happening right now, which is undoubtedly causing at least some negative impacts.

In light of this, I want to provide some suggestions for how folks can try to maintain their mental wellness while working-from-home. These suggestions are based on psychological research and the experience of mental health professionals, such as myself. They are by no means all-or-nothing. In other words, if certain items would simply not work for your current circumstances, that’s totally okay. You don’t need to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and you can still experience wellness. These are just general guidelines, based on best practice, to get your creative juices flowing. Don’t be afraid to modify things for your own life. I think more than ever, some flexibility is required right now.

So, without any further ado, here are my top ten tips to get you started on your working from home wellness journey.

Follow a regular schedule

Notebook that says "enjoy the little things" on a desk with pink pen, Z-clip, sharpener, and flower.

It can be tempting to throw your day planner out the window when you are working from home. Alas, the freedom to structure your day however you please! Sounds great, right? I caution you to suppress this urge as much as possible.

Humans are creatures of habit and we tend to like a degree of predictability, organization, and structure to our lives. The psychological benefits of sticking to routine have been well documented. It’s been known to reduce stress, increase feelings of security and safety, and even alleviate symptoms of mental illness. On the other hand, studies show that people who don’t have routines can experience some significant challenges, such as insomnia, increased stress and anxiety, and loss of productivity. Routine becomes especially important when faced with uncertainty in our lives, as we are certainly experiencing right now. So, cling to this creature comfort and don’t let it go.

Try your best to follow your usual sleep and wake cycles, work hours, breaks and lunchtime, etc. This is, of course, easier said than done when you may also be juggling other things like taking care of kids and pets and managing the extra time to clean now that everyone is stuck inside all the time. I didn’t even know I owned this many drinking glasses! Again, just aim to stick as close as possible to your schedule, and be gentle with yourself if flexibility is required. That’s okay too.

Get ready for your day

Person sitting in a chair tying up their boots in a bedroom with a computer on the bed and a coffee on a table by the window.

Look, I get it. Lounging in my pyjamas all day is far superior and more comfortable than dressing in business casual. I would live in my jammies full-time if it was socially acceptable to do so. The problem is, they’re a bit too cozy, which doesn’t typically inspire productivity. It is far more likely to make you feel sluggish and tired. This is because pyjamas are associated with relaxation and sleep. When we routinely put on our pyjamas every evening and start our nightly routine of winding down for the day, our brain makes an association between these things. The more we do it, the stronger this association becomes. This is why I don’t recommend this attire if you have suddenly transitioned to working from home when you are used to getting up and going to work every day.

Taking the complete opposite approach will not likely solve this problem, however, as wearing overly formal attire is often uncomfortable and distracting, which can also negatively affect work efficiency. If there is no immediate need for this kind of dress, try to avoid it. The goal should be comfort, especially during uncertain times such as these, just not so comfortable that all you can think about is curling up and taking a nap.

Overall, just stick to your usual routine for getting ready in the morning. If you normally shower, exercise, read, do your hair and/or makeup, make something to eat, or do a little dance on the catwalk, then make sure to keep doing these things as well. Again, routine is very important when things feel scary, chaotic, and out of our control. It can bring comfort in the eye of a storm.

Have a designated workspace

Computer on a desk with plants, books, coffee, and a cell phone.

For the same reason you don’t want to wear your pyjamas when you’re working at home, you also don’t want to work in bed, on the couch, or any other place that your brain has associated with relaxation, rest, and/or sleep (or anything else you value).

The effects of this can be twofold. First, you may begin to feel tired and disconnected when working in these places, because that’s usually how you feel in these places. Second, you may start to feel anxious when trying to relax in these areas, because your brain is now associating work with these areas. It can become quite a mess, so just avoid it if you can. Even having a tiny work area in the corner of a room will suffice, so long as you don’t use this space for anything but work.

Set your intentions for the day

Open notebook with "everyday is a fresh start" written on the page.

You’re on schedule, you’re ready for your workday, and you’ve got a designated workspace all set up. Now what? The best way to start your day is to set your intentions. What do you need to accomplish today? Or this week, if it’s the beginning of your workweek? Or this month, if it’s the beginning of the month? Write it down and make a plan for your time. As you may have guessed from the general messaging of this article, it’s good for you! Setting your intentions for the day, like sticking to other routines, gives you one less thing to think about every day, which frees up already limited time and energy, can lower stress and anxiety, and can even increase productivity. How’s that for packing a punch?

Some crafty folks swear by bullet journaling. If you’re like me, however, you may be looking for something that won’t take the whole workday to set up. I’m more of a traditionalist, or purist, or lazy-ist, if you will. I just write down a list of everything I need to do on a page and then set a plan at the beginning of each week and then each day based on the master to-do list. It’s not going to win me any followers on Pinterest, but I do use colourful glitter pens, so there’s that.

Whatever method you choose, just make a plan. You don’t need to stick to it 100%. In fact, trying to do this may cause more unnecessary stress, which is the opposite of what we are trying to achieve here. Think of it as more of a guide for your time. Things are going to come up that will force you to re-evaluate your plan, and that’s okay because you have a plan to work with already. Way to go, you!

Be intentional about self-care and connection

Person making a heart with their hands around the sun in the distance.

This is a big one. If you only pick one thing from this entire list to implement immediately, this is the one.

We are all dealing with a lot right now. Life as we know it has changed dramatically and not for the better. Now, more than ever, we need to be intentional about our self-care. This can look like lots of different things, depending on what works for you. The key is to try to achieve balance across the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions, rather than just focusing on one.

Some of my favourite practices right now are taking a walk, doing a short exercise session (I use the 8 Fit app), meditating (I use the Headspace and Insight Timer apps), reading, sitting outside, and gardening. Hello spring, y’all! For some additional ideas, check out this post I wrote on the subject. My all-time favourite self-care practice, however, is connecting with others, and for good reason too.

Humans are social beings. We need to connect with other living beings to maintain our health and wellness. If you don’t believe me, consider that when Charles Darwin wrote The Descent of Man, he only mentioned the now infamous concept of “survival of the fittest” twice in the entire 800+ pages of text, while mentioning “love” 95 times. Read that again and think about it. That’s some powerful stuff, isn’t it? And, it’s not just romantic love that counts either, but also the love for our children, extended family or self-made families, friends, pets, etc. So, connect with your loved ones as much as possible. They’ll be sure glad that you did (and so will you).

Some ideas for connecting could include setting up a Skype lunch date with a friend, calling a colleague or family member on your breaks or while you’re tidying up, getting on the floor and playing with your kids or pets, or setting up a virtual interest club (i.e. book club, social club, etc.). For more ideas, check this out.

Self-care and connecting with others can help to alleviate stress and anxiety, improve your mood and outlook on life, and increase your workflow. Whatever ideas you come up with, the key is to be intentional about it, so be sure to schedule these ideas into your plan for each day. If you do this, chances are you’ll be feeling better in no time. Now, in the words of the great Jackie Moon, everybody love everybody! (And that includes loving yourself).

Move every hour

Person stretching their hamstring muscle.

Whenever we work in an office environment, we seem to have a much greater tendency to move our bodies. Whether we are going to a colleague’s workspace to chat about a client or our weekend plans or walking to a shared printer to pick up our freshly inked pages, we seem to have a lot more reasons to actually get up and move. You know, other than the whole ‘getting away from our uncooperative work computer’ reason. When working from home, however, we tend to set up our workspaces with most everything we need for the day and there seems to be a lot less need to get up as often as we normally do.

I don’t think it would surprise anyone to learn that this can cause negative health impacts like sore and tense muscles, which can then cause a chain reaction of problems. It may surprise you to know, however, that sedentary lifestyles can cause a whole host of other problems over the long-term, including increased risks for certain kinds of cancers, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, poor sleep hygiene, and mental illness. This is why it’s so important to make a habit out of getting up to move every hour of the day. Take a quick walk (even just around your home), get a drink of water, make a tea or snack, have a stretch, call a pal, do a mini-workout session, dance, etc. Just make sure to move.

Get outside every day

Nature scenery with trees, a path, and a bench.

There’s a lot of interesting science on getting outside, connecting with nature, and mental health. Okay, maybe only nerds like me find that interesting. But, getting outside for 30 minutes every day has been shown to improve mental health, increase energy and mental focus, ignite creative thinking, improve attention and concentration, increase restful and restorative sleep, and encourage positive thinking. I think we can all agree that this is serious #lifegoals. So, make sure to get outside to reap these free rewards. Have a tea on your deck while listening to the birds or the rain, go for a lunchtime or after-work walk, or stand barefoot on the grass and imagine you’re a tree with roots growing deep into the earth beneath you (this is known as “Earthing” or “grounding”). Caution: may cause feelings of bliss and happiness.

Fuel and hydrate

Bowl of fruits on a table covered in fruit.

I don’t know what it is about working from home, but humans tend to fall into one of two patterns. Either, they forget to eat almost entirely or they act like a bear stocking up for winter, gracing the fridge every moment they get bored (see the “Set your intentions for the day” point above for tips on warding off this aimlessness). Whatever the case, significant changes to your routine is not advisable at this time (see the “Follow a regular schedule” point above for reminders on why).

Eating and hydrating are obvious good health practices. You are mostly made of water, so it makes good sense to drink water regularly. It’s does your whole body good (move over milk)! Additionally, best practice suggests that you eat at regular times throughout the day (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) and snack in between meals to keep your energy level even throughout the day. I schedule all of my snack breaks when I’m setting my intentions for the day to ensure I am paying attention to this, as it is easily overlooked when I start to get busy. I also am sure to draw little water droplets next to each scheduled break to remind myself to top up my water glass (sparkly blue water droplets, that is). Think about how you can be intentional about these practices as well.

Create a clear separation between work and home

Person sitting at a desk with plants and a coffee on top, working on their tablet.

This is another important one. It seems to be impossible to separate your work life from your home life when you are literally working in your home. However, things can be done to create separation.

As mentioned previously, it is important to create a designated workspace that is just for work. In addition to all of the reasons that were already discussed about why this is helpful, it also serves to create a clear division between your work time and personal time. Log off of your work email and remote desktop, close the computer, turn off notifications on any work-related devices or apps, and walk away. Don’t look back.

I also recommend that you come up with a ritual for the end of your workday to signal to your brain that this part of the day is now over. I like to change out of my work clothes, even though I was already wearing something comfortable. Over time, my brain has learned to associate this act with relaxation, especially since I started this practice years ago when I was working in an office. Maybe your ritual would look more like closing your eyes for 10 to 15 minutes, having a conversation with your partner or friend about your days, or engaging in some form of play or health activity. There are no limits to what you can think of.

If all else fails, talk to a professional

Person talking on their cell phone outside.

If you’ve implemented all of these things (or you just couldn’t bring yourself to implement anything) and you still find yourself feeling anxious, overwhelmed, detached, disconnected, irritable, helpless, and/or hopeless, please consider talking to a mental health professional. For some ideas about accessing mental health services where you live, please see my post about Managing your mental health during a pandemic. There are many agencies offering online and over-the-phone counselling right now due to the COVID-19 situation. There is no shame in getting help, so please make yourself a priority and reach out to someone if needed.

What ideas do you have for achieving and maintaining mental wellness at home? Please share them in the comments section below. Extra points for creativity!

If you found this post helpful, please share it with others and start a conversation. There are countless others in the same boat as you (myself included). It’s helpful to know we aren’t alone.

Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW
Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW

Tina Cumby, MSW, RSW, is an independent writer and creator of free content for mental health professionals. She has been employed as a social worker for four years and has another year of case management and policy development experience. She works primarily with adults living at the intersections of poverty, disability, and trauma at all levels of practice (micro, mezzo, and macro). Tina is particularly well versed in social work case management and student supervision.

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