Due to the current crisis, many people have found themselves working from home, which has been an important step in keeping people safe and helping to flatten the COVID-19 curve. While working from home generally offers many benefits, it also has the potential to contribute to physical and mental health issues, as well as add to strain within families.
Below we look at some of the pitfalls of working from home during a crisis, as well as some ways to address them.
Benefits to working from home
There are many benefits to working from home. You can balance work and family commitments, you don’t have to worry about the time or cost of commuting, you will likely spend less time in meetings and, as a US study in 2015 from Stanford found, you may even be more productive.
Why the current COVID-19 crisis is different
However, as one of study’s authors Nicholas Bloom says, much of this may not be true during COVID-19. In an interview with Stanford news, Blooms points out, “We are home working alongside our kids, in unsuitable spaces, with no choice and no in-office days”.
The challenges to working from home
Many parents and carers are suddenly caring for their kids at home while working full time. Many are also homeschooling their children, or helping them with online school based learning. Juggling caring for family with a full time job can be a huge challenge.
Likewise, lack of regular in person contact with colleagues can also pose challenges to productivity. Seeing people in person – even every now and then – can allow for ideas to be less constrained and more innovative. As Steve Jobs once noted “creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions”. Discussions like these are often not possible when meetings are often scheduled to discuss a set topic.
Below are some ideas to address this, and other potential problems that might occur when working from home during a crisis.
Staying on top of working from home
Schedule some unscheduled time with colleagues
One of the first things you can do to avoid a potential lack of spontaneity is to recreate “water cooler catch ups” with colleagues, with no agenda. A set time for coffee each morning might be a good start, and also a way to signal the start of your work day.
Separate your work space
If possible, set a space in the house that is for work, and leave that space when you’re not working. This can again help divide work from home when it’s all in the one place. It also may help signal to family members that you are “at work” – though again with children, this is sometimes easier said than done! If possible, this separate space should be at a desk, and away from bedrooms, as you may then associate the space with being alert and awake.
Separate your work day
While this can be hard when caring for family, aim to have set times where you work, and set times where you are truly “at home”. Stress levels can increase when you feel like you’re working 24/7. Turn work emails off on your phone and shut down your computer at the end of your day. Even if your standard working hours are adjusted due to family commitments, try not to work more hours than you would at the office as it it’s unlikely to make you more productive.
Take a digital break
This is also easier said than done, as so much of work from home is computer based. Try as much as you can to brainstorm ideas away from the computer, and take regular breaks away from your desk.
Keep up the physical activity – ideally outside
The many benefits of exercise are well known, however it becomes even more important during isolation. Take a walk around the block at lunch time to disconnect from the work mindset, and enjoy the benefits of positive endorphins. A walk also exposes you to natural light, which is an important part of regulating sleep patterns – which are often affected when working from home.
Staying healthy can be really hard when our normal routines are disrupted. Aside from the pressures of working from home, many of us are feeling anxious and worried about our health and that of our family. Eating well, moderating alcohol, and maintaining sleep health can help us feel less anxious and more able to cope during sustained periods of disruption.
Check in with others
We’ve all seen the memes doing the rounds with pictures of dogs, cats and family members being described as the new co-workers. There is some truth to that, as we need often rely on co-workers to provide a social break during our work day. Make sure you take a break to touch base with others in your house. If you live alone, give your friends and family a call during a break from work (they might need it as much as you during this crisis).
Cut each other some slack
Being with your housemates 24/7 is a new concept, and while it can be great to spend more time together, it’s also important to recognise work from home has potential to create tension – particularly if you have kids and your partner is also working from home. The first step to addressing this is to talk it out: share your routine (and regular meeting times) with family members and housemates so they know when they will (and won’t) have your full attention, and let them know you appreciate the efforts they’re making to help you work from home. You could also create signs to let others know you are in a meeting, or alternate shifts if there is more than on of you working from home.
During times of crisis it’s important we acknowledge that working from home is not the same as when things are “normal”. Share any issues with colleagues and with your manager, and come up with creative solutions together. As well as challenges, we may find this time at home creates positive changes to workplaces in the future. We may find managers become more receptive to ongoing work from home, we may find we know our colleagues better and people are more understanding of work-life balance, or we may find, like the Stanford Study did that, if given the choice, fifty percent of us would prefer a return to the office. Whatever changes this crisis brings, focusing on maintaining our physical and mental health, as well as strong relationships with our families and colleagues, will make working from home more manageable in the meantime.
Stay up to date with official Federal Government information, advice and support, via the Department of Health’s novel coronavirus 2019 portal, the national coronavirus helpline, and the coronavirus app.
If you are struggling to cope with your anxiety, you can get help. As a first step, you can reach out to your GP or call one of our Suicide Call Back Service counsellors on 1300 659 467.
If it is an emergency, dial 000.