We live in unprecedented times. Over the last month, the UK has moved from a vague awareness of a Coronavirus outbreak halfway around the world to a situation fast approaching full lockdown.

First, we were told to work from home and practice social distancing (or self-isolation for those with symptoms). Then the schools closed. Now we’re days away from lockdown in the style of Italy and Spain, and there is talk of food rationing and other measures.

If you’ve spent the last week or two getting set up to work from home, and you’re now trying also to home school, the idea that you might be worried about the effects of working in isolation might sound laughable. You may even be experiencing a twinge of nostalgia for the idea of ‘isolation blues’.

But, as regular home-workers know all too well – and there are many of us; a study released in 2019 year by IWG suggested that 53% people already work remotely for at least half the week – there are challenges and pitfalls with working from home, and it can have an impact on your mental health.

I’ve worked from home with a remote team for 8 years now, and I’ve learned a lot about what can trigger problems, and how to combat them. I’d like to share some of my thoughts with you, to help you over the next few months and beyond.

1. Being ‘always on’

Stress, depression and anxiety are major concerns for many people – and for their employers. A report by the United Nations in 2017 found that 41% of remote workers reported high stress levels, compared with just 25% of people who routinely worked in an office. Right now, with all of us worried about the future, levels of stress and anxiety are bound to rise.

But one of the biggest stressors is our tendency to be ‘always on’, thanks to our access to technology. When we’re always on our phones or tablets, checking and responding to messages and emails well outside normal working hours, we don’t allow our brains to switch off, leading to heightened levels of anxiety.

If you’re able to do so, set boundaries on your work time. One busy working mum I know likes to start her day early, so she’s arranged her working day so that she can start at 6am and get 3 hours done before the children need to start some home schooling at 9am.

The important thing is to make it work for you. If an early start works, great. If you’re a ‘night owl’ and you prefer a different schedule, brilliant. Don’t add to the pressure unnecessarily.

2. Feeling disconnected

Regular home workers commonly report that they end up feeling like an outsider – left out of the team, and with concerns that colleagues are talking negatively about them.

It’s really easy, when you rely on email communication, to end up feeling disconnected, and worse. Digital communications are prone to misinterpretation without body language to back up their meaning, which can lead to frostiness or even outright hostility.

On the flipside of this, there are studies that show that socialising and sharing their feelings of stress can result in people being up to 20% more productive!

During this period of enforced working from home, remember not to neglect the relationships you’ve built over the years.

Why not hold a team meeting (using something like Zoom) where you can all chat together – whether it’s a formal meeting or a social gathering is up to you!

And instead of relying solely on email, or WhatsApp written messages, pick up the phone. Other people may very well be happy to relieve their own feelings of isolation with a phone call. You can also mix it up by communicating with short audio or video clips via WhatsApp which can be nicer than email.

Don’t forget some of the informal aspects of working in an office, either. Lunches, coffee break chats and birthday celebrations are all important parts of working culture. Try not to let these slide, and use technology to schedule virtual get-togethers to help keep everyone connected.

3. Lack of feedback

One area that comes up a lot is the lack of feedback from managers and colleagues when people are homeworking.

It can feel as though you’re operating in a vacuum, with everything you do going out, and little or nothing coming back.

Now that so many of us are going to be working from home for an unspecified period, it’s time to give this issue some attention.

If you’re a manager or team leader, it will be important to keep in touch with your team, and make sure they still feel valued, and noticed. The team meetings mentioned above will help, but one-to-one sessions are also important.

There’s a useful article from the Mental Health Foundation here, with advice for leaders and managers about supporting their employees’ mental health during the Corvid-19 outbreak.

If you’re not responsible for a team, but you have a manager and you’re concerned about this, why not contact them to talk about ways you can stay connected? Your manager will probably appreciate it, as they may be worried about putting you under too much pressure –  especially if they know you’re also trying to home-school, or if you’re worried about a family member, for example.

4. The importance of a work routine

I talked about this in my recent blog about keeping productive when you’re working from home.

But it’s not just your productivity that benefits from establishing a routine. Getting a positive routine going can also help your mental fitness. Beginning your day with something like exercise or meditation gets you into the right frame of mind, and can be a big stress reducer – the feeling of being in control is a big plus.

If you could use some inspiration, there are loads of people doing live-streams right now, anything from PE or yoga sessions to music wake-up sessions to guided meditations. You’re bound to find something that that appeals.

Establishing a routine also helps the rest of the family to understand what’s going on, and what’s expected of them, which can result in everyone having greater respect for each other’s work times and spaces.

It can also help with that ‘always on’ feeling I mentioned earlier. Getting used to restricting your work attention to particular times of the day gives your brain its much-needed space to switch off from work concerns.

I also find that managing my work day by establishing a routine also allows me to make sure I incorporate time to focus on my own mental fitness. In normal times, this has been about getting out for some exercise, or fitting my work commitments around time for my kids’ activities and quality time with them.

Right now, the important thing for you might be to enable you to spend quality time with your kids whilst they’re at home. And I’m not just talking about home-schooling here. Though keeping up with their education is undeniably important, they need your reassurance too. Simply spending time with them to read or play is vital too.

Setting a routine will give you the space to be able to do that without feeling guilty that you should be working instead of being with your kids. Or vice versa.

Use your diary to make it clear to your colleagues when you’re working and available to speak to.

5. Avoid working in your pyjamas or birthday suit…?!

This might be tempting, and may not seem like a big deal; it might even be quite appealing to start with!

But it’s actually part of a really important point, which many regular home-workers will confirm. Working from home is a big psychological shift, especially if you’re not used to doing it at all.

Getting dressed appropriately is all part of that. It gets you into a more professional frame of mind, and signals to your family that you’re in work-mode. I’m obviously not saying that if you normally go to work wearing a suit, you have to wear one when working at home (though if that works for you, don’t let me stop you!), but I’d suggest dressing in something you’d be happy for your work colleagues to see you in (especially if you’ve got a video call scheduled).

Five easy to implement tips:

  • Use scheduled video calls for one-to-one and regular team-meetings to keep connected
  • Try to have conversations rather than relying on email all the time
  • Don’t neglect the social side of work. Keep up with informal chats and gatherings, but virtually
  • Set regular work hours, and make sure your colleagues know what they are
  • Take control of your day – and incorporate some exercise (outside, if you can and if the weather permits) or other feel-good activity

I’d love to hear how you’re managing – frustrations and/or successes. If you contact me, we can arrange a time to chat.

Stay home, and stay safe.