Working from home during COVID-19: Tips to reduce stress

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, many employers have implemented both voluntary and mandatory work-from-home policies for their employees. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continuously reminds us, telecommuting is an important step in “flattening the curve” of potential new infections.

This situation, of course, requires unprecedented adjustments to both our personal and professional lives. Those who are telecommuting for the first time may be dealing with technical problems, communication gaps, and disruptions to normal work processes. For those who live alone, the sense of isolation can seem overwhelming. And those with young children at home must deal with playing parent, teacher, and professional all at once under one roof.

Add to this novel situation that most of your colleagues are probably also telecommuting, that your usual social outlets are not available due to “social distancing,” and that these changes are both sudden and indefinite—it’s no wonder you feel stressed. To relieve some of the pressures, here are some tips to help maintain a sense of balance.

Create a home office environment

One of the big challenges when it comes to working remotely is keeping your professional and personal lives separate. If you’ve been used to commuting into an office each day, it’s a good idea to recreate that sense of physical separation with a designated work space at home. Entering your workspace in the morning lets you make a mental shift from home to work mode. This way you can roll up your sleeves and assume your duties as soon as you turn on your laptop.

While a separate room with a door is ideal, you can create an ad hoc space set aside exclusively for working time. For instance, you can move a table into a corner, find good lighting near a window, and choose an upright chair as you would at your desk in the office.

Don't stay in bed

How about your bed, you might ask? As inviting as that sounds, it’s a bad idea. Using a laptop in bed is terrible for your posture and likely to cause neck and back pain. Working in bed also has negative psychological consequences. Blurring the boundaries between work and sleep can cause insomnia and other sleep disorders. Better to let your bed remain a place associated with rest and relaxation.

Finally, maintain habits that put you in a frame of mind that it’s really a normal workday. Although it’s tempting to stay comfy in your pajamas, shower and dress as you would for the office. The simple act of changing clothes is a signal that it’s time to wake up and get down to work. Brush your hair, and if it makes you feel more professional, put on makeup. Don’t forget—you may be required to attend video meetings at any time, so it’s no guarantee that your colleagues won’t see you.

Stay virtually connected

Social distancing is a proven method of slowing down the spread of the  virus. But keeping distance from your colleagues — especially during a time of uncertainty — can be unstructured and isolating, resulting in decreased motivation. A study of 2,500 remote workers found that loneliness was the second-most reported challenge of telecommuting.

To maintain a sense of community and camaraderie, staying virtually connected is an important strategy, now perhaps more than ever before. With so many apps available—Skype, Zoom, and Whatsapp to name a few—you and your colleagues can still “get together” face-to-face using multi-person video calling technologies. Yes, it’s not ideal and can feel awkward, but even just a few minutes of virtual encounters a day can improve your sense of wellbeing. Consider scheduling a virtual pizza party or remote happy hour to add some levity to an otherwise difficult and monotonous routine.

Keep in touch with your boss

Most employees typically spend the workday in close proximity with their manager. We take our ability to communicate effortlessly for granted. For the indefinite future, that’s no longer so easy. Telecommuting always carries the risk of communication breakdowns.

Perhaps the most important way to feel better about your performance and your limitations is to discuss realistic expectations with your boss. Start and end your workday with a 10-minute call to prioritize projects and stay “on the same page.”

If issues arise that you would normally talk about face-to-face with your manager, consider a phone call rather than an email, IM, or text. We all know talking in person is the most efficient and effective method to prevent miscommunication.

If you have young children at home, let your boss know. Communicate openly that you may not be able to guarantee that your work or meetings will be free of interruptions. If you have a conference call and know there might be some unavoidable noises in the background, call attention to it at the beginning of the conversation. Your manager and coworkers will be more understanding if you warn them ahead of time.

Help your family adjust

With schools and daycare centers closing their doors in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19, working parents may suddenly find themselves playing employee, teacher, babysitter, playdate and parent all at once. Sure, most parents have had to deal with this situation every now and then on snow days, holidays, or sick days. But the prospect of doing so for weeks on end is especially challenging. Right from the start, explain to your children that this is not a vacation—emphasize that you must work and that they must cooperate.

Maintaining a daily schedule is a first step in helping everyone in the family stay occupied. If more than one adult in the house is capable of childcare, split up the duties in structured blocks of time. And be sure not to interrupt each other during your shift so that work time can be optimally productive. Also consider working in the morning before your children rise or in the evening after they go to bed.

Plan activities in advance

Plan activities for your kids that don’t need supervision. Keep in mind the different needs of different age groups. Pre-teens and teens most likely need the least supervision and will be working on homework assignments. For grade-schoolers, alternate periods of schooling with playtime. Create activity boxes that contain amusing diversions such as puzzles, drawing or entertaining educational programs that require minimal adult supervision. Even toddlers will benefit from a routine. Think of how a daycare or preschool structures the day, with set snack times, nap times, activity times, and play times.

Schedule the most engaging activities during the time you need to be most productive. But be sure to schedule time when you can help your kids with schoolwork, join them in some fun and games, and get outside for some fresh air. If you give the kids your full attention during breaks, they can look forward to them, and it might just be easier for them to stay still during your working blocks as well.

Give yourself a break

There’s no professional advantage to pretending things are normal. Sure, a morning “to do” lists is always helpful to structure priorities. But don’t beat yourself if you cannot finish it. Simply acknowledge that you may not be as efficient or productive while dealing with all of the unprecedented challenges of a self-quarantine. And tell yourself: “It’s okay.”

You probably already take a few breaks throughout the day at the office, and that’s fine to do at home, too. So don’t feel guilty if you step away from your home office to get coffee, check the news, answer texts, stretch your body, take a walk around the block, and eat your lunch together with family without having to report in to your manager first.

Ultimately, time away from your laptop will make you more productive when you sit down in front of it again. On the other hand, don’t let yourself get too distracted from getting back to work. Time your breaks to no more than 5-20 minutes. And try not to get too immersed in scanning the headlines or checking alerts about COVID-19. That can make it hard to focus on work. Remember that the news will still be there when you clock out.

Clock in and clock out

Maintaining a proper work/life balance is more important than ever when you telecommute. Step one is to set firm start and stop times for your workday. Just as you designate and separate your physical workspace, you should be clear about when you’re working and when you’re not. Shut down your laptop and leave your home office space to turn “off” at the end of the day and fully disengage.

If you never fully disconnect from work, both your work productivity and your domestic responsibilities can suffer. Whatever kind of communications system you're using to keep in touch with your team, turn it on when you start and turn it off when you stop. You’ll get your best work done and be most ready to transition back to the office if you stick with your regular hours. And you’ll give the people you care about your undivided attention.

Innovate as needed

Challenging times call for challenging solutions. Old habits and routines may no longer apply. And new habits and routines might lose their appeal or impact. That’s okay.

Let go of finding the ultimate “right solution” for managing this crisis. Instead, be willing to make changes as needed to accommodate whatever demands come your way.

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