Working from home during the coronavirus pandemic: How to cope

September 6, 2020

Working from home requires modifications to a traditional workday. The blending of responsibilities from two major areas of our lives, work and home, can be a considerable source of stress, especially during a pandemic.

This is a reality for me, and my husband, Dr. Eric W. Bravo, is a clinical psychologist, so I asked him for some tips. Here is some advice from him and a few other experts on staying productive, reducing stress, and managing psychological well-being while working from home.

Cortisol, the main stress hormone in the brain and body, increases as a result of stress. The blending of work and home obligations is certainly stressful. During a pandemic, everyone’s cortisol levels are elevated, even if they are not sick.

Chronic exposure to cortisol leads to fatigue, weight gain, sleep disturbance, and an overall negative mood. To reduce the brain’s exposure to heightened cortisol, several coping skills should be considered.

Maintaining a daily schedule is an important consideration in preventing depression, reducing stress, and increasing energy levels. In the morning, actively construct your day. Think of the tasks that you need to get accomplished.

Having an outline of your responsibilities will guide your actions through the day and leave you with a sense of accomplishment when you are ready to “clock out”. Think about how to use this time to your advantage. Ask yourself if it is possible to grow the business, make work more organized and efficient, or learn a new skill.

When working at home, “those who share limited space should consider establishing a formal schedule,” says Dr. Nicholas Bloom, professor of economics at Stanford University. If there’s only one room to work in, for example, one partner could take the room in the morning and the other in the afternoon.

“It’s much more effective because it’s easier to schedule video conferences and phone calls,” Bloom says. “One person can be ‘all on’ for work.”

Bravo says to be aware of limits your productivity and success caused by self-sabotaging. Vices are more accessible than ever. When working from home, it is easier to sleep in, nap during the day, and procrastinate. Hold yourself accountable to the same standard of discipline when you were going into the office.

Most importantly, wake up every day and dress for success. You may not need to wear a suit, but dress to be active. Be sure to wear proper shoes and leave the pajamas for sleeping only.

Changing clothes

Changing clothes Janet Loehrke

The body and brain need routines from the most basic of sleeping and eating to other activities, such as work. We are programmed neurochemically to have basic daily cycles. When daily routines are disrupted, our neurological systems shift. Neurochemical imbalances can occur from a shift in daily cycles, leading to depression, anxiety, lethargy, and poor cognitive performance. The basics of a daily routine, including staying consistent with sleep/wake cycles, regular meals, exercise, and activity are essential. 

Bloom advises using online video chats instead of phone calls whenever possible. “Maintaining face-to-face interaction with your colleagues is important, especially when isolated at home,” he says.

Work-life boundaries are more important now than ever. Boundaries are the psychological barriers between our life at work and life at home. Create a separation between activities that are work-related and those that are not. As much as possible, have a dedicated work space free from distractions, leisurely activities, and household responsibilities. The distance created by separating the space can let you focus on a productive workday and allow you to “leave” the office when needed.  

Dr. Barbara Larson, executive professor of management at Northeastern University, emphasizes the necessity of boundaries. “Having a time when you can turn off the computer and stop work is important,” she says.

To reduce packing on more stress, be careful to manage your expectations. It is common to be less productive when working from home. Develop a hierarchy of work tasks, target the most necessary first then work down your list. If you are unable to complete all of the work, be kind to yourself, take a break.

Think of coping skills as medication to treat an infirmity. We need to practice self-care to stay motivated, productive, and healthy. Immerse your mind and body in activities that are not related to being “on duty”. Meditation, exercise, cooking, reading, conversations with friends and support systems, and a good sweat all have an effect on lowering cortisol and increasing a positive mood. Furthermore, as important as it is to stay informed, limit your exposure to upsetting news.

Larson recommends having a dedicated work space at home. “You should at least have a desk, if an entire room is not available,” she says. This helps prevent work from spilling over into other parts of your life.

Motivation and productivity take work, but, are attainable. The more that a person prepares for the day with a routine, the better off. Control the amount of time that you are not productive. It is fine to relax and watch a good movie, just have limits. Set boundaries for downtime. Getting in the habit of being sedentary will slow your mind, body, and energy. Conversely, consistent exercise and activity maintain and overall sense of motivation.

Hold yourself accountable by limiting the excuses to get work done. Chances are, these are the same rationalizations that are noticeable before working from home. Avoid working from your bed or bedroom. As comfortable as it may seem, a productive day requires being slightly uncomfortable. Our bedrooms have too many associations of relaxation. We do not want to contaminate the drive needed to complete our daily obligations. We also do not want to tarnish the mellow vibe of where we rest.

Engagement with online hangouts and meetings are crucial for perspective, social interaction, and coping with feelings of loneliness. Avoid isolation and make it a priority to reach out to your social network. Take it another step, change the dynamics, and reach out to a friend that you have not heard from in a while.

Bloom also recommends taking time to talk with co-workers about things not related to work, as done when actually in the office. “The natural process is to skip that sort of conversation on video,” he says. “But it’s a good way to keep in touch.”

“Always maintain social ties,” Larson agrees. “Talk about things other than work. Maintain that sense of community.”

A new phenomenon, Zoom Fatigue, is leading to higher levels of lethargy and exhaustion during the workday. Video-conferencing requires much more focus and energy than in-person meetings. Paying attention to multiple people at once, figuring out eye contact, and concerns about our digital appearance is draining. Interestingly, similar fatigue can also occur during social videoconferencing. In order to combat this fatigue, think about the necessity of using video. If a telephone call will suffice for work or social purposes, it is a much better option.

Practice the awareness of gratitude for your employment. Remind yourself of the reason that you do what you do. Think about your journey and accomplishments. Familiarize yourself with the mission of your job. In a time where unemployment rates are at an all-time high, you have employment to report to. Convince yourself that you have a purpose, arise, go forth, and conquer!

It can be difficult to work from home for long periods of time. By practicing these coping strategies, you can increase the likelihood of success, limit stress, and improve your mood. Keep in mind, we are not in control of what happens to us, but we are responsible for how we adapt and respond.

Editor’s Note: The author and Dr. Eric Bravo, a source named in this article, are married.

George Petras contributed to this report.

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