What Can Happen to Your Mental Health When You Work From Home (And How to Address It)

Erica Hayes

March 12, 2020

Director of Coaching Services at Ginger. Master’s degree in Social Work. Passion for mind-body health, nature, powerlifting & cooking.

What Can Happen to Your Mental Health When You Work From Home (And How to Address It)

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen thousands of businesses across the country recommending or requiring that their employees work remotely. For some employees, this is business as usual — but for others, working from home can mean a dramatic, and even uncomfortable, change in lifestyle.

While there are many tips out there to support your work productivity, it’s important that you don’t neglect your mental health needs when working from home, too. Here are a few of the common issues that we hear about, and some guidance on how to address them:

“It’s already noon and I haven’t left my pajamas!”

Actually get dressed: If you’ve read any advice about working from home, then you’ve likely heard about the importance of getting dressed in something other than your pajamas. As comfy as those pjs are, our daily attire can actually impact how we act, speak and think. In fact, there have been studies that show dressing up, or dressing up for work, can make you feel more focused and in control of your surroundings. How we treat ourselves (and how we treat ourselves in our environment) can have a subtle, yet powerful, impact on our self-esteem.

Step outside: Rain or shine, spending time outdoors has been linked to various physical and mental health benefits such as lowered stress, anxiety and blood pressure, to name a few. If you’re able to leave your phone inside, or at least in your pocket, it’s a great opportunity to avoid overexposure to the news (more on that here). I recommend getting outside first thing in the morning, with frequent breaks throughout the day.

Plan ahead (the night before!): Just as if you were going to the office, think about your day and what you’ll need to be successful. Pack a lunch before bed if you usually do this. Build in coffee breaks where you might typically take them. And plan out how you’ll use the extra time you might’ve spent commuting — even just a 5–10 minute meditation during this time can go a long way.

“The work feels endless! When do I shut off?”

Create spatial boundaries: Just like boundaries are important in your interpersonal relationships, creating physical boundaries between your working space and the rest of your life is critical. This can be a challenge for many of us in cozier living quarters, but keep in mind that you can create boundaries in many ways. For example, if you work in your dining area, make sure to clear your working space at the end of the day, every day, to get your workspace out of sight and out of mind.

Set your hours and share them: Remember, when you’re working remotely your coworkers can’t actually see when you’re gone from the office… unless you tell them! Don’t let your needs be out of sight and thus out of mind. Setting clear boundaries with coworkers (and yourself) on your availability and typical working hours can help you avoid unnecessary stress when you “sign off.”

“I was working on that report and the next thing I knew, I was loading the dishwasher. This is so distracting!”

Avoid over-multitasking: A lack of structure, coupled with a distracting environment, can make it easier to procrastinate. And what do we know about procrastination? It’s often a precursor to stress. And what do we know about stress? It can be a precursor to anxiety. This can lead to a cycle of feeling emotionally unwell. To combat this, pay attention to your new routine and how it’s making you feel. This is referred to as self-monitoring. When we track the times of day, activities, thoughts, emotions, and occurrences that foster distraction versus productivity, we can plan around it accordingly.

Take “brain breaks”: Running on a cognitive treadmill can be just as exhausting as running on a physical one, and sometimes these mental sprints lead to creative flatlining. One way to tackle this head on is to adopt “brain breaks.” Make a list of tasks you can reasonably complete within each hour, even if it’s just one. Once you complete that task, allow yourself the reward of taking a short break. During this time, consider doing something enjoyable or active, like taking a walk or talking with a friend away from your desk. Resume the following hour with a new task and a new reward. The guilt-free “brain break” — especially if involving physical movement or exercise — increases oxygen flow to the brain and keeps us from becoming mentally stagnant.

“I feel isolated and disconnected from my team”

Create your virtual water cooler: While technology can help increase connectivity, working from home can still feel isolating at times, especially in addition to the social distancing and quarantines that we’re facing with COVID-19. Don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and simply check in with a coworker in the morning, or set up informal meetings to check on one another as you would in the office. Other channels like Slack are also great for this. My team is currently sharing a “question of the day” thread where we discuss anything from favorite songs, to least favorite foods, to things we’re grateful for. Informal dialogue like this can help you feel more connected, despite the distance.

Knowing how much time we spend at work, it’s no surprise that a sudden shift to a new working environment may feel like a drastic life change. Planning ahead, prioritizing and recognizing your mental health needs will help to find better work (from home)-life balance, regardless of where you are.