Although over 50% of us work away from the office at some point in our working weeks; over the coming weeks and months we are going to see homeworking become the standard for a far greater proportion of the working population. Research has shown that although this form of working is both a necessity and a choice for many, it is also associated with increased mental ill-health; particularly if that homeworking is for more than three days a week. Although the current situation is unprecedented, in that many of us will experience enforced homeworking, and will also be working in an environment with many other distractions, we have drawn on existing evidence to compile these suggestions to support you in maintaining your mental health and wellbeing during this period.
1. Decide where at home work will happen
One of the most common psychological challenges of homeworking is that of boundary management. If you can, choose one room to work from. Doing this maintains a psychological boundary between work and home, minimises disruption in your home and means you are less likely to be interrupted if you are sharing your home with others. Be mindful of decluttering and minimising distractions so that this physical space starts to occupy a work rather than personal context for you.
2. Keep a regular routine
Another way to maintain a psychological boundary between work and home whilst homeworking is to keep to a personal routine as similar to a ‘normal day at the office’ as possible. This means keeping your morning pre-work routine as normal as possible, for instance setting your alarm, showering and getting dressed. Although tempting, working in pyjamas is not good for either mental health or productivity!
3. Have a clear end to your working day
Without having the daily commute and the physical difference between home and work; and with our reliance on always available telecommunications, it is harder to actually stop work; and therefore homeworking can lead to a tendency to work 24-7. This puts us at a greater risk of stress and emotional exhaustion. Try and keep to a consistent end of day. You may find strategies such as setting an ‘out of office’ or having a separate telephone line for work (that you can switch off at the end of the day) helpful to support this. Think also about the negative impact that your 24-7 working may be having on your co-worker. Communicating your working hours, reinforcing this with your email signature, and using tools such as delayed send may also help support others mental health.
4. Physiological health impacts upon psychological health
Support yourself physiologically by conducting a risk assessment on your home-work environment. How could you maximise natural light and ventilation in your homeworking area? Are there any risks or trip hazards you could address? Think about the equipment that you will be using and whether it is fit for purpose. Think about your posture, for example the height of your desk and screen and the angles of your wrists to the keyboard. You can then use creative ways to adapt your workstation. Finally, are there any risks that your work could pose to others or do you need to protect your work from others? Consider how you might do this in your homeworking space.
5. Reach out to others
One of the most important psychological risks posed by homeworking is that of social isolation. There will be many people who are experiencing loneliness and isolation at the moment; on top of feeling anxious and fearful. In order to better manage both your mental health and that of others, be proactive in reaching out to others every day (be they colleagues, friends, family or those in your local community). Plan in regular meetings with colleagues; make adhoc communications with those you think may be most vulnerable to isolation, make use of virtual discussion forums to talk to others; research as much as possible so that you know who you can go to for help.
6. As soon as possible, communicate with your co-workers about how you are going to work
Generally, the way we work is influenced implicitly by our surroundings, our peers and our managers. When you are working consistently from home, this is harder and so at the beginning of this new arrangement talk to your colleagues about how you are all going to work together. This may be discussing your working hours, how you prefer to communicate (i.e. IM, email, phone, video-conferencing) and how often you would like to communicate. Relying on telecommunications has been shown to increase the likelihood of miscommunication; and without the social cues from physical contact this is more of a risk. Therefore acknowledge the difficulties this new way of working is going to pose, talk openly and honestly, and agree a strategy that will take into consideration everyone’s styles and needs.
7. Prioritise informal communication
Rather than a ‘nice to have’ or a distraction from the task, informal communication (i.e. non work conversations) has actually been found to be the ‘social glue’ that maintains and builds relationships and effective team working within organisations. Without being physically together (for instance meeting in the lift or at the kettle), the opportunities for adhoc informal communication are going to be reduced and this presents a real risk to your ability to continue to work effectively. Ideas include setting time at the beginning of each meeting to ‘check in’ with your colleagues; holding social webinars (which could be regular 15 minute breaks when anyone homeworking and around can dial in), having a morning ‘non-work huddle’ with your team, and planning three informal contact points per day (even if just a quick text).
8. Build in regular respite to your day
Without the social cues from the work environment (for instance people going for lunch or going to get a coffee), we are more likely when homeworking to sit at our desks all day without a break. This is detrimental both physiologically and psychologically. Breaks are necessary for us to cognitively recharge; and have been shown to be most effective when a) we are engaging in non-directed action (meaning that it is an unfocused activity such as having a chat with someone, going for a walk or meditating) and b) when it is your preferred activity. Take a break every 1 – 2 hours, focusing on respite and social connection. Avoid social media, news or TV. It is also important to build in your ‘wind-down’ time at the end of the working day. Generally we use our commute to and from work for this. In the absence of this, plan in a relaxing activity such as a walk, reading a book or a technique such as mindfulness and meditation to signal to yourself that you are finishing work for the day.
9. Remember health promoting behaviours
Homeworking is likely to have a detrimental impact on our health promoting behaviours; without the daily commute, set schedule and potentially our ability to go to the gym we are less likely to exercise; with the proximity of the kitchen at home are more likely to snack; and with extended working hours are less likely to sleep well. Health promoting behaviours have been shown to not just be important for physical health but also for protecting psychological health. Take time to consciously plan when and how you will exercise (for instance get fresh air during your breaks by walking around the block, or take an online exercise class), what you will eat and stick to standard working hours.
10. Embrace the positives
It is important to acknowledge that being able to work from home is a luxury that many workers during this difficult time are not afforded. Use this time to reflect on the positives coming out of this experience – what works for you, what new strategies have you developed in your ways of working and communicating and what have you learned? Does this difficult time present you with an opportunity to engage more with your family, or to achieve a healthier work-life balance, or enable you to focus on your home?
About Affinity Health at Work
Affinity Health at Work is a workplace health and wellbeing consultancy and research group led by Dr Rachel Lewis and Dr Joanna Yarker (both registered occupational psychologists). We aim to improve organisational performance by enhancing workplace health and wellbeing. Everything we do is driven by research and sound evidence. We are actively involved in both research and practice to ensure that we are at the cutting edge in our field. This way, our research is designed to be directly applied in the workplace and our consultancy clients receive services that are informed and underpinned by approaches, methodologies and content that are both up-to-date and proven to work.
Dr. Rachel Lewis, Director, Affinity Health at Work & Dr. Laurent Taymans,International SOS Philippines