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Making working from home work for you: your mental health

Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK
20 March 2020

In light of the coronavirus and social distancing, you may find yourself working from home over the coming weeks and months. In part one of this working from home series, I focused on physical health. Once you’ve got your desk space set up, you’ve factored in ways to eat healthily and figured out how to keep active, the other side of working from home is preparing yourself mentally. Here I look at keeping your motivation levels steady, maintaining social connections, staying focused and setting work-life boundaries.

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Motivation

One of the main things you might struggle with when working remotely is keeping motivated. When you’re working from home, often you’re on your own – gone is the usual chat over making a cuppa in the kitchen, meetings or going out for lunch. It can be hard to keep up momentum.

A good way to tackle this is to plan your day in a way that works best for you.

My colleague Emma, who often works from home, explained how she approaches her day. “I tend to wake up quite early, so rather than waste the morning, I use this time as my ‘productive’ time when I’m not going to be disturbed. I find this a really great time to get the things done that take a fair amount of concentration and re-reading.

“I then find after 9am, people start to log on, respond to emails and get in contact.”

For those who are not early birds, you might not be so ready to tackle your deep-thinking tasks first thing. Instead, work out when you feel at your peak levels of concentration and plan those tasks then as we all go through peaks and troughs throughout the day. Working from home might give you more flexibility to schedule your tasks accordingly.

For many, there will also be the added challenge of looking after your children. It might take a bit of time to establish a routine that works for you. Don’t be hard on yourself while you figure this out. In a difficult time, you’re doing the best you can.

Keep your routine (as much as you can)

While it can be tempting to roll out of bed and stay in your pyjamas all day, our Bupa colleague Michelle advises: “Get dressed and brush your hair and teeth etc. It will make you feel much more ready for the day.”

This is an important point – keeping the same routine (as much as possible) that we have when we go into the office helps us to transition better into ‘work mode’ mentally. Something I like to do is to go for a short walk before I sit down to work. When I leave it’s as though I am leaving for the office, and when I get back, I am then in ‘work mode’. I might do this at the end of the day too to signal to my brain that the workday has finished.

If you have children, you might want to have a specific activity – a game you all play together – to signal the end of the work day.

Social connection

When you’re not surrounded by your teammates it can feel a bit lonely at home, but there are ways to reduce this with a bit of remote team work!

Our colleague John explains: “Our team would have a weekly call booked in. It was optional to dial in, but if we had any problems, we could discuss this, or just have a catch up about current work and what we had going on. I found this helpful as it enabled me to help others solve problems and I got input on any challenges I was going through too. It also meant we had team interaction on a weekly basis.”

You could organise something similar with a colleague or team and increase the frequency to a few times a week if you want to. You could do a phone call, or if you have the facilities, a video conference call so you can see each other. Chat to your team about when would be a good time of day to try this out. You could try it at lunchtime too for a more informal conversation.

If you’re working on a project with a colleague, you could even set up a video call while you’re both working. You might not be talking much as you work but sounds of each other tapping away can provide companionship while you work.

When it’s time for a break, spend time with your family if you’re all at home and have lunch together. Or give a friend a call if you’re in need of a bit of company.

Adapting to work activities

If you’re running or attending a meeting via a conference call it can be difficult to know who is talking and pick up the general feeling in the room. This can lead to people keeping quiet or people talking over each other. A few simple etiquette rules though can stop this from happening. Make sure it’s clear who is leading the meeting, have an agenda, and ask everyone to join on time and keep their microphones on mute unless they are talking.

When it comes to emails, we might tend to use email more when we work from home as we can’t just turn to the person in the office and ask for their help. To make sure we’re not constantly distracted by emails pinging in, dedicate certain times of the day to sending and responding emails. Perhaps those times of the day where we’re usually less productive (e.g. the mid-afternoon dip!).

Maintain boundaries

When your home space becomes your workspace it’s important to be mindful that those lines don’t blur too much. It can be harder to switch off when you don’t ‘leave the office’ as such and it can lead to working longer hours. So it’s important to make that mental transition between work and home. Make sure you set a boundary and pack up properly when it’s time.

My colleague Natalie says: “I make sure I shut down my computer and properly pack it all away, so I’m not tempted to check email or carry on working past the end of the day. I often plan a non-work-related activity for the end of the day to give me that sense of my workday ending and my leisure time beginning. I might go for a walk or phone a friend, or I might go into another room such as the kitchen and start prepping dinner.”

Equally it’s important that when you are working, you keep your focus.

It’s tempting to look at the news and social media frequently at the moment, but make an effort not to if you can to give yourself a break from it. The World Health Organization advises only looking at updates at specific times of the day, once or twice.

Michelle says: “I turn off my mobile phone and any other electrical devices that might be distracting during working hours. I keep mine in a separate room switched off and only turn it on during lunch or after 5:30pm.

“I also keep a separate work to-do list and a personal to-do list. And I only look at my personal one either during my lunch break or after working hours.”

Working from home can help us to get our errands done too so that we don’t have to do them all in the evenings and weekends. But it’s important we make sure that we use our lunch times or appropriate breaks for this so that we can still concentrate on the task at hand.

Embrace the positives

While it’s a time of worry and disruption, seek out the positives where you can. A more flexible approach can give you control over your environment and the hours you work. And not having to commute is always a bonus too. Plus, not getting home late means there’s more time to plan something enjoyable into your evening.

Adapting to working from home is a bit of a trial and error, especially in the current situation. Try out the tips above and see what works best for you.

Lauren Gordon
Behavioural Insights Adviser at Bupa UK

    • Work routine. Health and Safety Executive. www.hse.gov.uk, published 12 November 2019
    • Rogers T, Milkman K L and Volpp KG. Commitment Devices: Using Initiatives to Change Behavior. JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) 2014; 311 (20): 2065-66. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.3485
    • The secret of the 10% most productive people? Breaking! Desktime. desktime.com, published 14 May 2018
    • Facer-Childs ER, Campos BM, Middleton B et al. Circadian phenotype impacts the brain’s resting-state functional connectivity, attentional performance, and sleepiness. Sleep 2019; 42(5). doi:10.1093/sleep/zsz033
    • Holt-Lunstad J. Fostering Social Connection in the Workplace. American Journal of Health Promotion 2018. 32:1307-12. doi:10.1177/0890117118776735a
    • Mental health considerations. World Health Organization. www.who.int, published 12 March 2020

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