Guest blog by Professor Gail Kinman and Dr Kevin Teoh
Recent steps taken to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus means that many more people will be working from home for the foreseeable future. The good news is that working from home can improve wellbeing, enhance work-life balance and boost productivity. Research findings also show, however, that it is not always beneficial and may even be damaging to health and personal functioning, especially under current conditions where workers may feel unprepared for such a sudden and major change to their working lives. Balancing the demands of work with meeting the needs of children who are now also off school and caring for older relatives, or close friends and neighbours who are self-isolating pose additional challenges. Drawing on the research evidence, some ways to support the wellbeing of workers during this time of uncertainty are set out below:
It is important to find somewhere comfortable and quiet to work. A spare room or dedicated work area would be ideal, but this obviously depends on the available space in your home. If possible, try not to work in your bedroom. Make sure that your workspace is properly adjusted to avoid musculoskeletal problems. If you are sharing your workspace with others, remember that your working practices and preferences may differ, so it is important to agree some rules for co-working, such as managing timing, disruptions and tidiness. Take regular breaks from your workstation as you would do in the workplace (at least every 20 minutes or so). Move away from your screen - make a cup of tea, go up and down the stairs or do some stretches. If possible, get out at least once a day in the fresh air.
Managing our expectations of ourselves and others in terms of the amount of work we can do is also crucial. Health information and advice from the government and your employer is continually changing. Over the longer term, you may well be more productive as you will not be commuting or caught up in ‘unnecessary’ meetings. It is nonetheless important to accept that you may be unable to get as much work done initially as your access to necessary equipment, systems and information may be limited. Be careful about making ambitious ‘to do’ lists, as you may have little control over what can be accomplished as your working conditions may be very different to what you are used to. To boost motivation and feel more productive, you could set daily and weekly objectives and outputs that you wish to achieve. Keeping a list of tasks that you have done each day will also help you reflect on your achievements rather than what you haven’t accomplished. Most importantly, recognise that these are extraordinary circumstances and that it is OK if things do not go according to plan.
Keeping regular working hours will help you maintain routine and communicate with others online. Working from home, however, generally offers more flexibility, enabling people to accommodate their individual needs and preferences. It is important to recognise the downside of flexibility though. Firstly, people may find themselves working late into the night, at weekends and during holiday periods to accommodate the competing demands of work and domestic responsibilities. When working with others remotely it is important to manage people’s expectations of your availability. Secondly, be aware that people working from home often feel they need to gain the trust and approval of managers and may put in longer hours to overcompensate – this will be unnecessary. Thirdly, there may be a conflict between work and other roles, such as childcare. Regular disturbances will mean that you will get little done, so agree times that you will make yourself available. You may need to be creative – work in short bursts and be prepared to change your routine. When setting boundaries remember that adequate time for recovery is essential to ensure mental and physical wellbeing and optimum job performance.
Prioritise recovery time
Downtime is essential for long term health and job performance and people who neglect their own needs are likely to burn out. While short-term stress can boost the immune system and help us achieve peak performance, over the longer term a lack of recovery opportunities can impair our mental health make us more vulnerable to infectious disease. This is a particular concern in light of the current pandemic. Remember that sleep and exercise can help alleviate anxiety and stress and boost immunity.
It can be challenging to switch from ‘work’ to ‘home’ mode, especially when occupying the same physical space, but there are several ways we can set boundaries. Allocate some time each day for active recovery strategies, such as exercise and hobbies. For maximum benefit, try not to multi-task and be fully present; mindfulness can be a particularly effective way of switching off psychologically between work and home modes.
Maintain contact with others and offer and receive support
To prevent feelings of isolation, it is crucial to maintain contact with colleagues – not just about work issues, but social conversations. This is particularly important for people who live (and now work) alone. Technology can not only be used to connect with others for work purposes, it can also help us receive and provide emotional support. Using technology such as Zoom or Skype is better than the phone, as it enables closer, more personal contact. It is crucial to recognise that we are not alone; we are all facing the same uncertainties and challenges, so make time to reach out to others even when under pressure. Share your concerns and experiences and swop tips on how to work at home effectively.
We may be in this situation for some time, so it is crucial to be aware of the pitfalls of working at home and take steps to make it a success, with benefits for your health and job performance.
Professor Gail Kinman is a Chartered Psychologist and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and the Academy of Social Sciences. Professor Kinman is based at Birkbeck University of London.
Dr Kevin Teoh is a Chartered Psychologist and Lecturer in Organizational Psychology at Birkbeck, University of London.