Working from Home, Isolation and Staying Sane

Post provided by Graziella Iossa

Since I’ve been working from home and self-isolating for health reasons since the end of last summer, I thought that a post around the strategies that have helped me during this time might be useful.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

If you cant go to work to do the science,
the science comes home with you!
©Chloe Robinson

So, first and foremost, your mental health. It’s really hard to concentrate on anything work-related if you’re not in the right mental state. Of course, these are not ordinary times, so making sure that family, friends and those we care about are doing well, would be my first step. When I feel anxious about the times ahead, the single most important thing that helps me to deal with anxiety is having those who I care for the most, close by. If that’s not possible because they’re self-isolating, keeping in touch remotely regularly is the next best thing. Developmental psychologists recognise that human motivation is linked to a hierarchy of needs: if the most basic needs are not met, more complex needs cannot be fulfilled. In a pandemic, it’s likely that our priorities will change and we need to adapt to them, this might take a while and that’s to be expected.

Structuring the Day

When working from home, doing things like getting up at the usual time, getting dressed as if going to work and, in general, keeping to your usual routine, helps with structuring the day and going about your normal working pattern. Given that our movements are being restricted, going out for a walk/jog or if that’s not possible, doing some exercise indoors, is important for your concentration and productivity. It can also be a great mood-booster. There are many resources that can help with getting into an exercise routine, from fitness trainers who produce live classes to apps that you can download. The timing of the day may affect whether you stick to it.  If you’re looking after children, they can join in too – my children and I (together with around 1 million people) are following the Joe Wicks daily PE workout. This is proving lots of fun, and laughing together is really important right now.

Setting up a dedicated work-station in a separate room – or if that’s not available, in a corner of your living room or other available space – helps keeping work activity separate from home life. I also find that if I am stuck on a particular problem that I cannot solve, or I am not finding the inspiration to write, changing the location of my work-station helps. Being at home can be distracting, so I found it helps to take frequent short breaks and avoid staying at my work-station for too long. Having said that, this is a pandemic, and things aren’t normal right now, so be kind to yourself if you’re struggling to  concentrate.

Staying Connected

In my research group, we’ve organised a virtual coffee morning to keep in touch with each other. At a specific time each working day anyone can ‘drop by’ if they’re having their own coffee break. We have virtual group meetings too, some smaller and some larger with different aims. But, for the months in which I have been self-isolating already, I found that being in touch one-to-one is a great way to keep my motivation going. I mean this professionally, with colleagues, collaborators and mentors, but also socially, with friends and family.

Caring Responsibilities

With over 80% of the world student population at home – UNESCO estimates over 1 billion students across all levels of education – and one quarter of the world’s population under some form of restricted movements, many of us will be looking after school age children as well as working part- or full-time. In this unprecedented situation, expectations need to be managed and non-essential tasks put on hold. Prioritising the most important work-related tasks is the first step. If two people are working from home in the same household, a work around will be taking turns to look after the children for either dedicated windows of time (say a two-hour slot), or longer times (a morning and an afternoon slot). Flexibility will be key as we all try to adjust to a different work routine and challenges that result from the pandemic to our research and teaching.

Personally, I’ve found that the most useful step to take in a challenging situation is accepting the new norm. It doesn’t come very easily to me, but once I accept that working with whatever is happening is easier than working against it, everything suddenly becomes easier. Trying to keep things the way they were before the challenge may be counterproductive!

If there’s only one person in the household, and there are caring responsibilities, then there needs to be a discussion with the line manager/head of research group with regards to realistic expectations and priorities for work. These aren’t ordinary times and expectations cannot be the same now that many people are juggling caring for family, friends or even neighbours, and working.

Looking After Yourself

Staying indoors for prolonged period of times, restricting the time spent socialising and giving up many favourite outdoor activities, is going to be hard for many of us. On the other hand, in many situations, we’re going to be able to spend considerably more time together with our families, children and loved ones. This surely is a challenge from a work perspective, but also an opportunity for those of us who usually don’t get to spend significant time together. It also means that, at a personal and societal level, our usual fast pace of life is slowing down. That might need adjusting to, but it could also be beneficial.

Very few of us will have imagined what living in a pandemic might mean, where the world around us is completely different from our ordinary life. Many of us will feel anxious about family, friends, neighbours and for our health. It’s very important to look after our emotional wellbeing. These are times when our emotional resilience will be tested, so relaxing some rules, protecting some time for doing activities we enjoy (this has primarily meant baking and reading for me) and accepting that some days we might manage to do very little, are all important steps to staying well. Activities such as yoga, meditation, reading, listening to podcasts or audio books, at different times have all helped me to relax while in isolation. Unwinding and engaging in activities we enjoy are really essential during difficult times.

I have been so lucky to have many friends around who have helped keeping me sane – thanks to you all. Having an understanding employer, who has allowed me to dip in and out of work as and when I could, has been also hugely beneficial. I’ve found that thinking about work has helped me staying sane. Now the challenge will be adapting to self-isolating as a family and managing at least a little work – or perhaps some days not very much. As others have written, that’s OK too.

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