Estimated read time: 10 minutes. Doc, I can’t read all that! Give me the TLDR version. OK. I’ve bolded, underlined, and italicized parts of this article to help you skim it.
Working From Home (WFH) is both a blessing and a curse. It’s something many of us just aren’t used to. The home environment is very different (not only for each of us) but also from the work environment.
This applies to students as well. I’m sure many of us will remember almost exclusively studying at the college library, coffee shop, or someplace outside of where we were living.
With a workplace in mind, let’s start off by taking a look at what those environments provide us:
- Structure – Now, I’m not saying your living environment isn’t structured, but a workplace is designed specifically for work to get done. You may have a designated office, desk, or work area. There are probably specific areas set aside for meetings.
Many modern-day workplaces also have other lounge-like work areas to give ourselves some variety in where we are working from and the ability to get away from the office noise. When structure is provided for us externally, we no longer have to create it ourselves. This takes mental effort and energy.
- Boundaries – This is a big one. Prior to the pandemic, there were a significant number of us who could only get work done… at work. For others, there was only so much work you could get done remotely. There was a much clearer line between work and home. Without that boundary, we have many more options (i.e., distractions) on what we can do.
If we don’t have those distractions, we don’t think about them (again, mental energy). You certainly wouldn’t think about doing your laundry between meetings at work, and you definitely wouldn’t be able to chip away at a house project.
Workplaces talk about burnout, but they don’t address boundaries. Boundaries help to prevent burnout. More on that in a future blog post.
- A change of environment – Even if you were working in the same office for 20 years, it was still a change in environment from your home. Our brains like novelty, even if it’s subtle. One of the things we’ve missed the most during this time period is novelty.
Think about it, what’s a vacation? Novelty. What’s going to a new restaurant? Novelty. What’s meeting with a new sales client? Novelty. Each one of these things is stimulating to our brains. Even if it’s ever so slightly, it inspires our imagination.
This is a completely different part of our brains, and many people may relate when I say this: imagination helps our brains relax a bit. In other words, novelty helps us preserve and recharge our mental energy.
- Social connection. This is not only a chance to connect with your colleagues but also feeding off of set expectations that they’re working on, so you should be too.
Before we move on to the solutions, let’s not forget to address some of the things that have changed:
Some of the things that have changed in Work From Home:
- Work expectations. Remember that discussion on boundaries above? Well, now that you are essentially able to perform the majority (or all) of your expected role from home, you’re suddenly available at most hours of the day.
An 11 PM meeting followed by a 6 AM meeting the next day? For some of us this was unheard of before. For far too many of us this is becoming the norm. There are benefits to a global work environment, this certainly isn’t one of them. This takes away from your mental energy and isn’t sustainable.
I’m going to expand on this example, because I think it highlights something very important. Was that 11 PM meeting 30 minutes, an hour, longer? Are you going to be able to fall asleep the minute the meeting ends? You’ll probably need some time to decompress or wind down into bed. You may even want some time for yourself now that your workday is finally over.
For the sake of specifics, let’s assume this person had a 30ish minute meeting, and fell asleep at midnight. Now they have a 6 AM work meeting. Are they going to be able to wake up at 6:00 for this meeting? Doubtful. They may have a morning routine which can take anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes, even when working from home.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. This person didn’t even get 6 hours of sleep, and I doubt that was quality sleep either. Pro tip: Sleep has a quantity component and a quality component. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep at night, give or take (there are some outliers).
I explain this to my patients quite frequently. Going with that example, 8 hours is a 1/3 of our day. 1/3 of our lives is dedicated to sleep. That’s how important it is.
Sleep is not only where we recharge our mental energy, but it’s also where we problem solve (Ever wake up in the middle of the night thinking about a problem you’ve been working on? Yea, that’s what that is), file away memories (insufficient sleep increases the risk of Dementia by 30%) and have maintenance done on our bodies (including our minds).
You wouldn’t expect your car to drive non-stop. You probably need to stop for gas (or a re-charge). You need to replace your tires every so often, get an oil change, software update, etc.
Why is it that we (collectively as workers and employers), expect to work non-stop? This is an American phenomenon more so than any other country in the world.
While we’re resting at night, the clean up crew comes into our brains and removes cell waste, repairs neurons. Athletes will tell you how important sleep is to their physical recovery and performance.
I’ll cover sleep more in depth at a future blog post.
- Parenting expectations. For those of us who are parents, there has been the expectation to help our kids adapt to remote learning. From technological challenges, to setting boundaries with our kids, this has been a big ask of parents, especially moms.
Thank you moms! Let’s suppose you’re in an hour long 8 AM meeting and your kids first class is at 8:30 AM. Well, a parent may have to get their child setup ahead of time, or sneak out during the meeting to make sure their child is online. Now I know moms, they’re superheroes (I tell my wife she’s a supermom on the regular).
They’re going to want to make sure their child is online and in class. Call this a worry, a concern, an added responsibility; either way, it requires additional mental energy. Yes, of course, there are dads who carry this burden and/or help out, but I use mom’s here as an example (see the link above).
- Work space expectations. You can’t just take a meeting from the kitchen table during breakfast or on the couch if there is noise in the background. You probably need to go to a separate work space with in your home.
WFH was thrusted upon many of us and some of us still have not adapted our home work space. It’s likely that your home workspace is not a dedicated work environment. Let’s suppose it’s your bedroom. You may have a TV in there, bills to pay, or the typical sounds of others being at home. These all add to a cluttered work space, more distractions and yes, a drain on your mental energy.
Finally, let’s address some of the positives of WFH.
Advantages of Work From Home:
- Not having to commute. No sitting in traffic. No stopping for gas (or recharging). No need to plan (saving mental energy) for that commute time into your work schedule. Best of all, a huge time saver. How are we making the most out of the time we’ve saved?
- Being able to work in more comfortable clothes. Yay, PJs! Why do we like our PJs so much? Of course, they are comfortable. But we also associate them with getting cozy, relaxing, and sleeping. So now that some of us are working in our PJs, we’re having to break that mind association (requiring mental energy). That said, I still consider this a positive for most, given the time savings.
- Being able to get things done between meetings. Suppose you have 10 minutes of downtime between meetings. Many of us working from home may decide to wrap up a chore or errand. You might start dinner prep. You see where I’m going with this; that saves us the time we might have spent on that outside of work hours.
Doc, how do we solve this, make it sustainable, and replenish our mental energy?
- Setting boundaries with work. If you feel you can work at any waking hour of the day or week, you’ll have more options (again, distractions) on what you can do. Now you’re having to decide from a greater number of options, subtracting mental energy.
So, let’s do what you did before this all began. Certain hours of the day were set specifically for work, and other hours of the day/week were set specifically for yourself/your family/your errands. Maybe 9 AM to 5 PM is specifically for work with an hour break in between (get some nourishment, work out, do some errands, etc.)? And maybe the rest of the day is protected for yourself, family time, etc.
Why are we getting work notifications outside of regular work hours? Do you really need to read that email right now? Yes, we’re members of the workforce, but we’re also people, parents, sons, daughters, and family members. We need time (ideally dedicated and protected time) for each of those roles.
- Making sure you get enough sleep. If you don’t have to commute to work, you may think you can stay up and sleep in later. For many of us, that doesn’t always translate. Our body clocks might be set to wake up at a certain time, no matter what. Do you find yourself waking up at your usual time, no matter what time you get to sleep? Yup, that’s your circadian rhythm.
- A dedicated workspace. As best as possible, having a workplace free of clutter, distractions, and outside noise will help. I understand this isn’t possible for everyone and is not an easy fix.
- Getting outside. It sounds rather bland, and we take it for granted. Let’s look at some of the benefits – sunlight, fresh air, a change of scenery, running into a neighbor, and forcing us to move physically.
- Exercise. First, our gyms were closed. Now we might not feel comfortable going to a gym, or the boundaries on work hours vs. self hours have been erased to the point where you don’t even feel like you have enough time to get to the gym.
Either way, there has to be something you can do. A brisk walk, jog/run, swim, bike, hike, yoga, stretch, do jumping jacks, pushups, something.
Exercise has obvious physical benefits. It’s tremendously important for the mind. Exercise (especially if you can get your heart rate up) increases blood flow (more nutrients for the brain!) and releases an amazing brain protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). BDNF helps to promote a healthy brain environment (forming new neurons, regenerating others) and helps with cognitive functions of the brain, such as learning and memory.
I’m not saying you have to exercise every day. I’m not saying you have to run a marathon tomorrow. Find a way to ease back into it. Pace yourself. Figure out something that works for you. Ideally, it involves a friend or someone that can participate with you.
That money you’ve saved from not having to buy as much gas? Maybe it’s worth getting a trainer. A good trainer will gauge where you are at and develop a plan (structure for you). Translation? Less mental effort on your part to get back in the groove.
- Mix up your work environment when possible. Maybe that’s working from a park, on the table in your backyard, balcony, or elsewhere. For many of us, working from the same place is mundane. When things are mundane, they require more energy and effort.
- Socialize. Call a friend, a family member, or a co-worker (but you know, talk about something other than work). FaceTime or Zoom with someone you care about. Social connection energizes us. Of course, this requires effort, but the payoff is priceless. One of the things we miss the most about being in the office is that social connection. Even if it was just small talk, it added so much to our lives.
- Finally, and most importantly, truly RELAX (yes, that means signing out of your work Slack and putting leaving your work phone behind). Rekindle a forgotten or neglected hobby. Watch some TV (in moderation) or a movie. Meditate. Take a relaxing bath. Get a massage. Do something for yourself.
I hope that helps. Still struggling? Maybe I can help.