The past 6 months has presented a number of challenges to our collective mental wellbeing. Social isolation has become mandatory. We no-longer shake hands or hug our friends. We need to be constantly vigilant about hand-washing and hygiene. There are no festivals, concerts, cinema visits, or birthday parties. We can’t go to the gym. For those of us who are lucky enough to still have a job, working from home is the new normal.
I have had many conversations with people during recent weeks about how they are adjusting to their new working conditions. Some people have mentioned being happy about not “wasting time” travelling to and from the office. Others report that working from home has reduced distractions and interruptions from work colleagues. But, on the flip side, some people have talked about feeling more stressed due to factors such as reduced access to supervision or mentoring from senior staff, difficulties with technology, or interruptions from other family members who all need to share the home for work or schooling. And when I ask people what they are doing outside of work hours, they usually reply “not much”.
Research on recovery from work stress suggests that 4 key experiences during non-work time are important*: (1) psychological detachment from work during non-work time, (2) relaxation during non-work time, (3) a sense of mastery (facing a positive challenge to learn something new) during non-work activities, and (4) a sense of control over non-work activities. Interestingly, these effects have been found to be enhanced in natural environments.
When we are working from home, it is likely to be harder to maintain a sense of psychological detachment from work during non-work time. We might be working in the same space that we usually relax and socialise (e.g., dining room table), or we might be tempted to stretch out the work day and check emails early in the morning or late at night, because we have access to this technology. We might wear casual clothes while working from home, or stay in pyjamas all day. Or we may pick up the laptop and start our work while we are still laying in bed in the morning.
Regulations about social distancing, gatherings, and access to public places have limited our non-work activities. We can no-longer go to a Friday night football game, have drinks in a pub with friends, watch a movie in a cinema, or participate in social sport. All of these restrictions may result in a reduced sense of control over our non-work activities, and reduced opportunities for mastery, which have a negative impact on our ability to recover from the stresses of the work day.
So what CAN we do?
Increase the separation between work life and home life by setting up a designated work area and using that space only during designated work hours. Get up at the same time each morning, shower, and get dressed, so that you are mentally prepared for work. Try to avoid checking emails or doing “just one more task” after the end of the work day.
Schedule time at the end of your work day to engage in non-work activities which you enjoy and which give you a sense of mastery. Pick up a new hobby (or resume an old one). Go for a walk or a run, even if you can’t go to the gym. But don’t feel that you have to change the world. Even small tasks can make a big difference to your sense of wellbeing.
And finally, get in touch with nature because the effects of recovery experiences on wellbeing are enhanced in natural environments! For example, going for a walk outside is better for your mental health than walking on a treadmill. Sit outside during breaks from work or spend time in your garden at the end of the day. Even if you can’t physically get outside (for whatever reason), try to bring natural elements into your home (e.g., pot plants, nature sounds, or pictures of natural environments).
Now, as my work day draws to a close, I’m heading outside to breathe in some fresh air and enjoy the natural environment in my own backyard.
Bennett, A.A., Bakker, A.B., & Field, J.G. (2018). Recovery form work-related effort: A meta-analysis. Journal of Organizational Behaviour, 39, 262-275.
Sonnetag, S., Venz, L., & Casper, A. (2017). Advances in recovery research: What have we learned? What should be done next? Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 22, 365-380.