How to Protect Your Mental Health When Working Remotely, According to a Psychologist

2020 has brought with it unexpected levels of stress, anxiety, and fear for people across the globe.

And the workplace isn’t insulated from the realities of our global situation.

Some of my colleagues, for instance, are now working half-days — and essentially becoming elementary or middle school teachers while their children’s schools are closed for the other half.

Other colleagues are dealing with increasing anxiety as a result of tight living quarters. As we can all probably attest, the boundary between “work” and “home” life is quickly shrinking. (I’m currently typing this in the same spot I do my afternoon yoga, after-work ‘happy hour’ with friends, and nighttime movie-watching.)

Of course, many of our remote life challenges are insignificant compared to the pandemic sweeping the globe — but the risks posed to mental health aren’t minor at all.

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For instance, 19% of fully-remote employees say loneliness is their biggest struggle when working remotely – and if that doesn’t seem like a big deal, consider that loneliness has been proven as dangerous as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

Fortunately, there are strategies you can implement to decrease levels of anxiety or sadness when working from home. To explore options for protecting our mental health while working from home, I spoke with Dr. Willard, a psychologist, consultant, and author who specializes in mindfulness and positive psychology.

Let’s dive into Willard’s tips for practicing mindfulness during times of stress, avoiding burnout from too many virtual meetings, and finding moments of gratitude even in difficult circumstances.

How to Protect Your Mental Health When Working From Home

1. Practice mindfulness to focus on the present moment and feel calm during times of stress.

If you’re anything like me, meditation is on the back-burner at the moment. During times of stress and anxiety, I typically take the “white-knuckle and get through it” approach, focusing on happier future times rather than dwelling on the present moment.

Of course, that often lends itself to more stress and anxiety, not less.

Fortunately, it sounds like we don’t need to set aside 30 minutes a day to reach calm.

Instead, Dr. Willard suggests, “Between calls, give yourself a break by taking five breaths, or looking out the window and noticing a few beautiful things. Sip your coffee with all five senses. Notice five sounds you hear. All of these kinds of things really do settle us down and bring us into the present.”

Additionally, he says, “With more time, take a walk around the neighborhood without your phone in-hand, or do your calls standing or walking if possible.” You might also practice mindfulness when you’re lounging on the couch, or eating a meal.

Alternatively, Dr. Willard mentioned that when we’re stressed, our perception is often distorted. If you find yourself overwhelmed with thoughts like “When will this end?” or “Will I get fired?,” try adding the statement, “I’m having the thought that ___.”

This can help you gain some perspective and understand that your thoughts might be driving you further into anxiety or stress — but they might not be grounded in reality. 

Lastly, if you are interested in trying meditation, take a look at apps like Headspace or Calm, which break meditation down into easy-to-digest categories like “5 Minutes for Sleep” or “2 Minutes of Breathing”.

2. Combat virtual meeting fatigue by alternating with phone calls or reading actual books or newspapers.

We all know the feeling of back-to-back Zoom meetings that leave you, within 2-3 hours, absolutely exhausted in a way physical meetings never did.

If you feel like you’re alone in your exhaustion around virtual meetings, you’re not (I’d recommend reading this article for more information on ‘Zoom fatigue’ and how to minimize it).

Fortunately, Dr. Willard had a few key points he’d suggest for combating ‘virtual meeting fatigue’ — “I think getting out for a bit, or looking away from the computer — for instance, perhaps every 20 minutes, you take 20 seconds to look 20 feet in the distance — can be helpful for alleviating fatigue as a result of virtual meetings.”

Of course, we can’t always take breaks in-between meetings. If you don’t feel like you have much time to get outside or look away, try phone calls to switch things up, as Dr. Willard advises: “Alternatively, instead of all Zoom meetings, perhaps you try phone calls to connect with people, and take a walk as you do.”

He adds, “I’d also suggest reading an actual book or magazine … I got a newspaper yesterday, and I was surprised by how different and better it felt to read it rather than consuming all my news online.”

3. Practice gratitude, and reflect on positive moments with a journal.

If you’re doubtful of the effect of gratitude on happiness levels, I’d suggest giving this TED Talk a watch:

Ultimately, practicing gratitude can be critical for maintaining perspective and finding joy in difficult circumstances.

Gratitude can be found in minor details and seemingly trivial things, as well. For instance, when was the last time you paused to reflect on how lucky you are to have access to clean water, or a warm shower?

As Dr. Willard stresses, “Psychological health, perspective, and happiness can be found through practicing gratitude each day, and just reflecting on the few good moments in a journal or with friends or family.”

Additionally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed with a sense of When will this all end?, Dr. Willard says a little consideration for the future isn’t such a bad thing: “Setting reasonable goals in the morning, and thinking about what you’ll do after this, can help you raise happiness levels. Why not plan a vacation? Even if you’re unsure when you’ll take it, research shows it actually boosts your mood.”

4. Reach out to friends and family, limit social media consumption, and set boundaries with people in your life.

Whether you’re working at home for the time being or your full-time job is remote, it’s critical to figure out positive, healthy ways to maintain strong relationships without feeling pressure to over-maintain them.

For instance, while you’re likely craving social interaction, it can become burdensome to feel like you need to be a support system for all your friends and family. If that’s the case, Dr. Willard urges, “Set negative or positive boundaries with roommates, family, partners, parents, or others in your life.”

“Additionally, if you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, consider who that is.”

Here are some other tips Dr. Willard suggests for relationships:

  • Get multiple text threads going, even with old college roommates or colleagues you haven’t spoken to in a while.
  • Take a walk and call someone.
  • Try writing postcards or starting a pen-pal relationship with a friend.
  • Block unhelpful people on social media.
  • Join online AA groups, support groups, meditation groups, spiritual gatherings, or partake in online yoga.

Finally, if you’re feeling overwhelmed in this moment, Dr. Willard suggests remembering the CALM acronym, which can help ground yourself and relax tension in your body — all you need to do is squeeze and release the muscles in your Chest, Arms, Legs, and Mouth, which are areas where we tend to hold a lot of tension.

Finally, it’s critical to remember that the stress and anxiety we feel due to full-time quarantine is temporary.

As Dr. Willard told me, “The people who cope best are those who maintain perspective and remind themselves, every day, that this will end. We don’t know when, but we know it will. This right now is the longest slog, and there will be more and different requirements in the future. And the world will look a little different, but this ‘stuck in our house, six-feet apart at the grocery store’ thing will end.”

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Originally published May 14, 2020 7:00:00 AM, updated May 14 2020

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