Editor’s Note: This story was updated Feb. 18, 2022 to better reflect the continued relevance of the contained information.
For many employees, the COVID-19 pandemic caused a sudden collision between their work and home lives.
Roughly four months after initial lockdowns, the country is in the process of reopening. But this has been a difficult and disruptive period for most people.
Early stay-at-home orders caused a sudden shift in working environments for employees whose companies might not have had the proper infrastructure, policies or resources in place to support remote work. Roles, responsibilities and priorities have rapidly shifted, both professionally and personally.
We have made some adjustments to this new normal, but uncertainty and stress remain for when a true return to normal is possible.
“These are very uncertain and scary times,” said Stephanie Andel, an assistant professor of psychology at IUPUI. “Many employees are likely to experience feelings of stress, anxiety and even fear. These feelings are completely normal and valid. It is important to remember that we remain in the midst of a pandemic, one that continues to impact virtually all aspects of life.”
With no office to relocate to and the physical action of a commute replaced by a short walk from the bedroom to a different location in the home, it can be difficult to maintain a clear separation between professional and personal time. Andel’s first tip was to create work boundaries in both time space.
“Once you get to the end of the workday, put your work tasks aside,” Andel said. “Focus on deliberately engaging in an activity that helps you to detach from work and transition into a non-work mindset. Even if you must physically remain in the same space, you can trick yourself into creating some mental boundaries.”
Andel recommended that employees create a designated workspace at home where distractions are limited and use space to provide mental separation.
“Working from home can produce feelings of role confusion, like everything is melding together between your work life and your non-work life,” Andel said. “Am I supposed to be a Mom right now or a coworker? It can be difficult, but maintaining that structure around your workday can help alleviate those feelings of confusion.”
Find a routine, but not too much of one
“Today is … Thursday? No, wait. It’s Tuesday.”
A common experience for many during the pandemic is losing track of the day of the week. When engaged in repetitive activities such as working from home and staying in the same physical environment for successive days, Groundhog Day Syndrome can come into play.
Named after the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray as a weatherman who keeps reliving the same day, the syndrome was defined in Psychology Today as “the feeling of living the same thing over and over again or feeling stuck in an everyday routine, which makes it seem like life is passing you by.”
Routines are helpful to define boundaries, but being too rigid in a routine can make life monotonous.
Outside of finding a new passion or hobby, Andel said that you are likely to feel better by making small and subtle changes to your daily routine. Try to make a new coffee drink or recipe. Try different activities during your lunch break, like taking a walk or sampling a new TV show.
“It is really important to create little moments of joy each day,” Andel said. “If we don’t make a conscious effort to add some novelty into our daily routines, it is easy to feel like you are stuck in a rut.”
Show compassion toward yourself
Navigating such tumultuous times can be helped by learning and engaging in practices of self-compassion. Andel defines self-compassion as “the tendency to extend compassion and kindness toward oneself in instances of perceived inadequacies, failure or general suffering.”
She said it may seem strange to treat compassion as a skill, but often we can be our own worst critic. The practice of self-compassion as a skill starts with examining your own internalized self-talk, those little conversations we have with ourselves. When we have failed at something or done something wrong, our internal narrative is often something to the effect of, “I am a loser. Why am I so terrible at this? Get it together.”
Andel said that people frequently measure themselves to excessively high standards, when they deserve kindness and compassion. Instead of being harsh to oneself, she recommends that individuals try to think of what they would say to a friend in the same circumstances.
“Small tweaks to that internal dialogue can be incredibly powerful,” she said. “Research consistently shows that self-compassion is a skill that can be learned and that it’s practice is associated with significant positive effects for health and well-being”
Be proactive in creating safe social opportunities
Because of the rapidly-changing public health situation and people’s varying levels of comfort with different types of social interactions, identifying safe opportunities for social activity is critical. The circumstances of COVID-19 lend to a higher likelihood of people experiencing loneliness and isolation.
Virtual social events such as video trivia contests, game nights and group chats provide the chance to catch up with friends and family members with time that you might not have had before. If trying to spend face-to-face time with other people, make sure to take the necessary health precautions.
“Try to brainstorm some creative ways to have social interaction while maintaining physical distancing,” Andel said. “This can be a profoundly isolating time, so it is more important than ever to identify safe ways of maintaining social connections.”
Parents have to engage in self-care
In May, the American Psychological Association released a study finding that parents are reporting higher levels of stress related to the coronavirus pandemic than non-parents.
For those with young children, childcare facilities were – or are still – closed. School-age children transitioned to remote learning before summer break. These changes mean that attention-starved children are in the home which often force parents to maintain a difficult balance between work and family.
“As working parents continue to juggle multiple responsibilities, they are especially prone to feeling overwhelmed and exhausted,” Andel said.
It’s important for parents to dedicate energy to maintaining a balanced diet and finding time for exercise and relaxation, if possible said Andel. If there are two parents in the home, it can be helpful to “divide and conquer” household duties to ensure that both parents are able to meet their work goals while also providing necessary care for children.
It’s become commonplace to have a kid sit on a lap during a Zoom meeting or to announce their presence with screams in the background. In the past, such distractions were discouraged in professional settings, but they have become increasingly accepted as part of this new normal.
“It seems that the standards and expectations are changing, and now seeing co-workers’ children or pets in the background of the video is often welcomed,” Andel said. “I think those situations help to illustrate this idea of common humanity, that we really are all in this together.”
Take time off
While many traditional vacations and activities may be off limits for the time being, disconnecting and recharging can be helpful if you are able to take time off.
When dealing with the daily stresses of life and trying to balance work and home responsibilities, detaching from being on the clock is something Andel recommends.
“We expend a lot of energy when we are working,” she said. “Taking time off allows us to rebuild our mental resources so that we are less likely to burn out.”
Measure productivity differently
We are currently in the middle of a pandemic, there’s an increased spotlight on social issues like racism, sexism and police-community relations, and we live in a polarized political environment. People are dealing with issues around the clock that are not solely work-based.
In terms of measuring worker productivity during the pandemic, Andel said that organizational leaders must recognize that like everyone else, their employees are likely to be under a great deal of stress right now. Expecting productivity to resemble pre-pandemic levels may not be realistic and she suggests that organizations cut their employees some slack.
“We are in the midst of a unique and very stressful public health crisis,” Andel said. “It is important for organizational leaders to acknowledge that this situation is inevitably going to impact employee productivity and personal well-being, and to offer additional supports to their employees.”