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How to cope with the highs and the lows of working from home



When I first saw the acronym 'WFH' a year ago on the staff computer, it took me a while to work out what it meant. Then I congratulated myself in my head when I realised it meant 'working from home'.


Before 2020, working from home was not commonplace enough for it to warrant having its own well known acronym.


But since the pandemic, the percentage of people regularly working from home shot from 5% in 2019 to nearly 50% in 2020, and 'WFH' is now as standard as 'TBC' or 'FYI'.


I began my new job in February 2021, in the middle of lockdown three, which meant joining a new team without having physically met them. Even during the pandemic I had only ever worked in the office, so I was a little late joining the WFH club.


Working from home can be strange enough to get used to, but working from home when you're joining a new company with new faces is even more strange.


Everyone has had their own experience of what it's like to work from home, and it's completely dependent on your surroundings, who you live with, if you have children, and who you are as a person.


For myself, as someone who lives with a boyfriend and housemate but spends the entire working day alone, I'd say it took me around two months to get to the positive mental place I am in now. Having an overwhelmingly friendly and upbeat team at work, and a supportive family who regularly checked in, gave me much-needed boosts when I was initially struggling with this new lifestyle. But there's only so much other people can do to help you, and for all the moments in between when it's just you and your computer, there are tactics you can learn to stay focused and fulfilled.


To skip ahead to the solutions that made me love working from home, click here.


If you want to take pleasure in reading about the journey I went on before I reached contentment, read on...



WEEK ONE


The first week of working from home I was buzzing. There was no irritating early alarm; no stressful commute leaving a sweat on the back of my neck when a broken down car or train meant I'd have to run the rest of the way to the office to make it in on time; and financially I'd be saving at least £200 a month on travel expenses, not to mention the money saved on random coffee and expensive lunch purchases that inevitably occur when you get home late, too tired to prepare a packed lunch for the next day.


I told myself I would still behave as though I was going into an office - that meant wearing smart clothes and putting on makeup, even though my new office was a three metre walk to the living room where I'd be sat by myself.


"This is amazing!" I told my housemate when he got home from a meeting. I was sat with my feet on the sofa using my laptop, excited about my new job, and amazed at the comfort of actually working from home.


"It won't last long," my housemate told me. "That feeling soon gets old and you'll be wishing you were back in the office." My housemate, who's in the food industry, had found himself working from home for the first time a year ago due to the pandemic, but was now out again all day every day for client meetings.


I refused to believe him, and I certainly wasn't jealous of my partner, who as a personal trainer was having to meet clients during dark and snowy mornings in the park.



WEEK TWO


By the second week I was still overwhelmingly happy, though I hadn't sorted a proper desk space before my new job began. My back was starting to hurt from sitting on either the sofa, kitchen bar stool or bed, playing musical chairs each time I became uncomfortable. I was kicking myself for not being more organised and sorting this out before I started my new job, but working from home was totally new to me, and my joints and posture just hadn't been at the top of my list.



WEEK THREE AND FOUR


When my new desk, chair and computer arrived, my minor back ache went away.


However, I was experiencing a new dilemma - I was incapable of mentally separating the feeling of being at home and being at work. I had also grown tiresome of the morning makeup routine, and felt I was wasting valuable products on my face which no one would be seeing.


As soon as my alarm went off at 7.30am, I strolled straight from my bed to my desk, starting work 90 minutes earlier than I was expected to. I was so grateful for the fact that I had work to keep me busy during the lockdown, when so many other people were furloughed or unemployed and didn't have anything to focus on. But this meant I was exhausting my eyes and my mind staring at a computer screen for up to twelve hours a day. 'Down time' went out the window, and I instead became completely enthralled with work.


In turn, this also meant I wasn't taking care of myself. I snacked constantly, sometimes didn't leave the house, and felt grumpy and irritable at the end of each day. Over time I watched my face slowly swell up like a balloon, feeling ashamed each time I caught sight of myself on a zoom meeting.



WEEK FIVE AND SIX


In the following weeks I tried to relax my working hours a bit more, and stuck rigidly to the 9-5.30pm shift that was expected of me. But this came with a new problem - guilt.


Now I was intent on keeping to my 8.5-hour working day, any moment away from the computer I felt like I was doing something wrong: making a coffee, going to the loo, stepping onto the balcony for a moment, or answering a nonwork-related phone call... in my head, every minute not sat at my desk was a minute of my company's time I was wasting. When you're working from home, your employer is trusting you to do your work, and the thought of betraying that trust made me feel too uncomfortable to leave my desk. But these feelings totally stemmed from my own anxiety and I was putting unnecessary pressure on myself.


Even on my lunch hour, the feeling of guilt crept up on me as I sat on the sofa and ate some food, or went for a walk. Though I was always encouraged to take regular breaks as well as my lunch, and not respond to out-of-hours emails, I couldn't get this feeling out of my head that I was somehow skiving. It just felt so bizarre that I could make a cup of tea or sandwich in my own home, or run an errand on my lunch hour. The fact that I always had access to work with the computer in my lounge meant I also felt guilty in the evenings, when I knew there were tasks I could be getting on with instead of watching TV.



WEEK SEVEN AND EIGHT


After about six weeks, the novelty of working from home had worn off. I was jealous that my boyfriend was getting to physically interact with people every day, even if it was in the park with his toes wet and numb from the snow seeping through his trainers. I was missing the comradery that comes with working in an office, and realised that although I was having regular meetings with my team, I didn't know that much about them as individuals.

More guilt came with the fact that I was feeling low. Across the country, hundreds of thousands of people who live by themselves had been feeling lonely for almost a year. I was lucky to have a job, and a partner who was home in the evenings to keep me company.


But this loneliness led to me putting pressure on my boyfriend - he was the only person I'd physically speak to each day, and I was becoming too reliant on him to keep me entertained. When he got home from a day of personal training in the park, he was exhausted and just wanted to relax, whereas I had lacked the social stimulation I craved and wanted more energy from him.


I should've took comfort in the fact that the lockdown restrictions would soon be coming to an end, and in a month's time I would be able to visit family and friends, go to the gym, and have a better work-life balance.


But I didn't want to spend the next four weeks getting fatter and feeling sorry for myself. I'm grateful that I always felt like I could talk to my colleagues, boyfriend and family when I was feeling low. However, I couldn't rely solely on other people to solve my problems, and needed to figure out a way to be at peace with this new way of working. After all, it's likely that working from home will remain the norm post-pandemic.



THE SOLUTIONS


What I was desperately lacking - which is what physically going to work provides - is routine. My working day and personal time had no clear start and end, which was affecting both my work and my down time. When you physically go to work each day, you utilise your hours in a certain way. I needed to get this sort of structure back into my life.


1) Create structure to the day


As trivial as it may sound, when I looked online and purchased a weekly planner, my whole approach to each day changed for the better. I work best when I'm organised, and have learnt over the years that no matter what I'm trying to achieve, having a written plan always helps me reach my goal. This may not be the best approach for everyone, but as someone who spends most of the day at home on my own, I needed to push myself to do all of the small things I would be doing under 'normal' circumstances. I also wanted to incorporate some new tricks into my day, as with the pandemic came a spawn of ideas on how to look after your mental health. I made a list of all the things I wanted to do, and then decided what time in the day I wanted to do them. It felt a bit silly to physically write this stuff down on a planner, but it certainly pushed me to get back into a routine. There's loads of planners you can buy online, or you can even make your own, but I got mine from here.


2) Meditate


The act of meditating has been suggested to me countless times, particularly as I'm a pretty energetic person who talks 100 miles per hour and whose mind seems to bounce inadvertently from one thought to another. Even when I was in the office, my focus could easily be lost and my mindset was quite negative, though I made an effort to never display this to others. A few people had told me about the 'Calm' app, which reportedly improves mental fitness, reduces stress and encourages gratitude. Eventually I downloaded the app, and have been pleasantly surprised at how much of a difference it has made to my life. Every weekday morning as soon as I wakeup, I spend ten minutes listening to one of the episodes that teaches you how to meditate. The cognitive benefits I've found include feeling calm when I start my day, and having a much more positive outlook on situations and relationships. This has also really helped me at work, as it's all too easy to overthink and feel irrationally emotional when you're alone for most the day.


3) Take cold showers


The second thing I wanted to do each morning was have a freezing cold shower. It sounds ridiculous, but I'd increasingly read about the benefits people were experiencing from the surge in open water swimming during lockdown, as well as the rising interest in Wim Hof and his absolute belief that submerging himself into freezing cold temperatures was paramount to his improved mental health. Though I don't go to those extremes, ending my morning shower with the temperature set as cold as it can go for the final 20 seconds leaves me feeling awake, refreshed, and bizarrely happier.


4) 'Commute' to work


The next thing on my to-do list has arguably made the biggest difference to my mental health, and that is going for a walk each morning and listening to the radio. Prior to the pandemic, it was part of most people's morning routine to actually leave the house, commute to work, and use that time doing something to make them feel prepared for the day ahead. For me, that meant listening to a morning news programme, which I realised I hadn't done consistently for the last two months. The act of actually leaving my house in the morning takes me away from the thought that my emails are waiting to be opened in the room next to my bedroom, and though my new 'commute' is a 10-30 minute loop back to my house, the morning walk makes me feel mentally alert and energised. Once I've sat down at my desk, I feel buzzing to start work.


5) Get up and move


Something else I've incorporated into my routine are short bursts of exercise on the hour, every hour. We hear time and time again how our health is deteriorating because of our sedentary lifestyles, and working on a computer most of the week is arguably the biggest factor that contributes to this. The idea that sitting still all day is hugely detrimental to our physical health was proven in the late 1940s by Jeremy N. Morris, a British epidemiologist whose comparison of heart-attack rates among double-decker bus drivers and conductors in London laid the scientific groundwork for the modern aerobics movement. With that in mind I make a note on my planner - on the hour, every hour during the working day - to do a few minutes of stretching or HIT exercises. Whilst doing this I either listen to a song or watch five minutes of the news. Having that short mental break from work, as well as getting my heart pumping, means that when I return to my desk I feel a new wave of productivity come over me, and I throw that energy into my work. This is a solid perk of working from home - blasting out Stormzy and doing press ups every hour might have caused some alarm if I was in the office.


6) Make the most of lunch


Now that lockdown restrictions have eased, I make the most of socialising or doing something I enjoy on my lunch hour. When I was working in the office, this time usually consisted of going for a walk and listening to a podcast, or grabbing something to eat which usually cost at least £5. But there are now many wonderful advantages to working from home when it comes to my lunch break: I can cook my own food and save money doing it; I can visit a local relative or friend for a coffee; I can go to the gym, go for a swim or do a YouTube Pilates class in the lounge; I can keep on top of the housework whilst listening to a podcast; or I can watch an episode of something on TV (even in bed if I like!). Initially, I found it hard to take a proper break and that all-too-familiar feeling of guilt would creep over me when I left my desk for lunch. But studies show that taking a lunch break allows your mind to rest, recharge and refocus, which can directly improve your productivity for the rest of the day. Not taking a lunch break can leave you feeling more tired and stressed, less focused and in a worse mood by the time the day ends. It can also reduce your ability to be creative. Even if you just take 15-30 minutes, this is a proven way to keep your levels of concentration and energy up during your day.


7) Talk to someone