Working & Studying From Home: A Guide to Doing it Well

Monday, April 27, 2020

We get advice from Paul Bogacs, Psychology & Counselling Strand Convenor, lecturer and therapist on how to understand, survive and thrive in COVID-19 isolation.

One of the biggest issues people face when working from home is a loss of motivation. Why does this happen?

I think it’s probably got to do with a few things; firstly, we get out of our normal routine. We are creatures of habit and when it comes to work, we do a lot of what we do without having to think about it. We do it automatically. However, when we are thrown out of routine, the things that we do without giving them much thought, now have to be re-thought. For example, resources that we take for granted are not necessarily within easy reach. Quite a number of things can be more complicated. Frustration can drain our motivation.

Not only are we creatures of habit; we are also social beings. Social interaction is part of what makes work-life enjoyable and gives it more meaning. Mundane tasks are just a little more doable when we realise that those in the offices around us are also grappling with the same tasks (for example, CMS!). When we are actually around people, it’s easier to remember that we are part of a team and we don’t want to let other team members down.

What are some strategies we can use to stay motivated?

I think it’s important to develop new routines- to make sure we have a set time to start and to ensure that we don’t allow ourselves to get distracted by tasks around us (household chores, etc) that we know need to be done. While the flexibility of working from home can be very attractive, it is not difficult to get to the end of the day and find we have not done some of what we really needed to get done for work. Some may find it helpful to actually keep track of the hours they are doing so that they know how many work hours they are putting in. This is also a way of ensuring that work does actually stop! It may also be helpful to mix up the tasks so that only a certain amount of time is spent doing that which we know we don’t enjoy. It’s important to put some structure into our day- I will do this task, then this, then move onto that. So often at work what we do is determined by who is at our door wanting something. We then try to fit in the other stuff around the distractions. Now, however, when we don’t have those distractions, we need to be intentional about what our workday is going to look like.

Why does isolation cause some people stress but not others?

There are certainly some who are very happy with the current arrangement, for whom isolation is not a big deal and who thrive on less human contact and more time without distractions. This has a lot to do with personality types. The extroversion/introversion continuum has been recognised for a long time; people who tend to be on the extreme end of introverted have less need for social interaction and engagement and often work best when left alone. However, high introversion also correlates with higher tendencies to worry, so it may be that the introverts are happy that they have less social interaction but find themselves getting very anxious about the current uncertainties. I think there are also practical issues that make this current arrangement less stressful for some- for e.g. those with a long commute to work, may find that the extra time they have decreases their stress.

How do we minimise stress in isolation?

I think our mindset is important. It’s easy to catastrophise, it’s easy to get stuck in a feeling of hopelessness and to forget the big picture.  The big picture is that we are getting through this, life will get back to what we once knew as normal and most of us will not get this virus. And if we do, the most likely thing that will happen is that we will get better and not even need hospitalisation. The problem is that our stress reaction causes us to not engage the higher functioning parts of our brain that actually know we are very likely to be just fine. When the limbic system sounds an alarm, there is little rational thinking involved. We then need to make deliberate efforts to ensure that the rational part of our brain is actually in charge, so that we can recognize our fears and acknowledge them, but not be overwhelmed by them. The aim is to become an observer to our unhelpful thoughts and feelings, rather than an active participant, feeding the frantic internal activity.

It is also important to ensure that we still have people contact in whatever way we can. It’s important to reach out to colleagues that we would normally say hello to and have a brief chat with, and to make sure we still keep in touch via email, text or video conferencing. Obviously, keeping healthy and ensuring we do regular exercise is essential; there is plenty of research out there detailing the benefits of exercise for reducing stress.

We also know that a simple gratitude exercise can be very good for our emotional well-being. Writing down two or three things every day that we are grateful has been shown to lift mood (in some cases as much as using anti-depressant medication!)

And of course, if nothing is working, get some help! It is easy to get hooked into the on-going investigation into every aspect of this virus. A skilled therapist can help you get unhooked so that you are not feeding your anxiety but allowing it to subside.

This is also an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves of the promises God makes to be there for us in everything we are going through. I don’t believe it’s a promise to take away the things that stress us, but to give us strength and peace to allow us to get through this. Ultimately, God is in charge. It’s His show.