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Maintaining Safety from Distress – Working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic

 

By Dr Sean Sullivan PhD

For the majority of us, working from home on a continuous basis will be a new, and often challenging change to our lives. This change is compounded by the ominous context of a worldwide pandemic, inflow of daily negative updates, and the restriction in a most important defence to our wellbeing; our ability to socialise and share our concerns directly with others. Although the recent lockdown has been timed to initially last four weeks, this is a somewhat arbitrary period that may extend for a considerably longer period, and therefore such uncertainty is likely to impact upon our level of wellbeing, anxiety, mood, and behaviour. Adjusting and living within our ‘bubble’ with others, or alone, will heavily influence how we experience each day, as well as our ongoing ability to cope.

Why has this been written?
This article is designed to assist you and those you work with, whether clients, other staff, or your managers, to navigate through this unprecedented change to our lives, and stay as well as we can, avoid unhelpful ruminating thoughts, behave in ways to be as effective and as safe as we can, and adjust to situations and pressures that we have limited control over.

Identifying both the obvious and hidden stressors will give us a ‘heads up’, to enable us to respond rather than react to changing situations that we haven’t noticed. Our experience is that reacting without thought can cause us considerable harm both immediately, and in the future.
Learning new tools, using old tools we may have forgotten we had, developing these strategies, and using them on a regular basis, will help us to build automatic skills that will benefit us through the lockdown, and into the post-lockdown workplace.

Things to be aware of
Some of these risks may seem obvious, but now may have different, or stronger impacts than first thought, because of the very unusual situation we find ourselves in. Impacts will vary because of a range of personal differences. These include who is, or isn’t in your ‘bubble’, how we respond to them over time, and the pressures of living so closely together. This new experience can be both an unexpected gift and stressor, especially if we don’t also try to save a little private time for ourselves.

So, here are some of the things to watch out for, because as we know, if we can identify triggers that may cause us problems in advance, we have the ability to reduce their impact – these are in no particular order of importance, as everyone is different. They are:

The fear of technology
Working from home, especially with the current lockdown, results in an increased reliance upon technology – not just phones, but video sessions, conferencing, and the need for constant checking of our smartphone. For some, technology will be their forte. However, for many, this will be less desirable than face to face talking, while for others, technology will be seen as not their best skill. One in six people will have a fear of technology and the forced isolation raising our dependence on technology with limited access to help while in our bubble, will elevate that fear.

What to do?
One step is to be aware of this, not see yourself as a Luddite who can’t change, and start learning by looking at an appropriate website or doing an online (brief) course [1]. We know that anxiety is best addressed by confronting rather than avoiding, and knowledge that you’re not alone can help.

Overuse of smart phones
In this heightened period of stress arising from a previously unimaginable world pandemic attack, we may constantly check with national and world news to update ourselves and to assess the current level of risk. Use can extend into late night, affecting our sleep, as well as raising our level of anxiety. UN research prior to the pandemic, identified that those working from home are more likely to use their mobile devices over extended periods, with 42% of those working from home reporting broken sleep, versus just 29% of those working in an office with others [2]. The added urge and need to check upon Covid19 updates is likely to add substantially to this over-use and further negatively impact our stress and sleep deprivation.

What to do?
Poor sleep can significantly increase our levels of distress. Good sleep ‘hygiene’ including obtaining sufficient sleep (7-9 hours) is essential to avoid increased anxiety, irritability, impatience, lack of motivation and many other costs [3]. Sleep hygiene can include:

  • Using mindfulness methods at bedtime (e.g. deep breathing; relaxation exercises: tension & release of muscles; meditation and yoga)
  • Drink warm milk rather than alcohol
  • Avoid cell phone and computer use especially, as their ‘blue light’ screens interfere with the sleep process
  • Read a good book, preferably not on a tablet or other device
  • And here’s an unusual one – acupuncture points for sleep, press firmly for 20 seconds (3 are: between your eyebrows, on the indent between big toe and second toe and a point just below the toenail on big toe)
  • Limit your surfing of Covid19 news reports to two or three a day, and not just before sleep
  • Reduce viewing emails around work, especially after usual worktime would finish
  • Schedule in regular breaks from technology, and prioritise these (cup of coffee/tea, outside in the sun to get your daily dose of vitamin D, a bit of mindfulness in the ‘here and now’, free of ruminating worries)

An unstructured work environment
What may appear to be an attractive, uncontrolled work environment can quickly result in its own problems. Working when you choose can be side-tracked by unexpected influences when work and home become intermingled. Work can extend through responding to work emails outside of normal hours (especially when you see others are working longer hours); It is easy to be distracted by others in your bubble; home pressures (e.g. cleaning, unplanned shopping trips during the lockdown, family issues), and isolation from colleagues mean that many problems have to be addressed without usual feedback from workmates. In a lockdown, having others in your bubble always present will increase stress, especially when there isn’t a place where work can occur without distraction (a spare room). The boundaries between work and home become blurred, often resulting in working longer hours than expected, interspersed with many stop/start distractions. Identifying when work ends and home life starts becomes difficult, with the psychological effects that work has no end; for example, if we work in clothes we sleep in, it can further blend these times, with the result that over time, our stress increases.

What to do?
Schedule the day:
Establish specific items and times to address work during the day so as to reduce distraction that often occurs when your day is unstructured, and this may have the added advantage of your workday not drifting out into homelife.

Dress for work:
Working in pyjamas or non-work casual clothes can appear to be a benefit when working from home, especially when the lockdown prevents travelling and visits from other colleagues. However, some attempt to ‘dress-up’ for work can psychologically assist a work focus and indicate to others in your bubble to not distract you, then when the workday is over, change to ‘home clothes’ to delineate the end of the workday, to avoid time drift.

Workplace preferably not in the bedroom:
Having a separate place to work may be difficult depending upon the size of your bubble, and that of your home. If a separate place can be set up, that would psychologically assist to close off work from home life, reduce distraction in the evenings before sleep, and stop or reduce the blurring between work and home. If required to work in your bedroom, try not to work from your bed, enticing as that may be.

Consensus from other bubble members that we are working and not to distract us:  
This will be difficult with young children and early teenagers, and strategies may have to be developed as to roles within the bubble that will assist this to happen.

Create occasions outside of work time to differentiate from work:
These can include taking turns to cook dinner with ‘surprise menus’, combined exercise opportunities (e.g. yoga YouTube sessions), a movie night with an advance-agreed movie to look forward to, bubble walks, monopoly or word games, and others.

This is not just working from home: the elephant in the room
The impact of living in a constrained environment (lockdown), knowing a pandemic is in its early development phase, with its uncertain and potentially terrifying impact on the world, is a constant unrelenting fear. We sense that the future will be substantially changed (health, business, travel), all the while continuing with our work, both to obtain an income, and try to maintain some level of normality.

The ability to think clearly, maintain attention, develop and maintain memory, and solve problems and stay motivated can be strongly impacted by our level of stress. This relationship has been known for some time and is called the Yerkes-Dodson Law (1908). This holds that simple tasks can be carried out with less impact of low to high stress, however for complex tasks, levels of arousal or stress impact much more, with low arousal and high arousal impacting strongly. For complex tasks requiring concentration, low arousal has the result of low motivation, while too-high arousal can result in poor performance and even burnout. This appears to mirror the effects of corticosteroid or stress hormone effect in the body.

Although personal or individual factors can act on the ability to avoid some higher levels of stress or distress (e.g. extroverts may handle stress better), factors in the environment also affect these (e.g. whether something is new to the person, unpredictable, and not controllable). The current pandemic appears to meet these last environmental factors that will increase stress, whether or not the personality of the person is introvert or extrovert. It may well be that a substantial percentage of those working in lockdown will be experiencing levels of distress, with fatigue, exhaustion, panic/anxiety, anger, and approaching burnout, if this model is correct. At present, the highest direct or underlying stressor is surely the threat imposed by the pandemic, which in turn, impacts upon movement constraints, uncertainty, and our restricted risk controls we can apply (i.e. washing hands in a specific different way, distance from others outside our bubble when walking/shopping), which provide not only actions we can take for safety, but which also remind us constantly of our limited control over a possibly mortal threat.

The model appears to be generally accepted, and if so, with the complex nature of inter-personal work being the field for many working at home under the lockdown, the stress level axis above may start daily after the peak top of the bell curve or near [5], with little arousal increase needed to slide further down the other side into serious distress and mental disorder. If so, the focus must be upon reducing arousal or stress in the current situation in order to avoid not only less productivity, but distress, burnout, and mental health disorders ensuing.

What to do?
There is little we can do about the pandemic outcome as individuals, and we must place that problem in the hands of governments. What we can do is address those outcomes that we can have some control over. Here are some of the things we can control:

  • Not expect to deliver the quantity of work that we would in the absence of a pandemic, and if we were still working with others at our worksite
  • Maintain our much-needed rest (sufficient unbroken sleep; schedule regular daily breaks and prioritise them; practise mindfulness)
  • Reduce searches for pandemic impact and avoid some anxiety
  • Socialise outside our bubble through technology
  • Set boundaries with others in our bubble around work, around regular ‘me’ time and family/bubble socialising, share tasks, initiate projects
  • Value where possible this family time (bubble or through technology) that may never be repeated to this extent; be forgiving
  • Be aware if our wellbeing is deteriorating: share with appropriate people in our bubble, social online contacts, or even helplines, if stressors are becoming too difficult to bear. Anxiety levels will inevitably rise, and our individual capacity to tolerate this will vary according to the Yerkes-Dodson Law, and from other research [6] where there are differences in traits and experiences. Just because someone else is not over-affected by anxiety, this does not imply we are deficient in any way, but that we may require support at this time
  • Maintain (or start) supervision to share concerns with knowledgeable and independent mentors/health professionals

Conclusion
These are extraordinary times, with the impact of a powerful pandemic while we all remain in some degree of constraint. Even those not confined to lockdown and are seen as essential, have substantial pressures and restraints impacting individually, psychologically and socially.

In the past, we have seen these pressures enabling society to bind together, with increased empathy and altruism demonstrated through caring for others. This present crisis, a pandemic, removes a powerful tool from our toolbox to both socialise and help others. Taking whatever steps we are able, to compensate for these absences (e.g. online social contact), will help lessen the impact that isolation, constraints, uncertainty and fear have upon our wellbeing. Constructive work, depending upon our level of arousal/stress, can support belief in our effectiveness and wellbeing, provide outside socialising or at least contact, as well as provide a needed distraction. Socialising, support, connectiveness where possible, structure, boundaries, and self-care, all contribute to a positive outcome, and reduction of excessive stress.

Care must be taken by managers not to impose further stress through expectations of a full, normal eight-hour day, while individuals need to reflect upon their stress levels and take advantage of regular breaks that are self-relaxing, rather than to update on the pandemic. Because of these unprecedented changes to the idea of ‘working from home’, previously an attractive alternative (but without the ability to sometimes attend work and meet with colleagues that this enforced format requires), proactive strategies are required to ensure that the already high levels of stress imposed by the pandemic are not overly added to by unintended pressures working within our bubble and home.
Speaking with your professional or clinical supervisor, as and when required, will help you to maintain your wellbeing during the unexpected  and stressful changes that have suddenly occurred to all our lives. 

ABACUS Counselling Training & Supervision Ltd
April 2020

References

[1] One such web page is  https://www.virtualvocations.com/blog/telecommuting-survival/8-tips-overcome-technology-fears/

[2] UN International Labour Office & Eurofound (2017) Working anytime, anywhere. Geneva & Luxemburg
https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2017/working-anytime-anywhere-the-effects-on-the-world-of-work

[3] American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2013/sleep

 [4] Parker, S (2020) Lt’s understand the Yerkes-Dodson Law. https://productivityland.com/lets-understand-the-yerkes-dodson-law/

[5] The yellow broken line inserted by the author may indicate where the arousal level starts (not the far left of the graph) and this line will vary each day depending upon media feedback accessed about the impact of Covid19 in New Zealand and worldwide

[6] Bateson M, Brilot B, Nettle D. (2011) Anxiety: an evolutionary approach. Can J Psychiatry, 56(12), 707-715. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/070674371105601202