Why Working From Home Is So Exhausting—And How To Reinvigorate
By Tracy Brower
Date Published: Mar 30, 2020
The coronavirus and COVID-19 have caused fundamental changes in the ways we work. You’re likely working from home and navigating new terrain in terms of how to get work done, collaborate and perform in the face of plenty of new constraints.
You’re also likely to be exhausted, but you may not understand why. After all, you’re not enduring your commute and you’re “just” sitting at home on videoconference. You have access to snacks from your pantry anytime and you’re not rushing from meeting room to meeting room at your company or driving from customer site to customer site day-after-day. What gives?
It turns out, there’s actual logic behind your exhaustion. Here’s why you’re so drained, and perhaps more importantly, what you can do about it:
This isn’t your choice. One of the fundamental elements of good mental health is autonomy, self-expression and a sense of control. Many of us have been sent home and no longer have the choice to go to the office or work in our usual ways. This lack of choice can be frustrating and even disorienting. The fix: Find ways to infuse choice into your day. As much as possible, set your meeting times and retain control over how projects roll out. Perhaps you can control the sequence of your tasks or the flow of your day. Even planning breaks can give you a sense of some control over how your time is managed.
You have to think about things that used to be automatic. Exhaustion can also occur because of points of friction in your day. When you were in the office, you were able to flow from one meeting room to the next and it was easy to scribble thoughts on a white board to keep the discussion moving forward. Now, these activities require more conscious thought. Getting connected via technology is rarely seamless and you may have to learn new sharing software to co-create with your team from a distance. The fix: Keep at it. As new ways of working become the typical, and as you learn new technologies, they will become more automatic and your brain will be able to put less effort into them.
You miss people. One of the great things about work is the regular connections we get to make with those who aren’t necessarily part of our immediate circle. The coffee bar at the office provides the opportunity to run into co-workers, stay connected and maintain relationships with people we don’t necessarily see in our day-to-day tasks. Your network has likely been reduced and you may be missing your friends and experiencing some grief. Work is fundamentally social and even for those who are more introverted, human connection is an important part of the work experience. You’re exhausted because you’re not energized by these regular connections and because maintaining those connections requires more conscious effort. The fix: Reach out and connect in new ways using IM, Slack, texts or the like. This may seem unusual at first but remember others are likely feeling the same angst as you are. It will get easier and you’ll establish new norms to keep you connected.
You’re distracted. While working from home may have seemed like a panacea from a distance, it’s just not that easy because of distractions within the home. Children and spouses or partners can obviously be distracting, especially if you don’t have a dedicated place to work at home. But in addition, you may be distracted by the laundry you know needs to be done or even by the walk you wish you had time to take. The fix: Make time for the distractions as part of your day. Plan to spend your lunch hour with your family or by getting a breath of fresh air.
You’re under new pressure you didn’t have before. In research on work-life, one of the things that matters most is the number of roles you must fulfill. In this new normal, you may be having to do more cooking because restaurants are closed or cleaning because the service that helped with your home is no longer operating. In addition, if you have children, you are likely providing coaching for school work or planning activities to keep them entertained. All of this is in addition to trying to accomplish your work responsibilities. The demands on your time are increased and your capacity is the same or even reduced. The fix: Stay positive and focus on the things for which you are grateful. Gratitude has plenty of positive mental and physical impacts. So, appreciate the time together, appreciate your reduced commute and appreciate the adaptability you’re strengthening in yourself.
The flow of information is overwhelming. In addition to the information you’re actively seeking about the coronavirus and COVID-19, you’re also flooded with more unsolicited information than ever. Businesses are reaching out to tell you about their responses. Your company is sending you regular emails to support you. You’re getting regular updates from your leadership to keep you focused and you’re receiving more solicitations than ever from consultants who are trying to survive. The deluge of information has increased and you’re trying to cope. The fix: Filter information and prioritize. While you need to stay up-to-date, be firm about your boundaries and give yourself permission to not follow up on every single non-critical email.
You’re living a more intense life. One of the challenges of video conferencing in particular is its intensity. You’re looking at faces all day without being able to take visual breaks. Your eyes are focused on what is in close proximity, which is physically exhausting, but it can also be socially exhausting. You may not be used to seeing yourself on camera, so you have to maintain your sense of self esteem despite discovering new wrinkles, the asymmetry of your eyebrows or your tendency to touch your face (a habit to break, of course). While these may seem silly or fickle, they aren’t. They have to do with your sense of identity, and the process of re-acclimating to your own sense of self can be tiring. The fix: Avoid dwelling on yourself. Instead, focus on others, on the work and on the contributions you’re making to your team. Also ensure you’re looking away frequently enough—and focusing on things in the distance (the view out the window or the artwork on your wall), rather than exclusively on what’s up close.
You’re not moving. Movement is healthy and critical to your well-being. The fact that you’re not moving across your company’s campus or from customer site to customer site may actually be creating more exhaustion. The fix: Get up and move during meetings. Stand up, sit down or go to the kitchen to grab another cup of tea. You might also consider taking micro breaks where you do a few jumping jacks or walk around the couch a few times. As my friend Kevin says, “Your next posture is your best posture.”
Working from home is tough—for many good reasons. But you can stay sane and effective by keeping as much control of your work as possible and maintaining your processes by learning new technologies. Stay connected with friends and build in healthy distractions. Keep perspective and give yourself permission to prioritize information flow. Focus on others and keep moving. For now, things may be a struggle, but today’s challenges will shift, and we will return to a new normal with—ideally—plenty of new learning and expanded adaptability.
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