Even in the complete silence of your home, you can feel it. You can almost hear it. Anxiety starts as a gentle hum. Initially, it might seem to be a sign of vitality, one reminding you to stay alert.
Later, it becomes a more noticeable; a persistent vibration yet still, one you can put up with until it finally evolves to a mind rattling, rasping sound; an engine at breaking point spinning faster than its rotors can take.
This is what anxiety felt for me at my first remote job when I had to work from home.
My first job was one for which not only was I underqualified for but also certainly unprepared to deal with emotionally. I was excited (now I understand I was anxious) to contribute to the team and tense, staying alert on the face of the unknown. To add to that, I was mainly working from home as the teams I was working with were in Berlin and India.
It took a while to find some balance and manage the anxiety but finally I got there. So, if you're finding yourself in a similar boat, then read more - hope you get there faster!
In 2020, with the advent of Covid-19 it is very likely that you have worked from home. Perhaps you were already doing it or you’re switching to it now.
Eitherway, working from home is fundamentally different. There is a part of me that thinks it’s cool, progressive and we should be grateful about it. It is convenient, less costly, comfortable and provides a quiet space for deep work, which is not always possible in an office setting.
On the flipside, there can be isolation (those distractions turns out can be valuable), fear of missing out on the office social interactions, turning your home into an office and experiencing all shades of stress due to distance.
Here are some feelings and thoughts you need to watch out for:
1. Increased sense of self-consciousness
At a conference call, an email thread or even a chat with your team can trigger self-doubt and questions:"Will this read the right way?" or "Does my setting look professional enough, will it look like I don’t care?"
This is normal. You are operating in absence of a direct response and the feedback you are receiving might not include the accompanying assurance of facial expressions or even tone of voice. It might just be text and it takes a while to get used to it.
2. An intense sense of guilt
Finding yourself at your place of comfort (Hello couch!) makes it easy to conflate the comfort of our safe space with the necessary formal tone of a professional setting. The cognitive dissonance of being at a place of relaxation and comfort whilst trying to achieve something professional can bring about tension, anxiety and an irrational sense of guilt. Why are you feeling relaxed while working? Should you not be focused? These questions may start popping and and need to be put in check.
3. Social Anxiety
Social anxiety is no stranger to social settings. Without being able to gauge reactions or have in person conversations it is reasonable to consider what other people think. “Will other people think I am working? The social anxiety that revolves around being judged by peers is a mentally straining feeling to bear. Remembering to leave laptops open and pay attention to leave digital traces across the social applications of your company in order to show you’re busy is not only bad for your mental health but also for your productivity at work.
And of course, when anxiety takes over, mindfulness evaporates and our safe space is invaded by “obligation and duty”. Then it's easy to lose track of space and time. “Just sending this email” or “just finishing a report” is what it sounds like when work creeps up on personal time. At first, it might feel productive but in the long run, it’s the perfect recipe for burnout.
The good news is there are steps you can follow to get the best of both worlds. Here are some things to consider.
1. Separate your work space
If your home is doubling as your office, then create a separate work space in it. This is a mental construct and notso much a matter of having space. As an example, my work-from-home station is a barstool at my dining room and an extended ledge in front of the window overlooking my patio. The door behind me leading to the living room, my relaxation space, is wide shut. My workspace occupies about 1 square meter and consists of a work laptop and my barstool but it’s enough to set my mind to work.
2. Separate work devices and accounts from personal ones
Having a separate device for work is useful because you can configure it differently without the hassle of changing back and forth. For instance, on my personal computer, a MacBook, my email client is NOT at the dock or active.
Additionally, slack is not installed, so I am not tricked into “just seeing that message”.
Limit your apps, allow yourself to focus at work.
In the office setting, you might think twice about spending 20 mins on Facebook. Being self-conscious or socially anxious about “how would that look” in this particular case can benefit you. It does not take a lot to trip in a social media or binge, destroying your focus, distracting you with mindless scrolling and causing you anxiety.
Suggestion? Download a blocker.
I use blocksite for Google Chrome which basically “tells me off” and prohibiting me from visiting a list of websites My common culprits include the usual suspects: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Reddit, BBC to name just a few.
I found it astonishing to realize how deeply ingrained and reflex-based certain sequences of actions were. Command + T (open new tab), followed by “fa” typed on the browser, followed by “ENTER” was more often than I thought. Luckily when a mindless action about to force you in a spiral of social binging is greeted with this image you think twice and eventually, one more bad habit is kept at bay.
Another important tip: Limit your phone usage by setting all non-essential (and no, email and slack are not essential) to downtime. I can’t stress enough how much of a difference this makes for me nowadays. When I first started working remotely, this would have been invaluable.
3. Establish a time for being social at work aka watercooler chat time
Watercooler chats. A remnant of the past. Also some of the best parts of work. While I don’t currently have the pleasure, do have slack channels which perfomr the same function.
When some or all people are remote, combating social isolation is important. Part of the responsibility lies with the individual but a social environment is crucial and there are many more ways to recreate a social environment.
4. Be transparent and manage the expectations of your teammates.
Why would I stress about my laptop being turned on if my team already knows I take my lunch between 1 pm and 2 pm? Why would anyone stress about anything they have been transparent about?
If everyone knows that a) your working hours are between, let’s say, 9 am - 5.30 pm and that you turn off your work comms after that to relax, why would you feel the need to turn on your computer, check your email or any other work-related tool?
Again, this is one that I wish I knew from the beginning.
So, make sure that you are clear with regard to your working hours, your habits and preferences around communication and ideally, whilst this might not be for all, what you are working on and/or trying to accomplish each day.
Full transparency, no surprises, no stress.
5. Take breaks to relax and unwind.
Taking frequent breaks is generally a good productivity technique but I would argue that a few minutes to relax and unwind between tasks are also a good moment to flush what was currently in your mind and focus on something else.
Focusing at one thing at a time is really helpful to stay focused and not let yourself wander, allowing anxiety to creep in.
Whether it is for a day, a week or the duration of a job, working from home can provide a great set up with more time and freedom to balance work and your personal life.
But it’s also very easy to find yourself in a hole gasping for air.
So be sure that you have a plan, keep your boundaries and be social. Working from home is not meant to restrain our social nature, it is meant to bring us closer despite the distance.