Identifying activities that constitute work can go a long way in helping to manage stress.
COVID-19 measures have changed the way we have worked over the past year and a half. Traditionally, an office or workplace has served as a physically separate entity from home, allowing us easily allocate our remaining hours away from work to wind down.
However, working from home (WFH) is quickly becoming the norm, and not just a niche arrangement reserved for specific types of occupations. While this has allowed employees to continue to work despite COVID-19 restrictions, it has also introduced an extra dimension of stress to the already stressful work place.
In a work arrangement that includes working from both home and office, the lines between what constitutes work versus rest and stress versus relaxation can become blurred. An inadequate handling of this grey area can increase our susceptibility to stress and burnout.
Some introspection is first required before we can take effective action. Fundamentally, what exactly constitutes work to us? We imagine creating work related documents might be, but does picking up a call from a colleague count? How about reading a text message from your boss or pondering the solution to a work-related problem?
The answer may be more obvious to some than others, depending on the line of work. But the answers are not the same for everyone – we all have different thresholds and derive different rewards from our work activities.
For this reflective exercise, let’s suppose that work constitutes any occupationally related activity that does not leave you feeling more recharged or rejuvenated than before you began.
What activities are work to you? These answers are important for two reasons: They allow us to identify potential sources of stress that can build up over time, and they allow us to plan and appropriately manage this.
Here are the steps that we can take to better manage the stress.
We are conditioned to associate spaces with activities. Having to work from home means that areas normally associated with rest must suddenly become productive spaces too.
We can mitigate this somewhat by designating spaces within our homes that we maintain specifically for work.
In this work space, we can aim to keep distractions at a productive level (similar to an office setting). This may involve asking not to be disturbed during work hours by others at home, for instance. This space should also be as far from places associated with relaxation as possible. It allows us to maximise our efficiency when we are at work, keeping naps and relaxation for after work.
Conversely, avoid working in other areas at home. This frees up the rest of our homes to continue being a space for rest and leisure when we are taking breaks, or when we leave work for the day.
While space constraints at home may make this more difficult, even a small designated area can help us separate from work when we need to.
If our physical location no longer remains a reliable boundary for where our work ends and our leisure time begins, we have to use other means to delineate our work more clearly.
Another domain we can set boundaries with is the way we allocate our time. We can do this by setting time aside for work, and separately, for rest. By setting limits on the amount of time we spend on our work, we are actually making time for other things outside of work.
Setting limits may look like deciding to start and stop working at fixed times, regardless of whether we are at home or at the office. Previous working/office hours may serve as a useful gauge for when might be a healthy time to decide to stop working, while maintaining a sense of normalcy with our routines as much as possible.
Deciding not to work after hours for some may even mean turning off notifications or digital devices completely to disconnect from work, since simply walking out of an office doesn’t serve this function anymore.
The quality of our interpersonal relationships is another factor that ties closely into our wellbeing. Prior to COVID-19, being at work might have often encompassed social interactions that may have added to feeling connected to others.
Social distancing, by definition, has a direct impact on our closeness to others, as does more time spent working from home. Casual interactions with colleagues in the hallway may happen less, and communal meals or may no longer possible or encouraged.
We need to recognise how important these social connections have been to us, and subsequently, choose to be more intentional in our contact with others to maintain them. This may include reaching out socially to co-workers via alternative platforms, both in a professional and casual capacity, such as via text, calls, video calls, or even on social media.
This is not limited to colleagues – as social contact in general has decreased with COVID-19 restrictions, reaching out to supportive loved ones and friends is increasingly becoming something we have to deliberately create opportunities for.
Working from home more also means that we may be going out less, as we forgo the usual routines which take us to the office, and adhere to safe management measures. This has many other effects, such as exposure to sunlight and fresh air, decreased physical activity, having less variation in our environment, and possibly feeling more cooped up or trapped.
While exposure to the outdoors doesn’t happen automatically as much, we can still address this also by actively choosing to go outside for brief periods of time, for example, while taking a break from work. Ensuring we have adequate exercise also increases in importance as our lifestyle becomes more sedentary. Creating time outside of work for exercise helps negate the effects somewhat. Exercising outdoors also gives us another reason to go out and maintain routines that involve leaving home.
Work can be draining physically, mentally, and/or emotionally. Spending time on activities and relationships that leave us feeling more refreshed and recharged in each of these domains is an important part of our time spent resting. When adequately rested, we feel energized and ready to be productive, and are less negatively affected by stress.
In the same way that we may have to say ‘no’ to doing work outside of work hours, this may also mean limiting activities that leave us less rested and add to our stress, even when not working. Examples of these may include excessive alcohol or substance use, or investing into toxic relationships.
Instead, find and spend time in places, activities, and relationships that build you up – these are bastions against the barrage of stress, uncertainty, and fear we find ourselves bombarded with in these times.
Self-care is ultimately deeply personal – the ideas above may give you a place to start (https://www.cgh.com.sg/
Dr Glen Roche is an Associate Consultant with the Department of Psychological Medicine at Changi General Hospital.
Where to get help:
– Samaritans of Singapore (24 hours): 1767
– Institute of Mental Health (24 hours): 6389 2222
– Singapore Association for Mental Health (Adults): 1800 283 7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
– TOUCHline (Youth): 1800 377 2252 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
– Care Corner (Mandarin hotline): 1800 3535 800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)
For more mental well-being resources, check out Youthopia’s resource page with everything from mental health self-assessments to tips for coping with challenging seasons in life.
Other articles in this Mind Matters series:
Five signs that someone you know may not be coping well with stress
How to broach the topic of mental well-being with your loved ones
Mind Matters: Five tips to manage exam stress during the COVID-19 pandemic
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