Confinement, lockdown, quarantine, shelter-in-place… Whatever name you choose to call the situation we are currently in, its consequences for almost half the world’s population are the same: we are cooped up at home. To some’s delight, to others’ dismay.
True, those among us who have a house and backyard and can work remotely should feel lucky but, let’s be honest, if you are married with children, it is really hard to find the energy and focus (and quiet!) to work efficiently and be productive when your 3-year-old son runs around the house, your 9-year-old daughter needs help with her homework, your spouse conducts meeting after meeting on Zoom and the dishes in the sink/laundry in the hamper/empty fridge beg for your attention. You can’t help wondering why you initially thought the lockdown would be a chance to take a break from the high-speed routine and relax a bit!
The thing is, before COVID-19 and confinement, home was the place we left and came back to. It was our haven, the one in which we could find refuge after a tiring day at work. Now, home is all the places to which we used to go. Our homes have become our school, workplace, gym, restaurant, theater and beauty salon (hello, bowl haircut!). According to a recent article on Bloomberg, in the U.S., the workday is now three hours longer than it was before the pandemic and the – already fine – line between work and personal life has nearly disappeared. The article adds that “in France, Spain, and the U.K. the day has stretched an additional two hours”. The most likely reason behind these longer workdays is the fact that there is no escape from work. People are always at home and, so, inevitably, always in the office. And since there is nowhere to go, most workers feel like they have no legitimate excuse for not being available.
But the pressure can also come from management. A lot of managers, who have seen their office employees turn into remote workers overnight due to lockdown orders, have had no or little previous training in overseeing remote staff. Some of them have no idea how to manage remote workers and resort to (sometimes tyrannical) micromanaging to convince themselves – and their hierarchy – that they have everything and everyone under control (check this leaked Wall Street Journal memo as reported by Slate). But ultimately these practices are detrimental to the company or practice as the good workers feel distrusted and demoralized.
And when you throw into the mix the extra shifts that you work as a caregiver and teacher to your children, all the while trying to maintain your sanity, it is easy to see why so many people today are teetering on the edge of burnout.
BE KIND TO YOURSELF
It’s been generations since families have had to live through a global crisis. We are now living exceptional circumstances that force us to stay at home if we don’t want to put our health, and the health of others, at risk. Living through this pandemic is a tough, unprecedented situation, made even more nerve-racking by the fact that many questions about COVID-19 remain unanswered at this time. It is normal to feel stressed and overwhelmed.
We need to accept that we are going through difficult, stressful times and we shouldn’t set unreasonable expectations for ourselves – or anybody for that matter. Let’s take care of ourselves and cut ourselves some slack. No, we can’t expect to be as efficient and productive as we usually are in normal circumstances (i.e. at the office with no family members or roommates around); no, we can’t be perfect teachers to our kids – this isn’t what we have been trained to do; no, we can’t all become masters at baking (“#breadfromscratch #sogood #cannotbelieveImadethis”) or sewing (“#homemade #protectivemasks #stayhome”). AND THAT IS FINE. Be kind to yourself.
6 TIPS FOR BETTER WORK-LIFE BALANCE IN COVID-19 TIMES
One way to practice kindness to yourself and others is to (re)create a boundary between work and the rest of your life. Reclaiming some balance to your days is as good for your mental health as it is for your productivity.
Here are 6 tips to help you achieve a better work-life balance.
1. Establish a flexible but consistent daily routine and stick with it
The lack of power over the current events can feel stifling. While we cannot control the course of the pandemic or the events outside our door, we can control our daily routine. Also, sticking to a routine alleviates anxiety and stress as it will help you to steady your mind and thoughts.
Your routine in lockdown probably won’t exactly look like your normal pre-COVID routine (especially if you are doubletasking as a work-from-home parent). But you can find ways to reproduce some of your in-office work routines in your home workspace. This should help to get your brain in work mode, even when you’re not in your regular environment.
- Get up at a fixed time and start working at the same time every day.
- Have set work hours – and stick to them. Otherwise, you’ll soon find yourself working until bedtime every night.
- Take breaks. If you normally have coffee in the office at 10:30 and lunch at 12:30 every day, then continue that at home. Also, breaks have been proven to maintain productivity.
- If you are a parent, create a schedule for you and your children that sets specific times for structured work/homeschooling activities and individual or family activities. This can help children feel more secure. Chances also are that the kids will follow the schedule better if they helped to draw it up.
- Set up a time for household chores and assign a chore to each household member. Sharing household chores helps prevent resentment and disagreements.
- Keep track of the time you spend working. Chrometa can help with this as it automatically tracks everything from the duration of meetings to the time you spent drafting an email to a client or crunching numbers. Also, seeing the actual number of hours you spend working each day will alleviate the worry about not doing enough and show your boss that you haven’t been slacking.
- Turn off your computer at the end of the day to really disconnect.
2. Get dressed for work – then get dressed for leisure when the workday ends
Yes, working from home has drastically shortened your commute time but this doesn’t mean you should roll out of bed and get straight to work. Give your brain some time to wake up, just like you did pre-lockdown. Take a shower, have breakfast, get dressed in work attire. Though working in your favorite pajamas sounds very tempting, it is probably not the best option for productivity. Getting dressed for work helps you get into the mindset of work. It is also a visual reminder to the other people in your household that you are working and not to be disturbed.
In the same way, try to change into more relaxed clothes when your workday ends. In fact, the act of changing into casual clothes once you’ve turned off your computer can give your day a distinct shift, says Freelance Business Writer and Editor Stephanie Vozza. This feels to her like an improvement to her work-life balance because she tends to feel like she is always working.
3. Set up a workspace
Even if you live in a small space, try to set up a work area that is separate from your personal space or in a corner off from the main living area. Having a dedicated workspace means that your job doesn’t intrude into the lives of other household members – and vice versa – and you can concentrate. It also means that you can walk away from your workstation and truly disconnect when the day is over.
Refrain from conducting meetings or making calls from the comfort of your bed or couch. Being properly seated is essential to keep your brain focused on work.If there is a lot of noise around you, block it with noise-cancelling headphones or ear buds. Studies show that listening to classical music or nature sounds helps you stay focused on the task at hand while relieving stress.
4. Communicate clearly (with your boss, your team and the members of your household)
Working from home can create a disconnect so it is vital to stay in touch and to communicate effectively – with your team AND the members of your household. If you have children, it is important to explain to them what you are doing so that they can understand why they have to let you work quietly.
Also, as discussed above, many managers know very little about managing remote staff and may worry that their team’s productivity will decrease sharply during lockdown. Update your boss regularly on everything you are doing and set a specific timeframe every day for a call or online meeting with him or her.
While it is important to communicate clearly with your team and your boss during work hours, it is equally essential to be clear about the fact that you are not available for work all hours of the day or your work-life balance will be nonexistent.
Set up an out-of-office message from 6pm to 9 am on workdays, and on weekends, in which you inform the sender that, in an attempt to keep a healthy work-life balance, which will help you work efficiently and keep your motivation and dedication in these trying times, you are only checking (and responding to) emails during “normal” work hours, that is between 9am and 6pm, Mon-Fri.
You could also create a separate email address for after-hours issues, and tell your team and professional contacts to only use this address in case of emergency. If you worry about missing anything urgent, check it just once after you’ve stopped working for the day.
5. Stay healthy
Maintaining a healthy lifestyle has benefits for both our physical health and mental health.
- Keep moving. Make exercise a must-do. Regular physical activity is known for its benefits on your mental health. It bumps up the production of endorphins, your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, which will help relieve stress. Try to go for a daily walk, run or bicycle ride; or take an online yoga class!
- Get your beauty rest. It may not be easy to get a good night’s sleep at a time when COVID-19 worries may be occupying more of your brain space than you'd like but try to maintain your normal sleep routine. Go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at your usual time.
- Keep healthy food habits. Also called “do not COVID comfort eat”. No matter how tempting it is to reach for yet another snack or glass of wine – whether it is to soothe our feelings or out of sheer boredom – try to maintain a healthy diet. Drink enough water, eat proteins, fresh fruits and vegetables and stay away from (too much) sugar to boost your immune system.
6. Make weekends sacred
Create a different routine (i.e. definitely no work nor homeschooling) on weekends.
Read those books you have been meaning to read for years, watch movies, play family boardgames, have online happy hour with friends, try something new or do things that you usually don’t have time for like gardening, cooking, sewing, building furniture or learning to meditate. Or enjoy doing nothing.
Yes, these are difficult times. Yes, most of us feel worried and exhausted. And yes, achieving a healthy work-life balance has become even more difficult than before.
But what if we tried to stay positive and see our confined circumstances as an opportunity to learn to live differently? After all, beside a few (more) grey hairs, this unprecedented crisis has given us one of the world’s most precious commodities: time. Let’s try to make the best of it.
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