Living in a Pandemic: Separating Work from Home when you Work from Home

Working from home is no longer a novel concept. The COVID-19 pandemic has mandated a significant shift to our work lives, forcing us to redefine everything we once knew about where and how we work.


Many have embraced this enforced shift to working from home and its various benefits – time saved on lengthy office commutes, domestic duties tended throughout the day, comfortable slippers worn to that important conference call. Others have struggled with its unique challenges – diminished daily routine, low motivation, disconnection from colleagues. Most people, of course, have experienced both ends of this spectrum.


Perhaps the biggest challenge of working from home, however, is the ability – or inability – to ‘turn off’ at the end of the workday. Ask yourself:

· Do you continue to think about work, long after the working day is over?

· Do you find yourself working later than usual? Starting earlier?

· Do you spend more time at your desk, but get less done?

· Do you feel restless or unable to relax in the evening, but you’re not sure why?


These are all signs that we may be having trouble disconnecting from work – and they are detrimental to our mental health. Work is an important part of our lives, but so is leisure. When one bleeds into the other, we are less effective. We can feel stressed and anxious, and our mood and motivation can suffer.


Whether we are permanently shifting to a working from home model, or simply doing so for the duration of a lockdown, we need to look after our mental health by learning to separate work from home. Here’s how.


Establish a dedicated workspace

It may be tempting when working from home to ‘treat yourself’ to a day of working in bed, or from the couch. This may seem harmless. It’s not. Here’s why. Our brains are constantly firing. They have an incredible ability to form associations – with or without our conscious awareness. When we work on the couch, we are telling our brain that this is a place for productivity, attentiveness. When we return to the couch that evening, our brain remembers the association we have created and becomes alert, readying us for the mental effort we once needed in this environment. This causes a restlessness, and we’re unable to wind down.


We need to rewire these associations. Establishing a dedicated workspace – that is separate from our places of rest – is the first step. This will allow us to shift mentally (and physically) from work mode to leisure mode. Doing so not only protects our mental health, but also makes us more effective during work hours.


Create a shutdown routine

A shutdown routine is what we do to signify the end of the workday. Whether you knew it or not, you had one before you worked from home. It may have looked something like this: You close your laptop, pack up your things, take the elevator to the ground floor, walk out of the building, spend half an hour on public transport, maybe chat to a friend on the phone – all before walking in the door at home. Now, think about what you do at the end of the workday at home. It probably looks quite different. Maybe you even send a few more emails after dinner, so you never really shut down. That is a problem. A shutdown routine communicates to our brain that work is done, that we can relax. Without this, we remain in a constant state of attentiveness.


A shutdown routine doesn’t have to be complex or lengthy – it just has to be repeatable. It can be as straightforward as taking five mindful breaths before leaving your workstation, going for a short walk in the fresh air, or doing a few simple stretches. Whatever your routine, by repeating it each day, it will serve as a mental trigger that it’s time to stop thinking about work.


Set boundaries

Boundaries are more critical than ever in our work lives. Working from home may give the (false) sense that we are freely contactable at any hour. The lack of visual cues, like seeing someone away from their desk, also contributes to this sense of constant availability. But it is important to protect our non-work time. We do this by setting and maintaining boundaries.


Directly communicating the times that you are available – and unavailable – with your boss and colleagues is a good starting point. Blocking out times in your diary or setting an automated out of office response can help to reinforce this message. Importantly, once you’ve established your boundaries, it’s essential you stick to them. Responding to an email when you have said you’re unavailable does not say you’re a hard worker – it says that your boundaries can be violated. So, establish your boundaries, openly share them with your colleagues, then stick to them.


If you have any questions, or would like to know more, please get in touch today.