COVID-19 has brought vast changes to our daily lives, including to how we work. Even after the vaccines are administered, many of us could continue to find ourselves working from home – and may feel as though we’re living at work.
At first, the switch from an office routine was heavenly for Eve, a long-time student of mine. But as the months dragged on and the novelty wore off, she realized that it meant more online meetings, more emails, more availability to her boss and colleagues. The worst thing was that she could not get away from work. She felt permanently available.
Eve described her pre-COVID day to me with a wistful tone in her voice. ‘I used to walk part of the way home after work. I’d walk for thirty minutes and take the last two stations by subway. At least once a week I walked the entire way home. My lunch time was different too. I got out of the office and ran errands. This created a separation. I returned to work refreshed. Now I have no separation between work and home.’
And her body was rebelling. Within month three of working from home, Eve had developed a tingling and numbness in her right fingers and pain that radiated into her neck. Soon after there was another pain—in her shoulder and down her arm. A physio confirmed: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (a condition where a major nerve to the hand is compressed) and ‘mouse shoulder’ (refers to pain that develops in the shoulder after prolonged use of a mouse). She also experienced headaches and neck pain from leaning her head forward to stare into the screen of her computer for hours at a time.
Eve not only had pain in her shoulder, neck and wrist. She had begun to get angered ‘to the point of boiling over’ by small annoyances, such as printer hiccups or running out of milk for her tea. She needed more than a wrist splint, or hot and cold compresses; she had to make a significant change to keep her emotional balance.
Distinct Roles and Rituals
If we feel like Eve that we are working more now, we probably are. On the popular app Headspace (headspace.com), Dr. Jon Jachimowicz, a Harvard School of Business professor of organizational behaviour, cites a survey from the American National Bureau of Economic Research that has found on an average that people are working 48 minutes more a day than before the pandemic.
To keep ourselves balanced, we need to establish a clear mental transition between work and home life, and take more breaks. Jachimowicz recommends setting up distinct roles to create a psychological distance between work and personal life by making a tangible mental shift at the start and end of the workday. He suggests we reflect intentionally upon the role we are about to assume. For example, as we leave our work, we can start to think of our personal lives: what we plan to do that night, what to make for dinner, etc. We can also ask ourselves how we might be more productive during the work day, so that we can tie up loose ends and leave work behind as we shift into post-work evening mode.
Rituals, Jachimowicz argues, can help ground us. They can be done regularly at the end of the work day or before we start to work. A set ritual might be to go out for a walk, have coffee or tea outside before or after working, or do some stretches. These rituals should last at least five to ten minutes each.
The future may involve us working from home for the next few months, or maybe permanently. Why not start right now to think about what changes we can implement to make working from home a more positive experience?
Here’s a twelve-minute workout to guide you in a ritual mini-break at any time of day. All you need for equipment is a foam roller or a thick pool noodle cut to between 36 and 38 inches. I hope the video can help you make that restorative mental and physical shift, to leave your work behind or return to it refreshed. The level of this workout is intermediate.