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Staying mentally healthy in the home office

12/01/2021 2021/01

Staying mentally healthy in the home office

We're slowly getting the hang of working in a home office. The technology is in place, the workstation is set up and even coordination works quite well.

Did you know that Isaac Newton already worked from home for two years around 1665? At that time, the plague was rampant and did not stop at him. So he put himself in quarantine. Hard to imagine today. How would you feel two years without the Internet or smartphone in the same place all the time? Without today's distractions, he created, among other things, the theory of gravity. Today, the apple can still be a good helper for us. As the saying goes, "An apple a day keeps the doctor away." But is it already done with an apple? It is not only the general conditions that influence the success of home office.

Quite different things often have a lasting effect on us. For example, a representative opinion survey by the BMBF (German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) shows a critical attitude among respondents with regard to mental health in the home office. Around 52% believe that our mental health suffers when working from home.

Therefore, in our series on cognitive hygiene, we also want to provide assistance for the home office. Our body and our mind also need the right space to cope with this situation or this future work model in the long term.

Relief through clear structures

Our brain is a real energy sipper compared to many other organs in our body. At the same time, it tries to work efficiently, for example by acting in patterns. We can support this through routines and fixed times. Because if we don't rack our brains every day about where in the room we're going to work, what all we need to do it, or exactly when we're going to start, our brain can devote the capacity to get the job done. So we tire less quickly. Many also swear by a morning routine with which they mentally prepare for the day. Not only is this a great way to work from home, but it can fundamentally help us start the day energized. 

Set times help our brains switch between work and family or leisure mode. Since we lack a routine way to get to work, we may help ourselves and our minds flip the switch. Whether it's by having a separate room, changing our clothes from pajamas or jogging suits to an outfit suitable for work, or maybe just swapping our glasses for screen glasses. All these are small impulses for our brain through which it understands that we are now in a different mode. We need these little anchors in our everyday life, because they also make it easier for us to step out of work mode again and mentally close the door.

In addition, by having a concrete plan, a to-do list with associated prioritization, we can additionally help our brain not to digress. We can minimize unnecessary distractions. In this way, we promote our productivity and, in the end, perhaps develop similarly ingenious things as Newton. 

Switching off the head with active breaks 

In everyday office life, we implemented breaks quite naturally. Even the brief conversation with a colleague gave our heads a short time-out. Now, unfortunately, the colleague who accompanies us to the coffee machine is no longer next door. Nevertheless, it is important and beneficial to our productivity if we consciously take breaks after periods of concentration. There are various ways to do this, whether it's 50/10, a long break at lunchtime, or using the Pomodoro method (25min of work is followed by a 5min break, 4 cycles of which are followed by a 30-minute break). Everyone can try it out, because there is no one best way. 

To increase the effect of the break, it is recommended to make the time-out active. Be it with a walk during the extended lunch break, short stretching exercises at the desk or in the living room. Working from home also means that we move much less. Yet movement is one of the most important protective factors for our psyche, not to mention our body. It also helps many people to start the day with exercise. It doesn't take much time at all, if it is used consciously. How about a sun salutation in the morning, for example. With this 5-10 minute yoga flow, you start the day with a beneficial movement unit and can be completely with yourself. In this way, we also make a psychological cut between working time and free time.

We asked our colleagues and acquaintances. What currently helps you stay mentally healthy in the home office? And since pictures are worth a thousand words, here are our top 3.

Switch off the head outside
Among the most common responses was a walk in nature.
Among the most common responses was a walk in nature.
I have had enough, I'm going on the swing.
The funniest answer, we think: swings.
The funniest answer, we think: swings.
It doesn't matter whether the weekly schedule is digital or analog.
To-do lists or weekly plans also help to find a structure and were therefore often mentioned.
To-do lists or weekly plans also help to find a structure and were therefore often mentioned.

Communication matters

If the common path to the next meeting or the coffee machine is missing, then we have no opportunity for a chat with our colleagues. What's more, in online meetings we are regularly task- and goal-oriented, which means there is no opportunity for an informal exchange there either. But on the one hand, this is exactly the kit we need to feel like we belong to a team; on the other hand, the distanced communication also blunts our relationships with our colleagues. What usually happens on the side in everyday office life may happen in a planned way in times of the home office. 

Do you already know the virtual coffee corner? There are fixed times in the calendar, 15 minutes each, no agenda or moderator, and participation is of course voluntary. After all, the primary goal is to create the space for conversations to take place without professional content. Good social relationships with colleagues influence our well-being even when we are sitting at home. 

But even in the context of online meetings taking place, spaces can be created for topics that do not directly revolve around the task or meeting topic. So-called "CheckIn" or "CheckOut" variants offer every participant, even the quiet and reserved colleagues, the opportunity to let the others know with which condition or thoughts they have just entered the meeting. This also increases the sense of belonging. We are allowed to say out loud what is on our mind at the moment and thus relieve our head or take the pressure off in very tense phases, because every other participant can better assess how the colleague is feeling at the moment. Why he or she is perhaps more or less distracted. All this is information about our teammates that we otherwise have through direct witnessing in the office and helps us to better assess our counterpart.

Conversations can also be combined with some exercise if they take place over the phone and during a walk. This variant is particularly suitable for the connection between employee and manager.

What to do in a particularly challenging phase?

In challenging phases, such as the current lockdown and closed daycare facilities, we are exposed to additional stress. We may also perceive this situation in the same way. It is absolutely not normal. Forcing normalcy will not alleviate the pressure. Therefore, it is currently even more important to listen to our own feelings and needs. 

As we note, we must not abandon our beneficial habits now. Exercise, structure and breaks are what we need now as well. We are each responsible for our own well-being. 

We can see that it is even very small things that help us stay mentally healthy. Even if it's just 5 minutes of quiet time where we simply pay attention to our breath, reflect on our thoughts and feelings, or take a short walk outside, if it contributes to our well-being, that's all it takes.

How do you answer the question - What currently helps you stay mentally healthy in the home office?

About the Author
Nadia Döhler | Organisational & HR Consulting
Nadia Döhler
HR Consultant (HR Development)

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