Back in early 2019, the World Economic Forum described a “worldwide epidemic of poor mental health and related illnesses.”
And that was before anybody had even heard of Covid-19, let alone endured the related lockdowns, bereavements and job losses.
I’ve long been a passionate advocate for mental health awareness. Like the stereotypical “wounded healer,” I have had plenty of issues with my own mind, which has inspired me to undertake lots of psychology study and counselling training in an attempt to better understand myself and help others.
In this article, I provide some specific mental health advice tailored for those who work from home. Isolation and lack of social contact can cause plenty of specific issues. Many people will have experienced these for the first time in 2020.
Just before we start, I’d like to share a link to a previous article I wrote about working from home when you have anxiety. It goes into detail about some of the issues I’ve had myself, and how working from home can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to mental health. It’s always been a particularly popular article on the site, so I hope this one can provide some valuable support too.
Do you feel like your mental health isn’t where it could be? If so, here are some strategies I recommend that have worked well for me. While my focus is around mental health for home workers, most of these tips are equally relevant regardless of your specific situation.
Yes, I’m beginning my advice with something incredibly basic and generic. But before you click the back button, hear me out.
If you work from home and don’t make a conscious effort to exercise, there’s a chance you’re living a really extreme version of a sedentary lifestyle.
Ordinarily, people cover several thousand steps each day simply going about their routine business. (I recently lost a bunch of weight with Weight Watchers, and it doesn’t count steps as extra “activity” until you pass 3000 in a day).
When you work from home (especially in a lockdown situation) you can find you’re not even ticking the box for a basic level of movement. This is really bad for your mental and physical health.
So get out there and walk. If you don’t feel you have time, you really do need to make time. One thing that’s worked particularly well for me is to multi-task on my walks. For example:
- Listen to a podcast. Choose something educational and you can learn while you’re walking (my own podcast is here!)
- Catch up on phone calls – business or personal.
- Subscribe to Audible and listen to an audiobook – again this could be something for pleasure or something business-related.
- Dictate some work. Dictation software is really sophisticated nowadays. It’s perfectly feasible to start a blog post or anything else you need to write while you’re clocking up some steps.
There’s a reason almost every article and book about mental health mentions physical activity: it genuinely helps. No, it’s not going to “cure” depression or anxiety, but it’s certainly going to make things worse if you don’t do it.
Start off small if need be. Five minutes around the block is better than nothing. Once you form the habit you’ll begin to miss it if you don’t do it. I certainly never thought I’d see the day when I was ordering fleeces and waterproof clothing so even the grimmest weather couldn’t stop me – but here we are!
Use your Kitchen Wisely
Working from home with access to your own kitchen can be a great thing or a terrible thing.
It’s great if it means you eat well, which is actually way easier at home than if you’re in a traditional office – ordering in or eating sandwiches at your desk.
But it’s a terrible thing if the kitchen becomes nothing more than an endless source of sugary snacks.
There’s no need to check with a nutritionist to know that eating junk food has a really negative effect on your mood. As I mentioned, I’ve been doing a lot of healthy living lately. Giving in and ordering a takeaway is a rare “treat” for me these days, and I literally feel it the next day like a hangover. Looking back, I’ve probably spent years of my life feeling like that for days on end – and it doesn’t have to be that way.
Talk to Someone…
Mobile phones and instant messaging services have done all they can to kill the art of conversation. We all have these state-of-the-art phones, but very few of us use them for their original purpose – talking to people!
Pinging messages back and forth isn’t the same. It doesn’t catch the feelings and the nuance.
When you’re feeling low, the last thing you probably feel like doing is reaching out and actually talking to somebody. But the irony is that it’s probably what you most need it do – and ain’t that just the way?
….Or Actually Talk to Someone
Counselling changed my life for the better.
It can be hard work. The thought of baring your soul to a random person IS scary! This causes many people to actively avoid therapy – in many cases the very people who could probably benefit most from it.
But the intimidation factor has dialled down massively lately, because due to (or thanks to?) lockdowns, many counsellors have started to deliver their services via phone or video call. If you’re stuck in a mental health hole, you could literally start the process of climbing out of it within hours by using an online service like BetterHelp.com.
Therapy WORKS, and there are different schools and methods to try that can suit you whether you see yourself as super-logical or more somebody who acts on senses and feelings. It’s not all about revisiting your childhood – although that can often help!
I particularly want to appeal to the men reading this regarding this point. I’m not tying to consciously stereotype, but many men – and no doubt plenty of women too – have a real problem with a “stiff upper lip” mentality.
The emotion has to come out somewhere, and – boy – there’s a lot of emotion floating around these days. If it doesn’t come out in healthy way, it’s going to find its way out somewhere else – arguments, punched walls, unhealthy relationships with drugs, alcohol, or the wrong people.
If those are the alternatives, is giving in to the perfectly healthy and natural need to cry really so bad? Stick the sad songs or films on, look at the photos from easier times, let it out – and give yourself a chance to feel better. It’s literally scientifically proven.
Raid the “Mind Body and Spirit” Section
I know some people turn their nose up at self-help books. I’ve read dozens of them and have certainly encountered some garbage.
But I neither hope for not expect any single book to be a life-changing panacea. A better approach is be grateful if each book delivers a couple of helpful tips or glimmers of hope that edge you closer to peace of mind. Sometimes they seriously overdeliver, and there are some that have genuinely pushed my life into a new phase.
Pardon the cliché, but it’s a journey, not a destination. Here are a few stand-out titles that have helped me along mine:
The Power of Habit: This was the book that finally got me taking regular exercise after YEARS of failing to stick with it. It’s packed with “so that’s why I do that!” moments, and an entertaining read into the bargain.
The Self Care Project: Purchased during a particularly deep spell of depression, this was a much valued “turning point” book for me. It made me slightly less guilty about recognising when I need to put myself first, and helped me understand that sometimes you actually help others more by doing just that.
The School of Life: A recent read, this one is very down to earth and promotes a stoical approach to life. One of the key messages I took from it is that you have to appreciate even the bad days because life always has the potential to get immeasurably worse! If there was ever the perfect self-help book for the Covid era, this is it!
Remember, you don’t have to actually read these books – listening on a service like Audible is an option too. If, at this point in the article, you have that “none of this is going to work” feeling, believe me I’ve been there. Put your shoes and your headphones on and give it a chance. It beats lying around hoping things will change.
Start a Creative Project
Even if you work from home, you may not be in the fortunate position where the work itself inspires you and makes you happy. Creative projects are a crucial way of filling the gap.
Children understand the importance of play. Adulthood somehow conspires to beat it out of us. But not everything you do has to have a financial pay-off. Sometimes you can combine creative “play” with potentially profitable projects like blogs and self published books (here’s one we launched as a family project this year, and here’s a link to my Patreon blogging group.)
Creativity isn’t frivolous. It’s a way to keep yourself sane, get into a “flow state” and discover things you may not know you’re good at yet. You’d likely do everything you could to encourage creativity in your friends and children, so encourage it in yourself too.
Here’s a picture of my own creative happy place. I don’t plan to be the next Calvin Harris, but playing around with music software helps me switch off. I also find it a LOT easier than messing about with breathing exercises!
Learn to Tolerate Uncertainty
This is solid advice regardless of your home working situation, but it’s particularly relevant to freelancers.
One of the first things I ever read about anxiety was that it’s fundamentally a problem that relates to an inability to tolerate uncertainty. Now I’m not going to claim for a moment to have conquered this. I have pretty bad OCD and have to salute magpies and tap things a certain amount of times to stop the world ending!
But joking aside, I have worked very hard to get better at simply “sitting with” uncertainty. 2020 has given us all a lot of practice. You just have to have faith that while you might not win the next freelance gig, you probably will win one soon.
However much certainty you can establish, something else you don’t know the outcome of will come along next as sure as night follows day. The School of Life book I mentioned above has some very good advice around this.
The previous piece of mental health advice for home workers was more for freelancers, so this one is a little more tailored for those of you who work remotely for a company.
While some companies are “remote first” by nature, others have been forced to adopt home working by recent events. Some firms have coped very well. Others – let’s face it – are making a mess of it.
With that in mind, think of things that could help, and suggest them. Take some inspiration from established remote companies who set up things like walking meetings and social Zoom calls. Submit some ideas that could make your team happier and more cohesive. Ideas like this not not only improve your mental health but could help your colleagues too.
Set your Boundaries
We all want different things from our working lives. For example, I’m fiercely protective of my weekends. Almost always, they are set aside for relaxation, family time and – let’s be honest – chores and “household admin.”
It’s important to define what’s non-negotiable for you, and to police it ruthlessly. That means sticking your head above the parapet and speaking up if clients or bosses keep disturbing your evening peace. It means sticking to your own boundaries and policing that too.
Blurred boundaries are very common when your home and workplace are combined. You ARE allowed to disable notifications, leave emails until the morning, and be assertive about when tasks will realistically be finished.
Nobody else will stand up for your mental health, so it’s essential to be your own best friend on this.
Make Your Work Space a Happy Place
Even if your “office” is the corner of your bedroom, it’s important to work on aesthetics and ergonomics.
Just as it’s wise to spend a decent amount of money on a mattress because you’ll spend thousands of hours lying on it, it’s wise to invest in making your workspace somewhere you want to be.
We recently published an article on home working gadgets. But it’s not just about tech stuff. Think about lighting, whether you’re warm enough, whether you have objects that make you happy in your field of vision.
Just like the mattress, this is stuff worth spending money on.
Mental health for home workers is a complicated subject. I’m writing this at a time in my life when my various mental health issues are lurking but (thankfully) manageable.
But there have been plenty of times when things have been worse, and it’s almost certain I will arrive at times like that again.
I KNOW what it’s like when you can’t see the wood for the trees. The thought that going for a walk and putting up some nice photos might change things seems laughably simplistic when you feel like that. But these things can help if you give them a chance. I wouldn’t be here writing this if that wasn’t the case.
Hang in there. You’ve got this 🙂
Founder of HomeWorkingClub.com – Ben has worked freelance for nearly 20 years. As well as being a freelance writer and blogger, he is also a technical consultant with Microsoft and Apple certifications. He loves supporting new home workers but is prone to outbursts of bluntness and realism.