Essential steps to staying mentally healthy while working from home.

With COVID-19 forcing social distancing, many people who are working from home for the first time are trying to figure out how to balance being productive with the stress and worry that a global pandemic brings. While many companies have published very thoughtful guides to help you stay productive while working remotely (and I’ll share some of my favorites later in this article), few of them acknowledge just how taxing working from home can be on your mental state. Addressing both productivity and mental wellness is more critical now than ever before.

As head of Customer Experience at OkCupid, I lead the Trust and Safety and Customer Support teams, who handle stressful and difficult content daily as part of their regular jobs. I spent over a decade of my career working remotely, so this is not new to me. I am also a lifelong meditator and have volunteered for the past few years as the director of a meditation center. The intersection of stress reduction, mindfulness, resilience, and work-from-home productivity is quite literally what my life has been about for the last few years, and I am happy to be able to share what I’ve learned, in the hopes that it is helpful for those who have not had to think about these things before.

Set the right schedule

One of the benefits of working remotely is that generally you’re a little more in control of your schedule than you would be if you were in an office. You may still need to attend meetings at certain times, but you can usually flex your start or end time more than if you had to commute.

Here are two ways you can look at your work schedule:

Shorter bursts of work and more breaks

  • Try working 7 days a week, but for less hours each day
  • Alternatively, try working for 10 hours a day over 4 days, but with lots of breaks
  • Benefits: more opportunities to reset and clear your head during the work day. You don’t need to concentrate as intensely for as long. If you work with difficult or stressful content, it’s better to work shorter blocks of time exposed to potentially bad content.
  • Downsides: Less separation between work and home life.

Regular work hours

  • The same old 8 hours/day, 5 days/week
  • Benefits: Personal time is more sacred; clearer start and end to the day. You can leave work “at work” and have full nights/ weekends off. This is important especially when you work from home.
  • Downsides: Less time to take breaks and decompress, so work can be more stressful.

Once you’ve decided what your hours are, you’ll want to add some structure to the workday:

At the beginning of every day:

  • Get dressed! Some people like putting on their regular work clothes, others like the work-from-home advantage of being able to wear loungewear with no one knowing. Either way, don’t stay in your PJs!
  • Take a walk around the block or do some stretches or other exercises in place of your regular commute. This can help signal to your body that your workday has started.

During work:

  • Are you more productive in the morning or evening? Schedule your more difficult work when you’re most productive.
  • If you have meetings or easier projects, try to balance them with your more intense work periods.
  • Every day you might have different limits on the type of content you can handle, or how much you can get done. That’s ok! Check in with yourself about how you’re feeling. It’s always good to save some easy or tedious work for times when you’re having trouble concentrating.
  • Be wary of multitasking and context switching. It’s better for your brain to do one thing at a time, both in terms of resiliency and productivity.

At the end of every day:

  • Clear off your desk completely and hide your work notebook and laptop to signal to yourself that it’s the end of the day.
  • Walk around the block again or do some more stretching.
  • Consider changing out of your “work clothes”.
  • Protect your before and after work time. Remember that energy isn’t infinite.

Create the right environment

This is nothing new, it’s on almost every “how to work from home” list. At OkCupid, in addition to providing a computer and monitor, we offer a yearly office equipment stipend for our remote team to use for most anything they like to make their work area better.

  • Make sure that your work area is separate from where you relax. You don’t need to have a separate room to work in (though it’s great to be able to close the door and forget about work at the end of the day), but I highly recommend not working on the couch or in your bedroom. Those are places where you’ll likely want to unwind at the end of the day.
  • Ergonomics are critical if you’re working from home for an extended period of time. Pay attention to lighting and the height of your chair and desk as well as your keyboard and mouse.
  • Make your desk area as uplifting and cheerful as possible. Fresh flowers or potted plants, photos of your kids or family, a silly pen that makes you smile - all of these things are going to make a difference.
  • Pay attention to noise (or lack of it). For some people, silence is the best way to work, but others may prefer ambient “coffee shop” sounds or music playlists. I do not recommend having the TV on in the background - it can be very distracting.
  • Create a healthy snack station. Make it easy for yourself to make good choices, stay hydrated, and eat regular meals.

Take time to check in with yourself

For some people who are new to working from home, you may find it really hard to concentrate on work when TV, video games, books, and other distractions are just a step away.

For those of us who work from home regularly, we often have the opposite problem, where we actually get so deep into concentration that we forget to get up and stretch. Additionally, we often find it difficult to “switch off” after work, when our work and home environments are the same.

Regardless of where on this spectrum you find yourself, the most important thing is to be aware of it, and take some proactive steps to set yourself up for success.

Signs that you need to take more breaks:

  • Your body is tense or sore, or you have a headache
  • You are forgetting to eat or drink water
  • You haven’t moved from your desk in hours

To mitigate this issue: Set Slack or calendar reminders to stretch, go outside, make some tea, meditate for 10 mins, etc. You may find it helpful to set your workstation near a window so you can look outside every once in a while.

Signs that you’re too distracted:

  • Mindlessly snacking or eating out of boredom
  • Feeling scatter-brained or distracted
  • Temptation to watch TV, or do something else that isn’t work-related

To mitigate this issue: Start your morning by setting your intentions and goals. Make a to-do list. Stick to a set schedule. Try the Pomodoro Technique. Don’t look at social media while working, and if you’re using a personal computer to do your work, then use different browsers for work-related websites and personal ones, so you’re not tempted to read through personal sites during work hours. You may find it helpful to set your workstation facing a wall so you’re free from distractions.

Communication

It’s also important to check in with yourself about how isolated you’re feeling. You may need to communicate more or change the way you’re communicating. Asynchronous Communication can be helpful to keep in mind. At OkCupid, we’re doing virtual team lunches to keep everyone connected while working remotely, and we’re making more use of tools like Zoom, Slack, and email.

Meditation, mindfulness, and exercise

In a time of national crisis, many people feel overwhelmed by the bad news permeating their day, and it can be hard to let go of those anxious thoughts.

  • Consider meditation or mindfulness training. Resources include apps like Calm or 10% Happier, and magazines like Lion’s Roar or Mindful.
  • Meditation has many scientifically proven benefits, even with just 10 minutes a day.
  • Exercise and fresh air also helps de-stress, especially something like yoga or tai chi, but even simply walking around the block or doing simple stretches at your desk can make a big difference.

Understanding meditation

I don’t think it’s helpful to think of meditation or mindfulness as a “productivity hack”; instead it is a practice that happens to have the side effect of helping your productivity.

The basic practice of meditation is to train your mind to simply let go of everyday thoughts, instead coming back to your breath and the present moment. By doing this, you are strengthening the neural pathways for that mental behavior.

This practice makes it much easier for your brain to let go of any looping, anxious, or harmful thoughts that may arise, because you’ve already been practicing doing that. Additionally, meditation helps you to cultivate steadfastness, clear seeing, and attention to the present moment.

Mindfulness while working

This is an exercise that takes 10 seconds and can help you pause or reset when you need to.

  • Two Feet: Let yourself feel your feet on the floor and the weight of your body connecting to the ground.
  • One Breath: Pay as close attention as you can to the full duration of a single breath, in and out.
  • Go back to whatever you were doing (or, if you like, you can continue the practice for a few more breaths).

Harm Reduction

These guidelines work for anxiety-producing news cycles as much as they do for the Trust and Safety work that I wrote them for.

  • If you’re voluntarily looking up difficult content (i.e. the news) then set a goal before you start looking. For example, if you want to be more informed about a particular topic, decide what “more informed” means to you before you start reading articles.
  • STOP reading or reviewing content as soon as you’ve seen enough. If you have to review difficult content for work, “enough” usually means enough to make a decision or escalate the issue upwards.
  • Afterwards, take a break. Walk around the block, make yourself some tea, do some quick yoga exercises, look at cute cat photos, talk to someone, or meditate for 10 minutes.
  • Try to stay unemotional. Focus on the solution and specific actions that you can take.
  • Project an ending: literally tell yourself how the “story” will end well. Even if you know this may not necessarily be true, our minds often try to catastrophize, so this helps you tell a more positive story to yourself instead of the negative one that we often default to.

Staying positive and connected

During times of stress and social isolation, it’s even more critical to recognize and celebrate positive aspects of your day.

  • Set mini-goals for yourself throughout the day and recognize when you accomplish them.
  • When you’re working from home, it’s often hard to see or be seen, so be more vocal about your accomplishments than you may otherwise be. Likewise, publicly recognize a colleague when they do something great!
  • Social isolation can be difficult. When possible, use video chat instead of text for meetings. Body language and seeing each other’s smiles can make a huge difference. Use chat tools like Slack to recreate the “watercooler” chat that happens in an office.

It is also crucial to make sure that you are taking care of yourself outside of working hours. Pay attention to these areas:

Physical Self-Care

  • Eat regularly, exercise, take time off when you’re sick, get enough sleep.

Psychological Self-Care

  • Make time for self reflection, journal, read literature that is unrelated to work, be curious.

Emotional Self-Care

  • Give yourself positive affirmations, allow yourself to cry, play with children, find things that make you laugh.

Spiritual Self-Care

  • Spend time with nature, pray, sing, meditate, be open to inspiration.

Workplace Self-Care

  • Take a break, take time to chat, set limits, have a peer support group.

It could be that you’ve followed every single tip out there about how to stay sane while working remotely, but if you are neglecting yourself in multiple other categories of your life, then you will be much more likely to react badly to stress. Ultimately, the best way to stay healthy, productive, and happy is to seek balance and stay mindful both during work hours and outside of them.

Some other great resources for working from home:

And resources for mindfulness and anxiety relief: