You know that moment when you realize that you’re losing control? You’re outside of your body watching everything scatter. You can’t see step one-what initial action would help you get a handle on this? Panic washes over you: “How do I get on top of this? OMG-calls keep coming in. My daughter is knocking. The dog won’t stop barking. I’m overwhelmed.”
Being overwhelmed is an uncomfortable and unhealthy state. Many of us have been experiencing this as our personal and professional lives have blurred together during the pandemic. Professional life is urgent, but our personal lives are urgent too. How does one prioritize when multiple, important obligations are clamoring for our attention in the same space?
Managing our wellness and environment can help. It takes some big picture planning, plus maintaining good routines and habits. On top of that, it helps to discuss our limitations, honestly and directly, without caving in to guilt.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. We owe it to ourselves to create systems and practices that protect us from getting overwhelmed. These are five practices remote employees can start enacting now.
1. Guard your sleep routine.
Good sleep is the root of wellness and productivity. When children are small, we create a bedtime routine for them. They take a bath, have a glass of milk, hear a story. We give them a wind down period that is physically and emotionally relaxing.
Adults, likewise, benefit from dedicating attention to calming ourselves at night and creating a routine that ensures deep, refreshing rest. “Sleep hygiene techniques and regular sleeping hours help improve cognition throughout the day and increase productivity. Individuals should create a workspace devoid of distractions if possible. The workspace should not be in the bedroom as this could affect sleep quality.” Explains Dr. Leela R. Magavi, M.D., Psychiatrist and Regional Medical Director for Community Psychiatry.
Set yourself up to feel better throughout your workday by adhering to a calming routine each night.
2. Create an environment that serves you.
There are some factors about professional life that you can’t control. You can’t always control your work volume; you can’t dictate how many phone calls or emails will reach you throughout the day. But you can control the space that those communications reach. Making that space comfortable, clutter-free, and stocked with healthy snacks and drinks positions you to handle your work well. That’s what employers do when they design an office space and culture.
Dr. Magavi advises: “Natural light and cooler temperatures can help maintain focus. . . Everyone has a different temperament and ideal learning environment and would benefit from different modifications based on their own individual needs.” Think about what you need to feel calm and focused. If your company is planning to continue remote or hybrid work, it’s worth deciding what you need to make this arrangement comfortable.
In addition to environmental factors, calming practices can help. Dr. Magavi recommends: “Partaking in stretches periodically throughout the day could assuage anxiety. Squeezing a stress ball while completing anxiety-inducing tasks could help release stress. Some individuals keep their pets around them and pet them or hug them intermittently, which can release oxytocin and bolster mood.”
While there are challenges to working from home, like trying to balance your own work with that of your spouse, roommate, or children who may also be at home, there are also benefits like being able to arrange your workspace. Build on the positives, and create a space that serves you.
Consider, too, the factors that triggered your feelings when you’ve found yourself overwhelmed. Dr. Magavi advises: “It is imperative for individuals to pinpoint what exactly has been worsening their productivity, and tackle this accordingly.”
For many of us, what feels so challenging about this time is that our routines have been upended. Dr. Magavi shares “Disrupted structure particularly affects inattentiveness…Limiting screen time and maintaining familiar routines inclusive of mindfulness activities and exercise as much as possible could improve focus and motivation.” While some screen time is necessary for work and school, it’s helpful to take a look at where we can eliminate the excess and build in healthier, more energizing activities.
3. Adhere to healthy habits
This is an exhausting time, which can make us feel the urge to collapse. But getting through a difficult time requires extra attention to those details that help energize us to succeed. Adhering to a healthy routine sets us up to feel better than collapsing into disorganization. This can create the conditions which can cause flare ups where we get demotivated and overwhelmed.
Dr. Magavi offers this advice: “Each success releases neurochemicals such as dopamine, which positively reinforce healthy behavior and focus itself. Dopamine and norepinephrine are implicated in inattentiveness, so any activity that increases these levels could boost focus. If an individual writes down a goal to walk with weights for twenty minutes, and crosses this out when completed, this will release some positive neurochemicals. The next day, if demotivation strikes, it is helpful to think about the success from the prior day and attempt to repeat it again.” Notice what works, and keep building your routine around that which helps you.
Dr. Magavi further advises: “Writing down top goals for the day and then crossing these out could help individuals gain clarity and keep track of tasks. Tasks could be broken down into educational and work activities, emotional and physical wellness activities, and social activities. Goals should remain achievable to avoid demoralization. Finishing tasks and reaching goals with loved ones can improve motivation and accountability.” Again, when you recognize that these activities help combat feelings of lethargy and demotivation, use that awareness as your motivation to keep building them into your routines.
4. Get the support you need
Living through a global pandemic is difficult. The CDC reports that June 2020 saw 40 percent of American adults struggling with substance abuse and mental health. There’s no shame in it, and you’re certainly not along if you’re struggling.
Dr. Magavi points out that “Some anxiety and stress is necessary in order to initiate tasks and gain momentum. However, when stress causes distress or functionality concerns, this could adversely impact processing speed, working memory and performance. Individuals with significant mood and anxiety concerns and feelings of sadness and demoralization, which affect their functionality should consider scheduling an appointment with a psychiatrist or therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy allows individuals to identify their anxiety pattern and tackle this by reframing thinking and engaging in healthy behaviors. In some cases, medications are warranted to treat mood and anxiety concerns.”
Talk with your human resources team about your options and insurance coverage related to mental health or call your insurance carrier directly to learn more.
5. Advocate for yourself
Talk with your manager about the issues that are making your job hard to manage. If you’re struggling to keep up with the volume and intensity of work, share that feedback. If you’re struggling to balance work and life, discuss it with your manager.
There’s no shame in finding it taxing to power your team through a global pandemic by working in a whole new way while also inhabiting the same space with your family. That is a lot to take on. If you’re finding it challenging, that doesn’t mean you’re bad at your job or you’re failing in any of life’s spheres in which you are an active participant. It means you’re a human being, and much is being asked of you at an exceedingly stressful time. It’s ok to invite a conversation addressing that.
Know that you are not struggling alone. Many employees are trying to make this arrangement work any way they can, often sacrificing their own wellness to do so. Microsoft’s recent Work Trend Index Report notes: “The digital intensity of workers’ days has increased substantially, with the average number of meetings and chats steadily increasing since last year. . . Despite meeting and chat overload, 50 percent of people respond to Teams chats within five minutes or less, a response time that has not changed year-over-year. This proves the intensity of our workday, and that what is expected of employees during this time, has increased significantly.”
Remote employees are burning themselves out trying to keep pace. The report explains: “Self-assessed productivity has remained the same or higher for many employees over the past year, but at a human cost. One in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance. Fifty-four percent feel overworked. Thirty-nine percent feel exhausted.”
The Microsoft report indicates that globally 40 percent the workforce are considering a job hunt this year. If your company wants to retain you, they need to hear you. If they don’t, then perhaps it’s time to consider starting a job hunt of your own.
You are one person. You can handle a lot, but it should not be at the expense of your wellness. You matter more than your job. Do what you can to make the job you have habitable. But if it can’t work, move on. Find your fit. You deserve that.