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Four things you can do to manage stress and stay focused while working from home

March 30, 2020
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In recent weeks, the global community has undergone a paradigm shift in the way we live, work, socialize and study. For many, this has meant making significant adjustments to their daily routines while attempting to work remotely and physically distance themselves from others. These changes are certain to cause additional stress and anxiety, making it harder to stay focused and be productive. However, according to SFU’s Lieke ten Brummelhuis, associate professor at the Beedie School of Business, there are four things you can do to help manage stress and stay focused while working remotely.

1: Stay connected

“Working from home can get very lonely,” says Ten Brummelhuis. Research suggests that collegiality and feelings of belonging go down in employees who work more than three days per week from home – a problem many employees are going to face in the coming weeks. As a result, Ten Brummelhuis recommends that companies consider having regular check-in meetings, during which staff can connect on work but also non-work concerns. However, she notes that there must also be a balance to ensure staff don’t see those meeting as an inconvenience, chipping away precious work time.

If check-in meetings aren’t an option because you’re self-employed or a student, try to set aside some time on a regular basis to chat with a friend or mentor instead. “Remember, just because we’re physically distancing doesn’t mean we need to stop engaging with each other. Staying connected is now more important than ever.”

2: Make a schedule and stick to it

Working from home for the first time can feel less structured and comes with a whole range of new challenges. The current working from home situation is particularly challenging for parents now that schools and many daycares are closing, and grandparents may not be asked for support because they are among the risk group of COVID-19, says Ten Brummelhuis. “Working from home as it was designed, was not meant to include work and care at the same time, yet research indicates that even under normal circumstances it is challenging for teleworkers to draw a clear boundary between work and home life, often leading to work-family conflict.”

Ten Brummelhuis recommends that dual earner couples sit down to make a clear schedule to decide who works versus cares for the children or attends to other responsibilities. This schedule should also be clear for any children, and if possible, a physical boundary can be made within the home that makes it clear to all family members that the working family member cannot be interrupted (e.g., a separate office with a sign on the door, a closed off bedroom).

3: Don’t forget to have some fun

When working from home, it can be hard to separate work time from home life given the reduced physical boundaries. Unfortunately, this can lead to thinking about work during family and relaxation time.

Ten Brummelhuis suggests that to create a stronger work/life separation, schedule fun or relaxing activities at the end of your work day, or even during lunch, that can provide an opportunity to destress. “If your schedule and physical distancing restrictions allow for it, simple things like going outside for a walk after work or having a virtual coffee chat with a friend are great things to get your mind off work,” says Ten Brummelhuis. “These types of activities help reinforce boundaries between work time and home life.”

4: Eliminate distractions

Perhaps one of the largest challenges of working from home is remaining focused while there are perhaps more, or at least different, distractions at home than in an office environment. Research shows that frequent interruptions by incoming email and compulsively checking email or the news often undermine productivity.

“Every job is different of course, and some jobs require that you be available constantly online but if possible, try to assign dedicated times to check on updates and respond to email – for instance at 9am, 1pm, and 4pm. In between those times, when focus on a task is required, switch off your email and put your phone on silent, or even better, in a different room.”

For those who check the news excessively, it can be helpful to try an exercise in accepting uncertainty. “By checking the news, we will not gain more control over the situation. We must accept that some things are out of our control and by doing this we can instead focus on things that we still can control like finishing a work project.”

Lieke ten Brummelhuis

Lieke ten Brummelhuis joined the Beedie School of business in July 2013. She holds a PhD in organizational sociology from Utrecht University (Netherlands). Ten Brummelhuis worked for two years as a postdoc at the industrial and organizational psychology department of Erasmus University in Rotterdam. In 2011, she was awarded with a Dutch grant for junior researchers, which allowed her to extend her postdoctoral research for two years at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania.

Ten Brummelhuis is interested in research topics that add to our understanding of what motivates employees, and which work styles help employees to improve work outcomes while maintaining work-life balance.