With the recent lock down in Western Australia and Premier Mark McGowan's recommendation that those who can should work remotely, working from home has re-emerged as a forefront issue.
However, even before Covid-19, working from home was gaining popularity in Australia – by August of 2019 almost a third of employed Australians were regularly working from home. 1 A November 2020 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics found that 30% of Australians would like to continue working from home even after Covid-19 restrictions are lifted, 2 and there are suggestions that working from home may be 'the future of work', 3 with Twitter recently announcing it will permanently allow employees to work from home. 4
However, while there are many benefits to working from home, it can also create unique challenges for mental health. These include feeling isolated, experiencing environmental challenges or being unable to separate work from home life. Maintaining employees' mental health can not only alleviate the risks of anxiety, depression, burnout and suicide, but it's good for the employer's wallet. Research shows that every dollar invested in creating a mentally healthy workplace can return $2.30 to the organisation. 5
If you are working from home, you might be:
- feeling isolated or disconnected, or unable to switch off from work;
- be having difficulties staying focused, motivated or prioritising your workload; or
- be suffering sleep issues such as insomnia.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Recent research commissioned by the Fair Work Commission suggests that one of the most important ways to make working from home more effective is for employees to have sufficient resources, structure and guidance from their employer, including in the form of a working from home policy. 6 MDC Legal has a free Working From Home Checklist for Employers. We can also prepare a Working from Home policy tailored to your business to complement the checklist.
There are also several things employees can do to optimise their mental health while working from home.
Set up a space: You might be finding it difficult to focus, or to keep your work separate from the rest of your life. If possible, set up a dedicated workspace separate from where you sleep and relax. This should help you feel more switched on and alert when you are working, 7 and make it easier to switch off when you're not. Other things you might consider when setting up a space include the type and levels of background noise, as research shows higher levels of noise tend to reduce your ability to process information. 8 Intermittent speech, such as hearing snatches of conversation also makes it harder to stay attentive and work with numbers. 9 To avoid this, if possible try to set boundaries with the people you live with about interrupting you or talking loudly during your work time. You can also try listening to background music to improve your mood and help complete tasks faster, although it's best not to listen to music while you read, as it may be disruptive. 10
Get dressed: While it may be tempting to stay in your pyjamas all day, getting changed into your normal work clothes can impact your mindset and productivity. Part of this comes from continuing your usual routine, if you would normally get ready for work, keeping this as part of your morning can help keep things feeling normal. 11 Another benefit of getting dressed is that it may make you feel more competent and productive. 12 Research suggests this is because we attribute values to our clothes and wearing them can make us perform those values, for example a study found participants who wore a white coat they were told belongs to a doctor showed an increase in their abilities compared to a group told their coat belonged to a painter. 13
Have a healthy breakfast and make time for exercise: Maintaining a healthy diet plays an important role in supporting your mental health. Try to take time to make and eat a balanced breakfast before you start work for the day to improve energy levels and ability to concentrate. 14 Similarly, exercise plays a significant role in maintaining positive mental health through reducing stress, improving sleep, and increasing memory. 15
Setting up a routine including regular breaks: It can be helpful to add structure to your day through scheduling a regular start and finish time, as well as regular breaks. 16 Once your work hours are over, try to step away and unplug. It is suggested this helps maintain the boundary between your work and home life, as does switching off when the workday ends. 17 Trying to incorporate going outside during your breaks can also help maintain your mental health. 18 If you're able to, try sitting outside or going for a walk to get some fresh air and sunshine. 19
Staying connected: Staying connected to your colleagues and managers can help you feel less isolated, less stressed, and more on-track. 20 To counter not being in the same physical workspace, try scheduling daily meetings to improve communication on what you've been working on, bounce ideas off each other or simply to catch up. 21 These catch ups can be through phone or video-conferencing, or even email if you can't work out a time that suits everyone. 22 Another part of staying connected is delegating where possible. Feeling isolated or having trouble communicating with your co-workers might make you feel like you have to do everything yourself, but remember the rest of your team is still out there and able to help.
Take leave: If you have leave available, remember you are able to take it. This may be sick leave if you are feeling unwell, or annual leave if you need time to deal with new challenges such as children being home from school.
AFTER OR OUTSIDE WORK
Turning off notifications on the weekend: Another way to help keep boundaries between work and home life when working at home is to turn off email and other notifications after work hours and during the weekend. If you want to go a little further, set aside time for a complete digital detox in the evening. Use this time to turn off your phone and laptop, and to spend some time with the people you love.
Find and express gratitude: Even if it is your choice to work from home, you might find it harder at certain times than others. When this happens, try to think of a positive aspect of working from home, such as having more control over your workday, or reducing your commute time. 23 You can try to express gratitude for these silver linings, as well as for other positives in your life.
Maintain your usual methods of controlling stress: If you have an existing mindfulness practice, whether this be meditation, getting out into nature or something else, try to maintain this as best you can. 24 In addition, if you are already managing a mental health issue, continue your plan but watch out for and note any new symptoms. 25
Seek support: Support networks are vital for maintaining mental health. This support may come from a variety of sources. Keep in contact with friends and family – and if you're having feelings of distress, acknowledge these to yourself and your friends. 26 Your support might also come from attending religious services or events, or from belonging to a community group. If your usual group isn't doing in person events, you can see if the organisation is holding any events online or reach out to individual members. Professional help is also still available: whether you were already seeing a mental health professional or would like to start now, you can visit your GP, call a helpline, use the government's 'My services' directory, or call 000 in an emergency. 27
1 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Characteristics of Employment, Australia, August 2019 (Catalogue No 6333.0, 9 December 2019).
2 Australian Bureau of Statistics, Household Impacts of COVID-19 Survey, November 2020 < https://www.abs.gov.au/statistics/people/people-and-communities/household-impacts-covid-19-survey/nov-2020#emotional-and-mental-wellbeing > (14 December 2020)
3 Richard Eisenberg, 'Is working from home the future of work?', Forbes (Online Article, 10 April 2020) < https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2020/04/10/is-working-from-home-the-future-of-work/#48c548146b1f >.
4 'Twitter employees can work from home 'forever' if they want, CEO says', SBS News (Online Article, 13 May 2020) < https://www.sbs.com.au/news/twitter-employees-can-work-from-home-forever-if-they-want-ceo-says >.
5 PWC, Creating a mentally healthy workplace – Return on investment analysis, Final Report March 2014 < https://www.headsup.org.au/docs/default-source/resources/beyondblue_workplaceroi_finalreport_may-2014.pdf >.
6 Dr John Hopkins and Professor Anne Bardoel, 'Key working from home trends emerging from COVID-19: A report to the Fair Work Commission' (November 2020) < https://www.fwc.gov.au/documents/sites/clerks-work-from-home/research/am202098-research-reference-list-su-241120.pdf?.
7 Black Dog Institute, Working from home: A checklist to support your mental health during Coronavirus https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/working-from-home-a-checklist-to-support-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus/.
8 Ravi Mehta, Rui Zhu and Amar Cheema, 'Is Noise Always Bad? Exploring the Effects of Ambient Noise on Creative Cognition'39(4) (2012) Journal of Consumer Research 795.
9 James L. Salzma and Peter A. Hancock, 'Noise Effects on Human Performance: A Meta-Analytic Synthesis' 137(4) (2011) 686, 694.
10 Josh Davis, 'How Background Noise Affects The Way You Work' (10 June 2015), Fast Company < https://www.fastcompany.com/3051835/how-background-noise-affects-the-way-you-work >.
11 Kellie Scott, 'How a work-from-home outfit can help you stay productive' ABC Life https://www.abc.net.au/life/how-a-work-from-home-outfit-can-help-you-stay-productive/12102794.
12 Joy V. Peluchette and Katherine Karl, 'The impact of workplace attire on employee self-perceptions' 18(3) (2007) Human Resource Development Quarterly 353.
13 Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky, 'Enclothed Cognition' 48(4) (2012) https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0022103112000200#!.
14 Better Health Victoria, Breakfast (March 2020) https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/breakfast.
15 Health Direct Australia, Exercise and Mental Health (November 2019) https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/exercise-and-mental-health.
16 Black Dog Institute, Working from home: A checklist to support your mental health during Coronavirus https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/working-from-home-a-checklist-to-support-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus/; Safe Work Australia, Working from home (29 April 2020) https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/industry-information/general-industry-information/working-home.
17 Black Dog Institute, Working from home: A checklist to support your mental health during Coronavirus https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/working-from-home-a-checklist-to-support-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus/.
22 Safe Work Australia, Working from home (29 April 2020) https://www.safeworkaustralia.gov.au/covid-19-information-workplaces/industry-information/general-industry-information/working-home.
23 Black Dog Institute, Working from home: A checklist to support your mental health during Coronavirus https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/news/working-from-home-a-checklist-to-support-your-mental-health-during-coronavirus/.
25 Beyond Blue, Ways to look after your mental health amid the coronavirus pandemic https://coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au/managing-my-daily-life/coping-with-isolation-and-being-at-home/ways-to-look-after-your-mental-health.html.
27 Beyond Blue, Ways to look after your mental health amid the coronavirus pandemic https://coronavirus.beyondblue.org.au/managing-my-daily-life/coping-with-isolation-and-being-at-home/ways-to-look-after-your-mental-health.html.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.