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The coronavirus might be keeping everyone out of office, but there are plenty of ways you can avoid cabin fever while working from home. Photo: Shutterstock

Working from home amid coronavirus crisis? Stay sane by adding structure to your day, taking regular breaks, and setting yourself some new goals

  • Your self-care routine can be disrupted when working from home. Combine that with uncertainty and not being active, and it can affect people’s mental health
  • Look for the positives to being out of the office, such as having no commute, and reach out to your colleagues via digital media to avoid feeling too isolated
Civil servants, bank staff, lawyers, office workers and many other employees who usually spend long days in workplaces across Hong Kong are working from home to minimise the threat of the novel coronavirus, which causes a disease known as Covid-19, spreading in the community.

For the most part, we have the technology to be able to do this, but are we mentally and emotionally prepared for the challenges that come with working on our own, separated from colleagues and friends?

The usual structure of our day – commuting to work, chatting with colleagues, meeting a friend for lunch, going to the gym after work – may seem so mundane that it’s easy to overlook the powerful role it plays in our mental health.

Take that away and replace it with the potentially shapeless form of “working from home” and it can be overwhelming.

“Your self-care routine can be very disrupted. Combine that with a lot of uncertainty, wanting to protect the self [from catching the virus], not being active and getting out, and it can really affect people’s mental health,” says Dr Hannah Sugarman, a clinical psychologist and the clinical adviser at mental health charity Mind Hong Kong.
The social connection that comes with being with others – even if we’re not directly speaking to them – travelling to work, in the office, helps us stay focused and less likely to get caught up in anxious thoughts.

Five tech solutions to improve working from home

Working from home can be very isolating, particularly in a time of uncertainty. It allows for plenty of time to dwell on the situation, repeatedly check the news and, if you aren’t careful, let thoughts spiral in ways that are unhelpful. Add to this the challenge of Hong Kong’s small flats, and our mental health can suffer.

“There might be a few family members all trying to find space and quiet in the flat. Family dynamics are quite disrupted, people are not used to spending so much time around each other and that might lead to conflict,” says Sugarman.

The coronavirus threat creates uncertainty. To overcome that, we need the normality and routine that office life’s daily pattern provides. With a little effort, we can recreate that structure, self-care and a sense of achievement while working from a Hong Kong flat.

Use digital media to connect with your team and contacts when working from home. Photo: Shutterstock

Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, is among the legions of Hongkongers adjusting to working from home.

“By the afternoon I start to feel a bit low. I realise I’ve been alone all day, I miss the vibrancy of being around people,” says Joseph. “To be successful working from home you need a little discipline put into place – you need to programme in breaks and your own health time.”

A naturally extroverted personality, Joseph misses the regular get-togethers with colleagues and friends. To make up for this, she uses digital media to connect with her team and contacts, exercises during the day and sometimes invites a few close friends over for dinner.

Tara Joseph is the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

In the recent past, Joseph would awaken at 5.45am to go to the gym before getting into work at 8.30am. Now she doesn’t need to get up so early, and saves the 40 minutes usually spent travelling. Close to home, she can fit in a short hike or play tennis.

“I find working from home gives me a more flexible schedule and less rigid working life. I’m getting more sleep as I’m not worried about commuting. And I’m eating more healthily because at home it’s easier to regulate what I eat,” she says.

“It’s important to put a structure in place that works for you to be able to achieve the work you need to get done and also do the things you need to do to have a healthy lifestyle.”

It is easy to get out on a hike when working hours are not so rigid. Photo: Shutterstock
Zoe Fortune is CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance HK, which supports the creation of mentally healthy workplaces. It provides a fact sheet on helping employees to stay mentally healthy in the current circumstances ( Some of the biggest challenges employees face centre on feelings of isolation, being disconnected from teams, being unable to set boundaries between work and personal time, and becoming inactive.

“If you miss that water cooler moment, you can integrate those ways of working from home without being disruptive. Reports suggest that video conferencing is a good alternative to have that face-to-face contact, so that people don’t miss that communication with others,” says Fortune.

Recreating the routine and structure of office life in a home environment may mean getting a little creative. Fortune says getting dressed for the office – rather than staying in your pyjamas – can help get you in the right mindset.

 A “mini commute”, getting out to walk around the block before settling down in front of your laptop, may help to establish a boundary between home and work – which can be challenging when the physical spaces for living and working overlap.

Zoe Fortune is the CEO of the City Mental Health Alliance HK.
“Be clear about what times you are working and not working. Say to yourself as well as your team and colleagues: ‘I’m logging off now, I’ll see you tomorrow.’ Have regular check-in times with your team. Ensure you still do as far as possible things you can to keep you well – physical exercise, hobbies ,” says Fortune.

For Joseph, a challenging part of the current situation is not knowing when it is going to end. She has been making plans for a special trip later in the year.

“Without something to grab, the days can feel endless. You need to plan in little goals and gifts for yourself, and something to look forward to,” she says.

It can be easier to eat more healthily when you are at home and cooking for yourself and friends. Photo: Shutterstock

Although there have been ups and downs, she’s learned from the work-from-home experience and plans to carry forward some of those lessons when everyone returns to working in the office.

“When I have to look at the financial reports or need quiet, in-depth time, I now know it’s good to have time away from the office. I better understand flexible working, and the advantage of breaking out of a rigid mode of thinking,” says Joseph.

Sugarman is also sanguine. “I think we’ll look back on this as an interesting time on a population level – everyone facing challenges; people never had to think about managing worry and mental health and well-being – they are having to give it a lot more thought now because of the uncertainty.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: working from home? how not to go stir crazy