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Why We’re So Exhausted: The Emotional Toll of Working from Home

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

Forced by the spread of COVID-19 to work remotely, many of us are navigating uncharted territory. Sudden and forced change is never easy. Humans tend to be creatures of habit who find comfort in routine. Our commute - however tiresome at times - serves more of a purpose than just getting us from A to B: we catch up on the news, skim social media, listen to a podcast or simply meditate and enjoy being alone with our thoughts.  In some cases, our offices are important components of our social lives - the term “work family” isn’t new - or they’re simply places where we cherish the opportunity not to be, in the first instance, a mother, father, wife, husband or housemate as we are at home. On a very basic level, the physical distance between our homes and our workplaces can provide handy infrastructure to differentiate between our professional lives and our personal lives: work and play; business and pleasure.  Going to the office every day also creates predictability and rhythm - we can sometimes even allow ourselves to switch to autopilot - and there’s safety in that. At a time when everything else seems a little up in the air, control and consistency can be hugely comforting.  But COVID-19 has changed all of that and we’ve been forced to scrap routines and rituals indiscriminately overnight, in most cases without a transition phase or a grace period to acclimatise. For some of us, that small desk in the alcove next to the kitchen,  might now constitute our place of work for the foreseeable future. And that’s if we’re lucky. In a city apartment where space is a luxury and an extra bedroom seemed like a ludicrous extravagance when we signed the lease, our office might now be where we have breakfast, dinner and post-work drinks. Worse still, it might be where we sleep, watch TV or even where we have sex. We may not be leaving the house as much as we used to, but we’re absolutely exhausted and can’t figure out why. Here are a few clues. 

1. Coming off Autopilot

Have you ever started a new job or moved cities? Do you remember lying in bed or on the couch at the end of your first week, impressions tearing through your brain like wildfire and your synapses sparking tirelessly to try and make sense of everything? That’s not dissimilar from what’s happening here. Many of us have never been in a similar situation. Everything we do - how we work, how we live - has to be reassessed and reconsidered. Every decision has to be a conscious one that’s based on novel circumstances. Even just thinking about the extent of that feat is exhausting. And that’s before considering that we might also be worrying about our own health, whether our job is safe, how we’re going homeschool our child or - perhaps - how we’re going to avoid killing our partner in a fit of stress-induced rage. All are legitimate concerns and all can be very disorientating. 

2. Home or Work/Work or Home 

One advantage of not working in your home is that it’s easy to signal to your body and brain whether they should be in work mode or chill mode. If you’ve always worked from an office it can be less than easy to quickly adopt a mindset within your own four walls that’s conducive to being productive in a way you would be while sitting at your usual desk in a familiar  professional setting. You might associate the sight, and perhaps even the smell and sound, of your home with downtime. Consciously trying to drown that out and focus on being your work-self - perhaps while clad in pajama bottoms with your cat resting at your feet - is something you’re probably not used to doing. It’s an example of cognitive dissonance and it will take energy to navigate. It’s also harder for us to switch off if we can’t physically leave our place of work. Getting on the tube or bus might in past days have told us that the working day is done but parameters and triggers like this don’t exist for now. 

3. The Human Factor 

Finally, never underestimate the power of community to provide energy and inspiration - even in a workplace environment. It might sound a little strange, but it’s not inconceivable that, to an extent, we’re mourning the loss of those personal relationships. Video and phone calls just can’t always fill that gap. Missing a loved one or even a good friend, can be extremely energy consuming and the vacuum that their absence leaves in our lives can sap us of energy.  Many people will learn that there’s no easy way of quickly and painlessly adjusting to an unfamiliar working environment - and particularly one we didn’t choose, but we shouldn’t waste energy trying to fight our frustrations and emotions. Resilience will be built over time. Routine and predictability will return. Personal connections and relationships will endure. We will be exhausted and frustrated and demotivated - perhaps for some time to come. But this too will pass. Accepting the current reality and knowing that it’s not forever might just be the best coping strategy. 

Josie Cox For Workculturati

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