I Live At Work

I live at work. A year ago we had a company day at Old Trafford and I remember talking about the exciting year ahead. At the time I believe there were single figures of COVID cases in the UK. The virus was almost an abstract concept. A month later we sent all our office-based staff to work from home. At the time it was an inconvenience. Now lockdown and mental health have become prominent issues for many of us.

A few weeks later it was apparent some colleagues were struggling with working from home. Huge uncertainty emanating from governments and health leaders as the pandemic spread globally. Widespread economic damage, affecting jobs and pay. The education of children disrupted. It was also quickly apparent working from home was also a source of stress for many.

We are 11 months into the pandemic in the UK and working from home as a concept is a long way in the rearview mirror. I live at my workplace. Zoom calls and email dominate my day. My record for Zoom meetings in one day is 16. I’m neither complaining nor holding that up as a badge of honour. I think it’s a signal of where we have arrived in the ‘living at work’ environment. At a conscious level, we want to do our best, we want to be effective, we want to belong to the community of people we work with. At an unconscious level, we are feeling isolated, anxious about our futures, we miss the daily contact. We probably even miss office politics.

The effect on mental health is a huge societal issue. In my pandemic norm well before dawn start of the day, I’m watching Sky News and they are reporting on mental health casework being up 280% in areas of London and the South East. Very worryingly, a surge in new cases of mental health problems in young people below the age of 18. There’s a mental health pandemic as well as a COVID pandemic. While the death rate is falling again, a grim mental health toll still mounts.

YouGov recently released an international survey “how has coronavirus affected people’s personal lives?”. 65% of British people surveyed say the pandemic has affected their mental health. Only Germans fall below the 50% mark, with 44% saying their mental health has taken a hit. The link between lockdown and mental health is real and it’s a substantial problem.

There’s a lot of advice on what to do. As with any major event in the world, or the emergence of any trend, the experts appear quickly with the advice. And that’s not including all the instant experts on Twitter. I’m as rational or irrational as the next human. But I allow myself to schedule 16 Zoom meetings. I realise some weeks that I haven’t left the house for three or four days. Sometimes I close down the desktop computer and walk into my living room with my iPad in hand, still connected and looking at email.

I do understand I should take a break. Have some periods when I can think. Get light and fresh air. All that good stuff. But we have colluded globally in a technologically connected workplace and in lockdown, it becomes even more overwhelming. I cancelled my audiobook subscription yesterday because I don’t listen to books anymore; because I don’t have a commute. I never thought I would find myself wistful about my reflective time listening to an audiobook on the packed train to Farringdon.

I sound like I’m complaining here, but I’m not. I’m grappling with this being the way things are at the moment and possibly will be for the next couple of years. We have a new work environment that is keeping the wheels turning, and for the fortunate ones like us, giving us a living. But the price is social isolation, communicating with two-dimensional digital faces, and the boundary between work and home breaking down completely. You could choose to have or not have a good home/work balance previously, but now there’s less choice. The lockdown bill gets presented to you in the form of a tax on your mental health

You know from my semi-regular blogging that I value physical wellness and understand intuitively its link to mental health. While I haven’t been in control of some of my work habits, I have been in control of my exercise habits. I’m measurably fitter than I was one year ago, and I weigh four kilograms less. The weight loss is great, as it makes my jogger bottoms even more comfortable. In the Zoom age, it’s smart shirt on-screen, comfort-first below camera level.

I have to exercise for my mood and mental health too, if I miss a couple of workouts I feel less sharp. The release of endorphins after smashing an interval session out on the indoor bike is essential for me. The link between exercise and its positive effect on mental health is beyond doubt. It helps alleviate depression and anxiety. It promotes better sleep. The list goes on. Exercise is essential and I’m fortunate I can squeeze a bike and a set of kettlebells into our apartment. I have done bodyweight and mobility exercises some days, you don’t have to have expensive equipment. You have to have the discipline to do something. A key strategy in dealing with lockdown and mental health is to try and exercise consistently.

Staleness and routine is another enemy. Daytime blurs into the evening. Weekdays into weekends. Sometimes I have to check what day it is. Without care, we become untethered. Work and leisure have no clear divide, and month after month of routine become just that. Dull, unstimulating routine.

I challenged myself to do something new, after all, there’s only so many Zoom calls and so much Netflix I can watch. I have played chess against the computer on and off for a handful of years. Very badly, I should say. At the start of the pandemic, I decided to learn chess properly and did it through online lessons, and latterly with a coach. I’m average, but it’s something to learn, to awaken new ways of thinking. It brings much needed new habits to the lockdown grind.

I learned to play and then found The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix a few months into lockdown. I may not have learned to play had I watched the series first. A first-rate drama series, but it makes the game as intimidating as it really is. If you want to be humbled regularly, play chess. If you want to give your mind a good workout, play chess.

In a similar vein, I enjoy coffee and thought as I was now downing five strong cups a day, maybe there was more to learn. So I listened and read and watched. Then bought a good coffee machine and grinder and got to it. I don’t cook, and I don’t collect and drink wine. But I’ve found something that does encourage learning and experimentation and enjoyment of the end product.

Man plays chess and drinks coffee. So what? It’s an important ‘so what’, as it’s opening the mind to new perspectives and thinking. In the same way one can physically decline very quickly, lockdown can lead you to mental decline. It’s important to exercise the mind as much as the body. Lockdown and mental health need to be on your agenda.

Maybe, just maybe the end of the beginning is in sight. I got my vaccine this week. For all the hammer the Government has taken for their handling of the pandemic, they have got the vaccination rollout right. With some good fortune, we can perhaps look at a summer of relatively normal living.

I say the end of the beginning because there’s a huge backlog of associated economic, health and societal issues to deal with over coming years. The wave of mental health issues that have swamped us. Getting back up to speed with serious non-COVID health procedures and surgeries. Finding our way out of a 9.9% GDP drop in 2020, the result of closing the economy down with the lockdowns.

As for living at work. It’s not going away as a way of life. It’s hard to say when or if normal office life will resume. We need to plan for an extended period of home-based work and communications. My strong message is to be aware and mindful and develop a strategy to cope with it. I’m interested I used ‘cope’. It’s hard, after a year, to imagine thriving in the long term in a work from home scenario. Lockdown and mental health are a grim tandem.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel. All the same, develop your plan. Lean into home working proactively. There’s a personal price to pay if you don’t, I can imagine. Not to say a potential reduction in business effectiveness. Humans are resourceful animals, but we need conscious strategies to protect our mental wellness.

Originally published at stephenmoon.com.



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