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Don't just set boundaries. Live them: A therapist's advice for countering work-from-home fatigue

People are seen standing on balconies of their apartments in Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
People watch from an apartment building near Auditorium Shores following the U.S. Air Force’s Thunderbirds flyover salute to essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic in May 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic is about to enter its third year. For people who have been able to work from home for some or all of the pandemic, one therapist says, the novelty has definitely worn off, while fatigue — and some fear — have set in.

The world is entering year three of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has been a grueling, exhausting and risky stretch of time for frontline workers such as doctors, nurses, first responders, teachers and people who work in retail and restaurants.

Others, though, have had more flexibility and have been able to work from home for some or all of the pandemic. That arrangement brings with it a different set of challenges.

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Bella Rockman says, at first, people who pivoted to working from home at the start of the pandemic in 2020 may have felt like they got a "hall pass," getting to work at home in their pj's all day.

But Rockman says any novelty felt from that experience has worn off, and she believes, almost two years later, many people are worn out from working at home because the traditional work day has expanded. Rockman believes the pandemic has hastened the demise of the nine-to-five workday that easy access to technology had already started.

Rockman says she has heard from many people who, when they receive emails or other work messages at all hours of the day or night, feel like they need to respond immediately.

With no clear end to the COVID-19 pandemic, and thus working from home, in sight, Rockman says people can take some steps to push back against the constant flow of work-from-home expectations. Among her suggestions:

  • Live your boundaries; don't just set them. Rockman says "how we live and how we do life exemplifies much more than what we will ever say."
  • Set up an email signature line and other automatic responses to indicate "hours of operation" when a response can be expected.
  • Try to achieve schedule balance by planning regular lunch hours, breaks from technology and time outside.
  • Don't shortchange interactions with people, however brief they may be. Rockman encourages people not "to lose [their] humanity" as the pandemic keeps people apart.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below to hear more from Rockman about work-from-home fatigue, including why she thinks some people have thrived from staying out of the office.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT's Jennifer Stayton: How have things evolved for people working from home over the past almost two years?

Central Texas neuropsychotherapist Bella Rockman: It was almost like we got this hall pass, like we get to work from home in our pj's. Now, though, I think the fear is this work-from-home fatigue. We've got multiple people working remotely or from home. But the thing is, they're no longer working within that Monday to Friday nine-ish to five-ish construct. We've got people up sending emails at 3 a.m. because they're working one job or two jobs or several different contracts or several different projects. But there's still this feeling that the recipients of these emails or projects or memos or requests feel that they need to respond either immediately or within the same timeframe although they're coming at them almost on this 24-hour work cycle.

How can they communicate clearly and stand up and say, "I need to draw some boundaries here? I can't keep doing this." How can people do that?

The first thing I would say is, don't do that. Don't stand up. Don't draw boundaries. Don't say the boundaries that you're drawing. It is more effective to not so much state and clarify your boundaries with folks, because I think that can come across as defensive, especially if you've already been moving in that cadence. I think that it's more important for us to live in our boundaries. How we live and how we do life exemplifies much more than what we will ever say.

If someone pings you at 1 a.m. on Saturday asking if you can attend the Tuesday morning staff meeting, you simply pause. Self-regulate. You get out of that old mindset that, "Oh my god, as soon as I get something from work, I'm going to respond as quickly as I can," which is how most of us were trained to do. And you put it on your to do list — wherever that is or however you do that — to follow up with them during the hours that you work. So, if that means that you don't respond on Saturday night at 1 a.m., you don't respond all day Sunday and then you're back in the office at 5 a.m. on Monday morning or whatever time you start and then you give a reasonable response, then do that.

The other thing you can do is at the bottom of your signature line — and it might not just be on your email, it might be on your social media, it might be on your Slack channel, it might be on your Microsoft Teams, there are so many platforms now that we're working through — put your hours of operation. When are you there? So they can know what to expect. You don't have to announce that. You can just live in that, and that's more of a self-discipline to start to practice those boundaries for ourselves.

It seems to me some of the seeds for this were planted before the pandemic started. Technology, cell phones, laptops have made it much easier to bring work home.

I do think that we were already moving in this direction, and I think that this public health crisis has accelerated it. In some ways, it's easier to blame all the things outside of us and just to keep us in that tailspin. And I'll be honest with you, if you're listening today and you're on that page and you're like, "I'm fed up with understaffed places. I'm fed up with the schools because the teachers are out," and fed up with all these externalized factors, I want to say I validate that because it is frustrating.

If you want to stay on the problem and pointing to what's outside of us, you can do that, and I won't judge you, I promise. If you get tired of that, though, and want to get on a different page, this is why I offer to you to begin to create your own homeostasis. Because if you wait for it to happen outside of us, I'm not sure that is in the forecast for us for some time.

How can people who are in this work-from-home situation deal with the fact that we don't have a timetable for this? We don't know how long this is going to last. We didn't know at the beginning two years ago, and we still don't know.

Homeostasis. It's sort of a state of equilibrium, a state of balance. And I think that we have to at least consider framing our own world. If you're working remotely or working from home, I think that you need to schedule a lunch break for yourself at least one time every day. Inconsistency can be very dysregulating to our central nervous system. It can heighten our anxiety levels. It can heighten neurochemically the output of adrenaline and cortisol because we feel like we're always on defense. We become hypervigilant. We don't know what's next. So, you have to start to practice internal homeostasis, internal regulation.

Take a brain break where you get away from your technology for 15 minutes. I don't care if you have to schedule it on your smart device as a reminder, a few times a day: brain break. Get some fresh air and sunshine. Do not live in a box behind a screen. When you do go out and interact with people, challenge yourself to make eye contact with people to say hello. You don't want to lose your humanity.

I'm wondering if there's anything positive, at least for some folks who have been working from home for the better part of two years. Is this good for anybody?

I think that there have absolutely been some positives that have come out of it. I know some people have identified that they were perfectionists before all of this and things had to go a certain way. They had to look a certain way. They had to dress a certain way. They had to respond and get things done in a certain timeframe. And a lot of people have learned to relax those perfectionism standards which is good because perfectionism is not an attainable goal, really.

Some people have cited that they've started to spend more time with their families or that they've gotten to know their neighbors better because there's not much else to do. So, they walk outside and they kind of look around and then they notice, "Oh, this person lives next door to me.” There are also some folks that have done little sort of city gardens in their area. They're not out maybe shopping as much, so they're trying to take their sense of community back.

And then there are a lot of people who are just not extroverted people or not even ambiverts and they would rather not do as many social functions or staff meetings. So, there is still a good group of people who feel that this has served them well despite some of the grief and the losses that have come with this.

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