We’re not just #WFH, we’re dealing with an unprecedented global crisis. Louise Rodgers provides guidance on dealing with difficult emotions while staying productive

Louise Rodgers crop 2

You are probably already finding that some days are better than others. You get into a groove and work through a to-do list and perhaps even manage to fit in some exercise or home-schooling.

Experienced work-from-homers will know not to beat themselves up about it if this doesn’t happen. If there has been a lot of faffing with not enough to show for it, there is always tomorrow.

Now, with quite a lot of tomorrows ahead of us, we are all having to adjust to a much longer period of remote working than we had anticipated.

The first thing to say about this is that it is most definitely not the “new normal”. To call it that trivialises the tremendous mind-shift we are all having to make. We are not just remote working, we are finding ways to cope during an unprecedented global emergency.

How we cope will be particular to each one of us. But what we do share is the human brain.

The period when we were preparing to work from home was, for all of us, a time of uncertainty, anxiety and fear – all of which will have played havoc with our limbic system, the set of structures in the brain that helps us to process emotions.

It’s likely that adrenalin got many of us through the first couple of weeks, particularly if we lead a team or run a business. Adrenalin is part of our emotional response mechanism. It is a very useful brain chemical in times of crisis. It acts on nearly every tissue in the body, priming us for action; such as running away from an angry bear.

Adrenalin’s sister chemical, cortisol, is another stress hormone. When it is present in healthy quantities it can help us to feel challenged, productive and motivated. But, like adrenaline, if our body produces too much of it, cortisol can affect our quality of life and even damage our immune system.

That’s the science bit over. The good news is that we can learn how to manage the production of these stress chemicals and calm the brain, and ourselves, down.

The brain likes routine, and for most of us the old one has gone out of the window. Trying to replicate this at home may have been our immediate response. But trying to negotiate around fellow inmates and meet our own and our loved ones’ emotional and physical needs, is unlikely to work – and failure to do so may cause stress.

Getting out of your bed and moving more-or-less straight to your desk will not serve you well

Even if we live alone and can decide our own working hours, spare a thought for the people in your team who may be struggling to do the same.

There are many reasons why we may find the nine-to-five habit difficult to maintain. It’s not just that our physical routine has been interrupted. Our circadian rhythm, or sleep pattern, may also be in disarray. Sleep deprivation (as any parent will tell you) can result in impaired decision-making. And sleep and rest are also important to our immune systems. Right now I think a healthy immune system should take priority over presenteeism. If we need to boost ours with a lunchtime nap, then that’s what we should be doing.

Most of us will also have concerns for relatives and friends. My working day now involves almost daily calls to both of my elderly parents (who live separately) and regular contact with two grown-up children, each managing this crisis as best they can, remotely from me. Time out to make these calls is important.

For many of us, clients’ needs always come first. But try experimenting with alternatives to responding to a client’s emails as soon as your phone pings. Could you have a conversation with your most important clients, key collaborators or team members? Find out what works for them, in terms of contact and availability. This will have the additional benefit of giving your brain, and theirs, the reassurance it needs to settle down.

Getting out of your bed and moving more-or-less straight to your desk will not serve you well. And yet this is what I heard some people say they have been doing. If you or a member of your team suddenly seems super-productive in lockdown, this is something to be concerned about rather than encouraged.

Just about everyone I have spoken to over the last few weeks has talked about the “waves” of emotion they have experienced; from excitement and fear, to depression and even grief. Not (we hope) the terrible grief that comes with bereavement, but the smaller and no less important grief for the way things were before lockdown.

Our new routines need to allow us the space to respond to these waves, rather than just batting them away. Distracting ourselves with work may seem effective in the short-term, but the darker thoughts are likely to come back and haunt us in the early hours.

It may sound counter-intuitive but learning how to get the better of negative emotions is a life-skill we should all master. It begins with accepting that it is fine to feel weak and a bit scared sometimes. You know you won’t always feel like this and in the meantime dance, exercise, meditate or talk to a loved one until it passes.