How to stay mentally healthy while working from home

Dr Scarlett Mattoli

Dr Scarlett Mattoli, Clinical Psychologist at Psynamo Group, a Hong Kong-based professional mental health practice, on ways to stave off the possible pitfalls of working from home

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Dr Scarlett Mattoli


The world has been forced to stay home for the greater good of humanity. These social distancing measures, including enforced home quarantine, have meant that many have had to adapt existing commitments drastically and rapidly. 

This combination of possible interruptions to our normal daily lives can have a great impact on our physical and mental health, and overall well-being. Public health research and anecdotal evidence indicate an increase in reported mood disorders, such as anxiety, stress, and depression, as well as a rise in cases of domestic violence, drug or alcohol abuse, and unhealthy online activities. It has become more important than ever to take mental health more seriously so we are better prepared for whatever the future holds, whether it be a slow return to a modified “normal” or a continued adapted online life.

What is mental health? 

There are a range of emotions, feelings, moods that we may feel from one time to another, ranging from sadness after grief and loss, to anxiety and stress for performance and work issues. Accepting and managing this variation is particularly important in these times where we are likely to have far more stressors than usual, and fewer that we can control.

What are the pitfalls of working at home? 

While the human brain is designed to shift quickly to accommodate for survival, it does not adapt so well to suddenly shifting to a new “normal” that is not our preference. Companies have had varying levels of readiness for remote working and numerous difficulties with ensuring full capabilities are in place. On top of this, slow Wi-Fi, children attempting to do homeschooling, no privacy, no workspace, and lack of usual cues for switching to our “work self” can all impede motivation, productivity, and performance.

What are the benefits of working from home? 

Even though all of the foregoing can get in the way, there are some benefits. For example, with regained time and less stress, we are able to find and enjoy more quiet time, more hours of actual sleep that often translates into deeper sleep resulting in better mental clarity when awake, wider and more creative choices in food preparation, and freedom in the timing of meals, as well as more time to be with family, communicate with peers just for enjoyment, manage exercise and free-time schedules and learn new things. However, does everyone see it this way? Some may live alone and, as such, will need to make more of an effort to reach out to others. But on the whole, maintaining balance in life as much as possible is a positive way to emerge with improved mental health habits in the long-run.

Self-care is an integral part of a mental health regime. The following are some of the top suggestions for anyone of any age.

  1. Set a routine and stick to it. Whether you put it up on a poster or in a virtual log, get yourself and your family up, get prepared for the day, and proceed like you mean business. Losing sight of goals is a slippery slope into feeling unmotivated, and without our usual transport, peer, and community cues, we are at risk of losing sight of what we will regain when we can begin to get back into the full swing of life again.
  2. Live day-by-day, but also keep an eye on the future. This means making a reasonable plan B, even plan C, depending on the needs of you and your family. For example, individuals who have been unable to continue working at all will need to be focusing on managing any savings and future employment opportunities, especially where it may necessitate a move to a new industry. Families who have youth preparing for exams or starting university studies may now need to update a timeline to include when institutions will be opened again and what the upcoming year will look like in terms of study possibilities. Having a few different plans can help mitigate fears and make responding instead of just reacting more possible.
  3. Be a good researcher and inform yourself with reputable sources. Look at the World Health Organization, the Hong Kong government’s Centre for Health Protection, and other reputable websites for accurate health information. Third-party sources may misinterpret or misrepresent information, making it more exciting or unsettling.
  4. Stay connected. We are likely spending more time than ever online but for many, it is all they can get. Be sure to keep reaching out to people, checking in on family and friends, connecting with colleagues virtually, and when at home with family, spend time together with no electronics involved. Real connection with other humans is one of our basic drives. Without it, our neurons fire a little differently. This means that we have less of some of the neurochemicals in our brain that help us to feel pleasure (e.g. serotonin and oxytocin) and feel motivated (dopamine) to carry on with our daily lives, interrupted or not. Keeping our brains active in this way helps to keep our neuronal connections firing away, maintain a healthy outlook and avoid a serious downturn in mood.
  5. Keep a reasonable diet. Get some exercise, stay hydrated, manage sleep schedules, and keep up with medications and/or supplements as directed by medical professionals.
  6. Have some fun and some green in your life! Getting a moment of alone time may be hard these days, but doing activities that can at least boost brain activity and good neurochemicals can help to stave off a low mood. This includes listening to music, walking by the water or going on a hike. Small things count too, like playing with a pet, watching comedy shows and developing a new skill (e.g. a foreign language). Aim to do something pleasurable that stretches you a little, and gives you something to look forward to everyday as a little reward.
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