UACES #MidweekMeetup – How to look after your mental health while working from home

The UACES Network |

To respond to the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak, we at UACES wanted to bring our community together. And we went the same way everyone is going right now: online.

The second virtual coffee meeting encouraged our community to talk about their mental health and how to look after it while working from home. Different perspectives were shared but we could also observe, a few struggles are the same for everyone.

Photo: ©Jakob Lawitzki – Balance, via Flickr

What has changed

Academics are often well equipped to work from home and student life often means to study either in the library or at home, writing on an essay or paper. Now, everyone is forced to work from home and that is a different context. Finding a good balance is not that easy as possibilities as well as equipment might suddenly be limited.

The pandemic demands a constant adjustment and no one has certainty on how long the pandemic will last. What has been decided yesterday might not count next week anymore. Deadlines for a paper or an essay is in constant change; and universities, students and professors are caught in between. You might end up spending a lot of time working on something for a deadline, a class or and event and all you do is preparing for something that might get cancelled or postponed. Keeping the motivation high is hard. The pandemic demands a lot of flexibility from everyone.

Many started to bake and cook loads, but even there is a real struggle: finding basic ingredients, like flour or eggs. This makes everyone a little nervous. It probably doesn’t mean that everyone bakes every day, but flour is that thing, that everyone usually has in their shelves. This phenomenon probably embodies security and signals, I could make something if I had to…
Others became motivated runners or endless dog-walkers. A restriction can also motivate in a different way. We often want, what we can’t have and we are observing this around us now.

Fear became more present and simple life administrations harder. People with a second house are facing difficulties in taking care of the other place where they not currently at. Letter correspondence is limited. How can I even send a letter to authorities? What if you are waiting for an important document but it’s being addressed to the other place? Journeys to the hair dresser, the garden centre or even the dentist might seem unimportant at first, until you feel a bit of pain in your teeth.

Whilst it all concerns this one topic: COVID-19. How can we escape all the questions that we have about this virus and its impact? It occupies our minds and affects our work, our everyday life so drastically that it is really hard to switch off. Depending on the individual situation everyone is in, the effect might be distinct in different ways. But we also observe that many do experience the same changes even if we are separated and in different countries or continents.


At least we can all stay connected. Or can we?

This might be more of an effort than you would believe. Just think about: How often do you interact with others throughout a normal day? It probably comes down to less than half of that number now. It is more of an effort to stay in touch. Simple interactions in between, like a coffee break and a 10-minute chat, are rare or non-existing.
Additionally, in an international environment, people travelled home to be with their families and might be in a different time zone now. Some haven’t spoken to colleagues in a little while.

Others checked on their colleagues and friends to make sure they are ok, because this gives oneself a good feeling and maybe even the certainty that everything will be ok, too. It might also be the need to exchange experience and hear what stage another country is in. Then, again, COVID dominates the conversation and our minds and our thoughts are lost in that one topic. We end up talking about worries and fears and it might feel that everything else to talk about has just disappeared.

In a family environment, how can we keep, date nights alive? This might not be so easy, but with a little imagination we might find ways. Like a dad experienced who pretended to serve dinner to his children. He and his wife planned a Saturday date night but the kids wanted to take part in this spectacular. Instead of letting his children serve them (which might have resulted in a kitchen disaster), he served his kids in a little role play for the evening.


There is also this thing about ‘time’…

Most people do not feel they have the time to start a new hobby, learn a new skill or do more reading, as so many suggest. Use the time to slow down, some say. If you work full-time from home you might find yourself continuing to work longer hours or even on the weekend. Many have experienced this already. A reason this happens is because work gives your day structure and avoids that we are losing the sense of time.
However, it could also mean, we haven’t finished our workload for the day. Many feel unfocused, are checking the media more often, and are caught up in calls with family and friends. And then, as mentioned, conversations are mostly about the COVID-19 pandemic. How can we avoid this?

Many suggest setting goals during self-isolation helps with your mental health. And if time is an issue, building up little challenges could make a little goal, like, how many steps am I doing a day at home? Can I walk 24 miles in my garden? Or like the artist Max Siedentopf suggests: get creative. ‘There are so many opportunities to create new and exciting work and turn this into something positive’. Every day, he challenges people via social media to do little tasks and to photograph and share their results. So, maybe trying to do small little things is a better idea than starting a new hobby to distract us from the realities that the pandemic confronts us with every day.


So, how can we look after ourselves?

Keeping a routine and structure is important for most people. It helps with motivation and productivity. Have you tried to break down your day? Something like the following might help to tick the tasks you set for your own day and which might make you feel better (because these are the things you can accomplish):

Breakfast – long walk – lunch – baby naps – 4 pm video chat with family – dinner


Spend the morning working on research – afternoon set aside for reading or lighter admin jobs – go for a run and/or do some kind of craft activity – Listen to podcasts (ideally not news-related)

Walks are helpful for almost everyone. Fresh air, the change of space, clearing the mind… The lucky ones are those who live in the countryside or close to the sea. In the city, a walk might still be a bit stressful. More people are around you and you are constantly trying to get around them while keeping 2 metres distance. But maybe, it is just based on finding the perfect time, the perfect walkway, the quiet part of the park.


And on maternity leave?

For colleagues on maternity leave (or about to embark upon it) one piece of advice is not to check your emails. There is an inordinate amount of emails being sent by university departments at the moment and they can be very stress-inducing; and even not relevant anymore once you return to work. However, if you think that you will be away from the university for a significant amount of time it may be better not to look at them or worry unduly about them since they will very likely not apply to you once you return.


And have you tried:

  • to read the News only once a day?
  • getting back into your research topic by talking about it to others? Maybe there are virtual meet-ups that can offer that? If not, why not start one in your network?
  • relax with the tools you relax best. Don’t pressure yourself that you have to do a certain thing that all the others on social media are doing. Just because you see all your friends baking doesn’t mean you have to bake if it doesn’t give you joy.
  • avoid social media for a bit. Plan calls to stay up to date with friends and family. Maybe start with deleting notifications or even apps from your phone.
  • make a ‘Coronafree’-zone. Set a time or a location in your house which is exclusively for non-Corona topics. Involve your household in this, too and talk about books, movies or your current research instead. There are more things to talk about than the pandemic.
  • to re-read a book? If you find it hard to concentrate, maybe try your favourite book that you have read before. It doesn’t need your full attention but might help to distract you or calm you by remembering the full story of the book.
  • cooking shows? Get inspired about what you can cook in the evenings. There are plenty of shows on Netflix.
  • puzzles, sudoku, crosswords?
  • using the current situation for your research? Select those bits that are interesting for your professional career, maybe collect articles that you find interesting and can maybe use later for a research topic, a class or a debate.


The next #MidweekMeetup will address the work-life balance more deeply.
Register here to join the conversation – as usual at 11 am or 2 pm (BST).