The physiological repercussions of coronavirus on home workers

The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people to retreat to their homes as countrywide lockdowns were enforced overnight. But what is the impact of this adjustment? And with so many expected to work from home for the foreseeable future, how can we learn to not just cope, but thrive as we adapt to a new way of working?

2020 – the year widespread and rapid change was thrust upon us –shifting so many aspects of our lives, structures, and routines overnight. The COVID-19 pandemic forced millions of people to retreat to their homes as countrywide lockdowns were enforced, and the boundaries between work-life and home-life became instantly blurred.

But what is the impact of this hasty adjustment? And with so many expected to work from home either partially or entirely for the foreseeable future, how can we learn not just to cope, but to thrive as we adapt to a new way of working?

Home working had steadily been on the rise as a result of both digital tools and the growing desire of many to ensure a greater work/life balance. However, businesses were given very little notice to find and implement the technology and practices that would enable their entire organisations to work from home.

Beyond the technical challenges and digital up-skilling required, there are also considerable implications to our physical and emotional wellbeing. The juggling of work and family, missed human connections, the challenge of ‘switching off’, as well as an ongoing rollercoaster of concerns about health, global economy, and job security, has also brought about new sources of worry.

With so much uncertainty and disruption in our lives, our personal and professional resilience has been put to the test.

To help tackle some of these issues, Aon reached out to Kate Fismer, founder and lead consultant of Revolution Resilience Ltd. She specialises in researching human stress and physiology, and shared her advice for adapting to the new normal and building resilience in times of uncertainty.

1. Accept what you cannot control

As human beings, we like to feel that we are in control. But the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the fact that there many factors far outside our control. Kate explains why our biology plays such an important role in our ability to cope in challenging times:

‘We know that the brain isn’t very comfortable with uncertainty. Your brain tries to flick through memories to predict an outcome, something that’s been useful from an evolutionary perspective and key to life and death situations, and we aren’t wired any differently now. We are wired to perceive threats — something that increases when we experience uncertainty. As a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, many people have been through a rollercoaster of emotions.’

Take action: As well as acknowledging what we cannot control, Kate advises that it is important to look at the aspects we can control. Take the time to pause and pay attention to your core values to help you cope with the bigger picture. An individual ‘values assessment’ tool like the one offered by Aon’s Assessment Solutions can help you reflect on what is important in your life as we emerge from the crisis and focus on your values and motivators.

2. Set boundaries and embrace routine

While you might not be missing a daily commute, the times we used to spend travelling to and from work were useful bookends when it came to defining our working day. With those daily markers gone, many people could be working longer hours than ever, but Kate explains why creating structure and boundaries to our day is so important:

‘As a result of the pandemic people are at real risk of burnout from the emotional, physical and mental exhaustion from this shift in our lives. However, the brain responds well to routine, so, by making new habits we can create a sense of safety in the brain as it knows what is coming next. Schedule points in the week that help you to navigate through the stress or boredom and create a new rhythm to your working week.’

Take action: If you have not already (and can do within your home), define a practical workspace within your home and set boundaries to your working time to help develop a new routine and limit on your working hours. With flights, holidays and attractions disrupted it might be tempting to postpone your annual leave. However, these breaks provide us with a vital opportunity to recover mentally and physically, so even if you are not going anywhere, make sure you switch off your emails, notifications and alerts to give yourself a well-earned and much-needed break – even if it is only from the comfort of your sofa or garden.

3. Get better sleep

If you have been having trouble sleeping, you are not alone. Anxieties about the coronavirus appear to be playing havoc with our sleeping patterns. A recent study by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI suggests that 50% of people have struggled to sleep during the lockdown, while two in five people (38%) reported having had more vivid dreams than usual. Given we know how critical sleep is to our general wellbeing and ability to perform, getting a good night’s rest is more important than ever.

Take action: To reduce the mental load at the end of the day, Kate extols the benefits of practicing gratitude. Clear your mind of negative thoughts and try to reflect on three positive things that happened in your day. This self-reflection practice can calm the fight/flight stress response, and helps the executive-thinking part of the brain – helping you to sleep better, feel more positive, and perceive things differently.

4. Find time to recover

‘If you are upping your physical health you need to be able to recover too. You can’t change the magnitude of what we are experiencing, but you can use practices and tools to help with regulating your nervous system to give you micro-recovery moments.’

You might not realise it, but you instinctively do lots of small things that help build your resilience; micro-recovery moments that boost your wellbeing. Hitting the snooze button for another five minutes, walking the long way for an extra few minutes of fresh air, a warm cup of cocoa at the end of the day, or a reassuring chat with a friend on the phone – recovery moments do not need to involve a spa day or an exotic holiday.

Take action: Think of resilience as a practice. Build small recovery moments into each day; simple actions like ensuring you drink enough water, a five-minute breathing exercise or going for a walk/run at lunch to get a break from your screen. Nature is an incredible resource to help us with our mental wellbeing, but if you do not have access to green space, invest in some houseplants –  they have been proven to be calming and reduce anxiety.

5. Check-in

If you are a manager, it is important to check in regularly with your team. Ask your people how their mental health is and what it is that they need to help them thrive. For many, the confinement of lockdown and working from home can create a sense of isolation, as our relationships with colleagues are reduced to digital interactions.

‘As humans, we are built for connections and regulate each other’s nervous systems through that connection,’ Kate explains.

Take action: Employers should be encouraging their people to share their concerns and worries and provide a flexible and individual approach to help their people manage expectations of themselves as they adapt to a new way of working. With growing economic uncertainty and individual financial worries, employers who value the wellbeing of their people should be looking to provide guidance, and support to help manage what will be a very new and worrying situation for many.

If you have been wrestling with difficult emotions, it is important to know you are not alone in experiencing them. In 2020 the global population has been united with feelings of anxiety, fear and unease as we adapt to the challenges of COVID-19. It is also important to acknowledge that everyone has had different and individual experiences of dealing with the disruptions this year.

While there is a general hope around the future after the immediate shockwaves of COVID-19, the repercussions are going to be long-lasting, and will change the workplace indefinitely. For insight into ways to support your wellbeing during a pandemic and beyond, explore Aon’s services and solutions.

Connected health and wellbeing solutions for everyone at work.

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