The Bad Work-From-Home Habits That Have Wrecked My Mental Health
Everyone has varying opinions about working from home. Some love the arrangement. Some find it incredibly suitable for their lifestyle (especially parents, caretakers, and people with disabilities that make it more difficult to commute to a specific location every day). Regardless of how we feel, the pandemic crisis has forced a lot of folks to accept WFH as their new way of life — and that’s if they’re lucky. Many essential workers have to be on location in order to do their jobs and keep getting paid. Many, many people have had their hours or salaries slashed, or were laid off or furloughed.
My situation hasn’t changed, exactly — I’ve been working from home for close to a year. However, in the last two months, I went from being full-time at a remote start-up to becoming full-time freelance due to COVID-19-related layoffs. After I was let go and started exploring my work options, I took a couple of days to kind of recalibrate and assess my headspace. While I felt dejected about my job, I also accepted the fact that I was emotionally exhausted — for reasons honestly within my control and nobody else’s.
It became too easy to develop bad habits that allowed me to prioritize getting shit done over my well being.
There are so many perks to WFH, including avoiding a long commute, wearing whatever you want, and being able to lead a more flexible life. But. As many people have learned by this point, it has its drawbacks too. Although I initially tried to set myself up for success in the beginning (I bought myself a cute desk, set reminders to take breaks and make plans with friends, etc.), I eventually broke almost all of my WFH vows.
It became too easy to develop bad habits that allowed me to prioritize getting shit done over my well being. These bad habits led to even more bad habits, and by March, I literally could not recognize myself in the mirror. I looked unhappy. My relationship with my friends and spouse were strained. I felt totally disconnected from my body. And I also just felt remarkably small and invisible.
Although I’m still working from home now, I’ve been trying to make changes to my WFH layout, schedule, and mindset — as best I can, given the circumstances, anyway. If I’m lucky enough to have the privilege to safely work at home, be able to earn income at all (!!!), I can put more effort into my mental health.
These are some of the habits that I’ve been working on breaking these past two months. It’s been a journey — but I’m trying.
1. Not eating a real lunch.
Even though I would specifically buy food for a lunch break, I would, more often than not, resort to eating Flaming Hot Cheetos or something equally nutritiously evil from a bag so I could just continue working without the “hassle” of preparing something. Dinner was different because my husband would come home from work and we’d usually make something together, like a roast chicken or some kind of Instant Pot meal. Since I was eating with someone, I felt more justified in making food that didn’t come out of a crinkly package. Alone, I felt like I just needed to consume something easy (and preferably salty, if we’re being honest here) until I wasn’t hungry anymore. After months of this, I became moody and more irritable. I felt tired all the time, even though I was sleeping the same hours. I also began to sense, in my bones, that I just wasn’t healthy. It wasn’t the weight gain (although, yeah, there was that) that was the problem per se, it was more about the fact that I wasn’t utilizing food as a way to take care of myself.
2. Skipping lunch or breaks, entirely.
Some days, I’d be so engrossed in whatever I was working on, I would just forget to eat (and then heat up a cup of Instant Ramen and inhale half a carton of cookie dough ice cream at like, 4 p.m.). Or I would just stay in one place from morning to night, eating snacks and feeling my muscles atrophy but not care.
3. Not wanting to leave the house to socialize.
I thought working from home would make it so that I would want to get out of the house more, but it weirdly made me more reclusive. I would legitimately have to force myself to make and keep plans, and it wasn’t because I didn’t like my friends. I love my friends. It just felt physically difficult to leave the house, as though the walls were trying to permanently encase me inside them. Partly, I think it was the idea of getting ready after a day of hanging around in sweats and unwashed hair. But a lot of it was just psychological.
My brain would just delete all that joy it had just downloaded, and I would go back to dreading venturing into the outside world again.
The thing is, though, after going out to dinner or drinks, I would come home — and without fail — wonder why I didn’t go out more often. It was so fun! I got to laugh with other humans who weren’t my spouse! We discussed topics that weren’t related to work! What was I so afraid of?
And then my brain would just delete all that joy it had just downloaded, and I would go back to dreading venturing into the outside world again.
4. Not making time to exercise enough.
The only thing that made it so that I got any movement in at all is my puppy. We got her a few weeks after I started my remote job, and since she’s a super active breed, she needs at least two long walks a day, or else she goes completely berserk and starts eating the walls, literally. And I am so lucky to have her because I know that if I didn’t feel responsible for her well being, I would have never exercised for myself. But that was still a problem! Why didn’t I want to work out for myself? As someone who used to regularly go to the gym, I knew that it made me feel less stressed and that I generally liked moving around and listening to my workout playlist and reading a magazine on the elliptical.
5. Not having a definitive “cut-off” for work time.
Although I had regular Zoom meetings throughout the week, I didn’t exactly have a set schedule. I had a list of tasks I needed to accomplish, but it didn’t really matter when, as long as stories were assigned during the day, articles and newsletters were scheduled for appropriate times, and I was able to sync with my team. This sometimes meant that I’d be working well into the night if I didn’t give myself boundaries that day. For many of us, our jobs are never-ending. There’s always a story to assign or edit. There’s always a new email to respond to. There’s always some kind of deck to be working on. It’s up to a clock to tell us that it’s time to walk away, and I just implement that for myself.
6. Staying in the same pajamas for days on end.
While being able to wear the same ratty sweatpants for three days straight seemed like a blessing at first (so much less laundry to do, let alone shedding away the pressure to look “put together” every single day), it slowly became a habit I couldn’t break. It wasn’t the sweatpants that were the problem, exactly. It’s that I just wasn’t putting any effort into how I looked, ever. And that, I learned, was antithetical to who I was. I actually like getting dressed up. I enjoy doing my hair and putting on some blush and mascara. I love pairing articles of clothing I already own in ways that feel fresh and new and fun. I just don’t like doing it every day.
7. Almost always working in bed.
People have done countless studies that prove if you work in bed, then your brain won’t see it as a place where you can eventually relax and sleep. And while I tried working in different spots, my bed was always my go-to (although, I’m happy to report that I’m writing this from my couch in the living room — progress!).
8. Feeling guilty if I did something that wasn’t work for even 10 minutes.
Any minute spent away from my laptop made me feel like a “bad” employee when I wasn’t.
As a remote employee, being able to work from home means your employer trusts you. I’ve worked for a company that forbid WFH because the managers felt like they couldn’t trust their employees, which definitely didn’t feel good. Since my most recent job was a remote company, my boss had to trust me, and I think she truly did. But that didn’t mean I wouldn’t put needless pressure on myself to always be “on” in order to prove I was valuable. If I felt like the CEO wasn’t physically seeing results (aka, numbers) because they either weren’t there yet, or maybe they grew stagnant, I felt like I couldn’t do things like go to the grocery store, or deal with a load of laundry. Any minute spent away from my laptop made me feel like a “bad” employee when I wasn’t.
9. Feeling ugly on Zoom if I didn’t get dressed up.
My feelings about video calls are complicated. I get the need for them, and I understand why employers would want their team to have their cameras on. Facial expressions are an integral part of human connection and communication — especially if you already work with a remote team and this is your only way of collaborating. At the same time, I would dread having to turn my camera on for meetings, because I more likely than not hadn’t showered that day, definitely had not done my makeup, and was most certainly not wearing a bra (in LA, up until mid-November, it’s hard to hide that unless you’re okay with blowing hundreds of dollars on A/C every month).
I was lucky that my manager and coworkers were understanding, but on days when we were specifically asked to leave our cameras on, I’d either give myself an extra 30 minutes that morning to get ready (and feel angry about it), or I’d just say, screw it, and log on, completely unfiltered. After the call though, I immediately felt grossed out with myself. I worried that I didn’t look professional enough and that my lack of togetherness would make my team feel like I didn’t take things seriously enough.
10. Getting into fights with my husband because I assumed he resented me for working from home.
My husband doesn’t have the option of WFH since he’s a chef. His current job is at a hospital and he has an hour-long commute each way. And up until he had to go on a medical LOA (he broke his band), he had no choice but to go to the hospital every single day (sometimes even on weekends) even though he knew there were confirmed COVID-19 cases in the same building. He would come home extremely stressed and paranoid, and I would then feel bad and make myself believe that this was because he resented me for staying at home while he couldn’t. We’d then get into it and argue, with him trying to convince me he didn’t feel that way at all and me being like, “Just admit it! You think I don’t have as real of a job as you because I work at home!” Which was obviously unfair of me, and obviously not everything is about me. Even before the pandemic, there would be days I would feel extremely guilty I got to stay at home and work in yoga pants with the dog sleeping by my feet while he had to drive an hour to work in a hot kitchen.
Since we’re now home together all the time, we’ve worked those things out and he even gets to see exactly what I do all day long, so we definitely understand each other better.
11. Relying on my phone to know what the weather is like outside.
The only time I would go outside was early in the morning to walk my dog. I’d get back from our stroll by 8 or 9 AM and I would just not breathe in fresh air until most likely the next day. (Usually, my S.O. would take her on her evening walk while I finished up work or made dinner.)
12. Having the idea that my work didn’t have as much meaning since I didn’t work in an office.
Before the pandemic, there was a lot of heavy stock in office culture and structure. If you’re not in back-to-back meetings in a large conference room or drinking coffee at your desk while furiously typing away at your laptop that’s hooked into a separate monitor so you can multitask and go from screen to screen while also chatting with your employees about their weekend plans, then who are you, really? Are you really that hard-working? Are you truly that important? The correct answer is of course you are hard-working and of course you are important.
But after months spent working in leggings, in bed, and not physically being around other team members made me feel like I was working a made-up job. When of course, that wasn’t the case.
In the last two months, I’ve made more steps to avoid burnout. I take a real lunch break and I try my best to make real food by preparing extra portions of dinner so that I can easily reheat the next day. While I can’t physically see my friends, I text at least one friend every day to see how they’re doing and what’s new in their lives. I take longer walks with my dog in the morning and sometimes at night if I can. If I’m going to the grocery store or farmer’s market, I’ll put together a super cute outfit and straighten my bangs even though I know I’ll only be out for like twenty minutes and half my face will be covered by a mask anyway. I don’t feel bad if I decide to do the dishes and then get to a non-timely assignment, because I feel more in control of my day, and I certainly feel like my work is just as valuable even though most days I don’t wear a bra. I’m also working on getting in touch with a virtual therapist (my friend told me about BetterHelp, which is apparently offering discounted therapy sessions if you’ve been financially hit by COVID-19) so that I have the tools I need to help manage my mental health.
But not all days are perfect, and I’ll still find myself reaching for a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos for breakfast from time to time. I’m also working on being kinder to myself, because sometimes you just need Cool Ranch Doritos for breakfast, and that’s okay.
Gina Vaynshteyn is an editor and writer who lives in LA. You can find more of her words on Refinery29, Apartment Therapy, HelloGiggles, Distractify, and others. If you wanna, you can follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
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