Few people on the planet have been able to avoid the tsunami of change driven by the pandemic and its side effects – be they physical, emotional, social, or economic. We mental health professionals had to adapt quickly, and we did. Virtual treatment may have been a slowly rising trend before COVID, but it has become a nearly universal reality in a few short months. As virtual becomes one of the safest options for any type of treatment, mental health professionals are utilizing telehealth more than ever before.
There are numerous professional and personal benefits to providing telehealth. Geography and distance does not limit us in the same way it used to; and we can easily connect with clients no matter their location – growing our referrals and clientele beyond driving distance. For many of us, this can even have the effect o reducing our overhead costs as we are no longer bound to an office. An added plus, is less time spent commuting to our office or workplace means more time at home to get things done or more time with people we love.
However, as we settle into this “new normal,” I am hearing many of my colleagues ask this nagging question: “How do I emotionally leave work when everything is happening within my home?” Not taking home our clients’ pain, stories, and individual burdens is an ongoing challenge even the most seasoned professionals grapple with. This is now being exacerbated by the lack of physical boundaries and cues that occur when our personal and professional settings become one and the same. Here is a compilation of ways to increase psychological boundaries when working from home.
Schedules May Change, Routine Should Not
It is hard not to be dazzled by the amount of time we now have due to changes and restrictions on social activities. Without commutes and empty slots in the office where we have little to do, it is easy to feel flush with time at home. This can give us the illusion that routines are not as important now that we’re not mapping out every moment of the day or balancing expectations of a physical workplace. That being said, we all know deep down routines are indeed important. How often have you advised a client to adhere to a routine to improve their emotional wellbeing? As counselors, we should consider taking some of our own advice on this matter.
The need for an airtight schedule may be diminished now, but keeping a routine is as important as ever. Routine is particularly effective as a way to start and finish the day. Routines can help us create shortcuts for our minds to know when the workday has begun and when it has ended. The more we practice sticking to these routines, the better these mental “shortcuts” will work for us. For example, I start everyday by drinking coffee in my work chair and listening to a podcast. As soon as that first sip of coffee hits my tastebuds, I know the day has started. I end my workdays by cleaning up my makeshift at-home office space, then going for a brief walk around my block. By the time I get home from my quick jaunt, I feel a sense of distance from the workday.
Create a Curated and Specific Space
Back in the pre-COVID era, I invested considerable time, energy, and money into creating a comfortable atmosphere for myself and my clients in the office space where we would meet. When I walked into that room, it was easy for me to look around and know “I am at work”. Now my office is the only HIPAA compliant room in my house: My bedroom. Obviously radical changes had to be made.
As mental health professionals, we know that the mind makes strong associations based on cues from our surroundings. It is difficult to flip the switch from work to rest or visa-versa when you’re perpetually in the same place.
One of the things that has assisted me in creating some semblance of normalcy was to carve out a corner of my bedroom, and decorate it in a similar style to my previous office. A few simple fixtures and ambiance-enhancing lighting and colors can make a huge difference. Not only do my clients have an aesthetically pleasing background to look at during our calls, but I have a genuine and dedicated “work” space. When I am not “at work,” I do not utilize this corner for anything else. This distinction, however small, has assisted me in preserving the rest of my house as a place separate from my work. When I enter that corner in the morning, my mind is more able to switch into work mode in a seamless fashion.
You Still Deserve a Break
When I started asking my colleagues how they were coping with the pandemic fear, changes in work, increased client load and fewer days off, I began hearing some common responses to taking time off. Frustration over limited travel, guilt over needing a vacation when working from home, and concerns about spending money during a time of economic uncertainty were commonplace.
Of course these are all perfectly legitimate concerns to very real challenges. Nonetheless, let’s not forget this basic fact: To be at your best at your job, requires you to engage in selfcare. Sure, travel is now limited, and you’ll be missing those restorative trips to exotic places, but you still need to get away in some form. The good news is, you do not have to travel great distances to truly escape your everyday surroundings and recharge your emotional batteries. A walk to the park, or day trip to a nearby town can give you the reprise you need. In any case, simply put, it’s a good investment.
While working from home has provided some benefits, and you may actually have more time for daily self-care, it’s important to keep in mind the reality that you are living through a pandemic yourself while also assisting others to navigate these difficult times. You need a break. Taking time off, particularly in private practice, usually means a financial loss of some kind. However, productivity declines if you become burnt out, so not taking time to look after yourself first can mean a bigger loss in the long run. Taking a break or vacation may look different than it has in the past, but it is still essential to your wellbeing.
Doing Our Best
Fast, simple, and dramatic improvements are nice when they happen, but most of life requires regular and systematic maintenance for optimal performance. This certainly applies to us. Healthy routines, work-dedicated space, and vacations and consistent breaks can help us be our best, so we can do our best.
One reason I love writing these blogs is I get to connect with many fellow mental health professionals. I have so much respect for my colleagues, our job has never been simple, and it has always asked us to be strong, compassionate, and flexible. Now more than ever, we are digging deep to care for ourselves, our loved ones, and our clients as challenges continue to arise.