Tips for managing ‘COVID brain’ and fatigue while working from home

Tips for managing ‘COVID brain’ and fatigue while working from home

If you work in an office, chances are you’ve spent some time working from home this year.

And while there are a lot of benefits, like flexibility and reduced travel times, it hasn’t been all smooth sailing.

Some people have now spent more than six months away from their workplace and colleagues, while others are exhausted from juggling work with caring and education responsibilities.

So what can we do to make the experience a bit better? And how can we bounce back when working from home has been more challenging than usual?

Fatigue and working from home

Some people call it pandemic fatigue, others call it brain fog or “COVID brain”.

But one thing’s for sure — a lot of people have been feeling awfully exhausted lately.

One of those biggest contributing factors to fatigue is poor sleep, says Jo Wintle, a psychologist who specialises in business psychology. And it’s something she’s been struggling with lately, too.

“Fatigue from lack of sleep has certainly been a really big issue for people I’ve worked with,” she says.

“Over time, the length and quality of our sleep has reduced. There are multiple reasons, including worry, anxiety and stress.”

There is no quick fix to sleep problems, but here are three tips that can help, Ms Wintle says:

Some people find tracking their sleep with apps or devices helpful. There are some good apps available for mindfulness and meditation, Ms Wintle adds.

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The importance of ‘microbreaks’

When we’re not working in the same place as our colleagues, we miss out on the water cooler conversations, coffee breaks and other little moments that break up the work day.

These “micro breaks” might seem insignificant, but they can actually play an important role in how we feel about work, says Shanta Dey, a research psychologist at the University of Sydney who focuses on work and mental health.

“That’s why a lot of organisations are pushing towards software that try to mimic those incidental office conversations,” she says.

“It is hard not having those breaks. They’re a lot easier to take when you’re working at a physical office space. And when we don’t have them, it can be depleting.”

If that rings true for you, Dr Dey has a couple of ideas that might help:

  • Make some time to call a workmate just to chat. Dr Dey suggest lunchtime, or maybe over a cup of tea. “It can be almost as good as when you have those conversations in person,” she says.
  • Try to create some new rituals at home for breaks. For example, it could be walking your dog each afternoon, or taking 10 minutes to enjoy a cup of tea and some morning sunshine.
Woman in exercise clothes stretching her arms as she faces the bush
Try to find short breaks throughout the day to step away, whether for a walk, cup of tea or exercise.(Unsplash: Jacob Postuma)

Finding control and autonomy in your day

In 2020, we’ve had even less control over what’s happening in our lives — both at home and at work.

It’s unsettling and it’s also contributed to that feeling of fatigue and exhaustion, Dr Dey says.

“Humans are not good with not having a sense of control. It contributes to stress, anxiety and can even lead to burn-out,” she says.

It’s why it’s more important than ever to try to regain some structure, routine and control around work.

“Week to week, you need to create timetables, schedule in activities, create to-do lists,” Dr Dey says.

“Having a really concrete plan of how to get through your day has been shown to be really powerful in reducing stress.”

Remember to be gentle on yourself

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s OK if you’re not achieving as much at work as you would be under normal circumstances.

“So much of how we feel about ourselves or the situation we’re in comes from the expectations we place upon ourselves,” Dr Dey says.

“If there’s ever a time to adjust expectations of yourself, it’s now. You’re not just working from home, you’re working from home during a crisis — and for lots of people it’s been while wearing multiple hats.”

Ms Wintle agrees. She suggests taking some time to reflect on all the things you have accomplished during this challenging year.

“Even just sitting down and writing a list — what are the accomplishments you’ve had over the last six months? And reflecting on that,” she says.

“That can be a really positive experience, and it can also enhance your level of resilience.”

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