Tips From a Workplace Therapist

Michael Levitt

What interesting times we find ourselves in.  This COVID-19 self-isolation/quarantine/Work From Home (WFH) time frame seems like it’s gone on for years, even though it’s only been a few weeks.

For me, it’s been over a month, and although I’ve been on this big round ball for 5 decades, it feels like it’s been going on forever.

WFH is not a new thing for me.  I’ve had the opportunity to WFH off and on for nearly 2 decades.  However this time feels different.  With so many stores and restaurants closed (among other businesses as well), the distraction of popping over to a store to buy something or window shop isn’t there.

Sports are non-existent, and for someone like me, it’s been a tough adjustment to not be able to watch live sports.

If you’re new to WFH, you’re likely struggling with boundaries around your work.  Instead of you having your “home office” to yourself, you might have several other people, pets, etc. at home at the same time.  Maybe you’re the parent, cook, teacher, and employee all in the same place.

It won’t work that way.

You’re stressing yourself trying to do it all at the same time.  It’s like riding a bike while preparing a meal.  I’m sure there are some mock-ups that would allow you to do that, but it’s not realistic.

For our valued educational professionals, I cannot fathom that you had built into this year’s curriculum the immediate launch into teaching millions of students in a virtual classroom.  While the technology existed to do this, universities and colleges likely didn’t budget for the increased time and costs to implement a system like this, much less do it within a few weeks. 

Teaching is hard enough, and when you’re tasked with performing your role from your home instead of your classroom, there’s added pressure on everyone involved. 

The key for educators is to give yourself the permission to make mistakes.  These are uncharted waters for all involved, and it might not be as easy as you’d like to continue the lessons that you were teaching your students before COVID-19, so it’s understandable that you’re frustrated and stressed out about not being able to continue your teaching plans.

For administrators, you also need to give yourself patience and understanding with technology, your teachers, and your students.  We’ve been asked to do something that we never thought we would have to do.  Pay attention to the lessons we are learning through this process. 

You’ll overwhelm yourself if you try to do it all.  Spoiler alert: You can’t. 

For parents that are now the teachers of their children, don’t try to teach them a full school year’s worth of education in a day or week.  That’s too much.  If your school district isn’t providing you content to teach your children, then find out the subject(s) that your child was studying before COVID-19, and continue with that.  Baby steps.

I’ve seen many memes online about parents wanting to suspend/expel their students.  Likewise children saying they hope they don’t get the same teacher next year.  They’re funny to a point, and a good reminder on how crucial our educational professionals are, in the education of our children.  Not an easy job, is it?

You need to have boundaries around the time you spend educating your children.  I recommend smaller time blocks (say 30-45 min per session) with a 10 minute break.  Quite similar to what I recommend people do at work.  Reward your kids for their focus in their school work.

If you have both parents in the home, both should help out with the new 24/7 at home environment.  If it’s just a single parent household, see if your older children can step up and help (even just a little.)  it empowers them to take more responsibility in life.

Just like your work day, you need to schedule the school day.  Does your kid go to school at 6:30 pm?  Not likely, so don’t play teacher at that time.  Stick to the normal times they would be in school, so when they do return to the classroom, they won’t have such a shock to the system.

Do you play with your kids after they get home with school?  Continue doing that.  Could be board games, watching TV together, arts & crafts, whatever.  Continue to do that, and if you didn’t do that prior to COVID-19, there’s an opportunity to introduce a new habit.

Same goes for your workday.  You need to work the hours that you did when you went to the office.  If your boss is emailing you all hours, and that’s not how they behaved before COVID-19, then you need to establish boundaries around when you work and when you don’t.  Involve HR if you need to, because we don’t need any more micromanaging bosses trying to make you work around the clock.

A key to remember is to not beat yourself up over this.  You’ve been tasked with an impossible to-do list, so do what you can, at a pace that doesn’t stress you out.

Support Systems

Do you have a trusted friend or advisor?  A colleague that’s an administrator or teacher in another college? Now is the time to reach out to them, if they’re available.  Everyone is experiencing some COVID-19 issues (hopefully not the virus itself!), so they may need you just as much as you need them.  There’s no shortage of video and cell phone options to connect with advisors, loved ones, etc.

Spatial Boundaries

Your workspace needs to be a workspace, and nothing else.  For some of us, that’s an impossibility.  I live in a condo, so I don’t have a dedicated office space right now.  I do have a couple of spaces I use to record podcasts and participate on video calls, but it’s not dedicated.

If there is a corner of your home you can dedicate to your academic work, then I highly recommend setting it up as close to your workplace setup as possible.  Hopefully your employer will cover office supply expenses, so you can have the tools you need to perform your job remotely.  Key is to improvise and go with the flow.  It won’t be perfect, and that’s ok.

A reminder to also establish WFH boundaries around the time you work.  You don’t need to be constantly connected to email, school assignments, etc.  Do your best to replicate your normal work routine, so when we do return to the old normal, it won’t be as big of an adjustment.  Take this opportunity to slow down your pace a little.  Deep focus on your work and you’ll likely discover you’re getting more done at home than you did at work.  Lack of interruptions is likely a key reason.

An exercise I have clients do is track the number of interruptions they have in a day.  Scientific research shows that it takes several minutes for us to refocus after being interrupted.  If you’re getting 50-100 interruptions at work every day, it’s a wonder you get anything done.

An exercise I did when I started WFH was to close my eyes and imagine what items I needed to do my job.  I made sure I had all of those things.  With cloud-based computing, cell phones, and video calls, the need to work out of an office is diminishing.  Commercial real estate might take a big hit after this COVID-19 saga is behind us, because some organizations will discover they can have their workers work from anywhere (including home), which reduces the need for a large office space.  It will be interesting to watch how all of this unfolds.

Self Isolation and WFH

Since we’re all under a self-isolation mandate, meeting up with co-workers is frowned upon (or in some jurisdictions, against the law), so isolation is creating some mental health challenges with many.  Mood swings, irritability, headaches, anxiety, depression, etc. are just some of the challenges I’m seeing with people.

If your university offers EAP (employee assistance program) services, I recommend you use those services if you’re dealing with increased stress, anxiety, depression, etc.  We’ll get through this.

Be safe and be well!

Author Biography

Michael Levitt is the CEO of Breakfast Leadership, and works with individuals to reduce stress and prevent burnout, so that they can focus on what matters most.  Michael is a Certified NLP/CBT Therapist.

Recommended Citation: Michael Levitt. (2020). Tips from a workplace therapist. the Western ABC Bulletin, 2.1.