Exhausted and unfocused while you're working from home? You're not alone

Experts explain why trying to work during a pandemic is so draining, and 8 steps you can take to cope.
Working at home
Many of us ‘check out’ in response to trauma, and we’re all facing trauma these days. Getty Images

I should be nailing this working-from-home thing these days. I’ve been based in a home office for years, so I’m not adjusting to Zoom meetings or missing my colleagues. My kids are self-sufficient. I’m not sick or caring for anyone who’s sick. With gyms and restaurants closed and travel restricted, I have lots of free time. I feel like I should be getting so much done.

But I’m not. I’m distracted and fighting to concentrate. I’m in bed a little longer every night, but I’m not sleeping as well. I’m spending more time than ever scrolling through Facebook, Instagram and Medium. It feels like an accomplishment to play Words With Friends.

Turns out, I’m not the only one struggling. “We’re feeling less productive and more fatigued because we are not equipped for this,” says Melanie Ross Mills, a family relationship expert in Dallas.

We’re not in February anymore

Many of us ‘check out’ in response to trauma, and we’re all facing trauma these days. “We can’t accomplish what we could have been able to do last February. Our continuity is lost and we’re feeling highly distracted,” says Mills. “For comfort, we binge — on Netflix, on that extra bag of Doritos, on a glass of rosé — and that contributes to our inability to focus.”

Even those of us who are used to working from home are not used to COVID-19. “We are facing a very real threat, and a physiological response is inevitable,” says Beth Darnall, associate professor and psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine.

In the face of this threat, our nervous systems can shift into high alert. Our heart rates and respiration rates can climb. We might have anxious thoughts. Our cortisol and adrenaline levels can increase. “All of this is physically fatiguing,” Darnall says. “And mentally, it’s difficult to concentrate on work details when you’re reading about people dying.”

The uncertainty these days also adds to our struggles. “People want to feel in control over their lives,” says Ashley Baldwin, a licensed professional counselor in Emmaus, Penn. “We feel powerless over this pandemic. It’s leaving people feeling stressed out, depressed, and anxious.”

Creating a sense of safety and stability can help minimize the negative effects of living through a pandemic. Here are eight things we can try:

1. Maintain a “new normal” routine

Even when we’re staying home, we can shower, dress, eat, sleep, work, and practice self-care on a regular timetable. “In a normal life schedule, we have biorhythms that offer us cues that are grounding and stabilizing,” Darnall says. “As much as possible we want to maintain those natural biorhythms.”

2. Give yourself grace

Many of us expect ourselves to perform at pre-pandemic levels. “Have compassion. Assure yourself that nobody is performing at their peak right now,” Darnall says.

Mills agrees. “It’s really important to give ourselves permission to let go — to accept the fact it’s not like it was in February,” she says. “We can be so hard on ourselves when we’re not who we used to be and not functioning the way we know.”

3. Find a substitute for your commute

Look for a new ritual to help you transition from work time to home time. “Sometimes we just need to decompress on our way home from work, and we aren’t given the time to do that now,” Baldwin says.

4. Limit your news consumption

“If we all take stock of the amount of time we have been spending engaging in the news, it’s probably a fairly low return on investment,” Darnell says. She recommends taking a news vacation for a day or two — did it change how you felt or how you slept, or allow you to focus on things that are under your control?

5. Try techniques that promote peaceful feelings

To calm our nervous systems and ground and center ourselves we can try guided relaxation audio files, diaphragmatic breathing, or meditation. “These can counteract the effects of stress and deregulation,” Darnall says. “We’re essentially training ourselves toward stability.”

6. Acknowledge your increased demands

Even something as simple as picking up groceries for a neighbor adds to our stress these days. And many of us are facing much greater demands, like homeschooling, caring for sick loved ones, and managing a household where everyone is home all the time. The simple act of recognizing these additional responsibilities can make it easier to cope.

7. Do the things you already know you should

All of the tried-and-true self-care strategies are even more important now — eat right, take breaks, exercise and spend time outside (responsibly).

8. Practice gratitude, especially now

Gratitude for me unlocks everything. It’s paramount,” Mills says. “Ask yourself, ‘In what ways are you seeing life transformed for the better? How are you becoming a better person?’”