This year has been the first time in many employees’ work lives that we have worked remotely. It is also the first year that many of us have had to figure out how to balance our work assignments with the day-to-day happenings at home, including keeping children occupied and theoretically on task educationally during this pandemic. I have noticed that taking care of my mental and physical health is one of the most essential ways to properly and most effectively balance these competing interests. Personally, if I am not getting enough sleep, not eating well, and not exercising, then I am not able to perform my job and life responsibilities at the level I aspire to reach. I have taken stock of this as an individual employee; however, it is essential that law firm management and human resources departments take notice as employers and find ways to promote attorney self-care for staff working remotely.
As someone who has felt anxiety since I was young, it is especially important to acknowledge that I need to make myself a priority if I am going to be successful. It is so easy to fall into the trap of working too much, becoming overcome with the urge to get just one more task completed or one more phone call made. When employees are at home, we find ourselves in our office environment 24/7, and it is easy to succumb to the urge to take on more and more. Many employees find themselves not only taking on more office work, but also feeling the pressure to maintain household responsibilities. When there are short breaks in between work, there are children to feed, laundry to sort, and pets to take outside. In other words, it can easily become a habit to put everyone and everything else ahead of one’s own well-being.
Working remotely also means losing that connection to others at work. For me, having a work buddy makes my days in the workplace much more enjoyable. I really miss going on those noon walks and being able to walk down the hallway to have a quick discussion with a coworker. Sure, we can still email or text but it is not the same as that personal connection. Attorneys, too, have a creative side, and there is nothing like talking shop or bouncing off ideas and strategies with your colleagues.
I am no expert on human resources or running an office, but I have come to realize that I am the person who can have the greatest impact on my own mental health. Besides the obvious ways to ensure you are taking care of your mental and physical health such as exercising, having a hobby, or spending time in a socially-distant responsible manner with friends, these are a few ways to set boundaries and stay on track with your work life at home:
- Begin each day by getting dressed and ready for work. It is amazing how much a difference this small step can make on your day. Of course, depending on the circumstances, the dress code is quite a bit different working from your home than actually being around coworkers and clients.
- Set your work hours and stick to it! If you determine you are finished with work each day at 6 pm, then turn off your computer, silence your phone, and be present in your own life. Do not let work run your life.
- Make lists and plan your day. I keep a notebook next to me so that I can write down my goals for the day. It can be overwhelming with everything I need to get done but organizing the tasks into a list helps me feel in control.
- Find healthy ways to reduce stress. People have their own vices handling life’s struggles, so I encourage you to find healthy ways like journaling or starting a new exercise program rather than abusing substances or spending too much time and money online shopping.
- Make real, meaningful connections with people. These times can be so lonely and isolating. My family and friends are what get me through each day.
Now more than ever employers or managers need to be supportive of your mental health and wellness. Effective leaders recognize that happy employees produce higher-quality work. It is important for managers and human resources personnel to acknowledge and stay in regular contact with each member of their team and check in with employees. Providing flexibility and understanding can have a positive impact on an employee’s life. Employers are realizing that employees can actually thrive working from home—especially if they are given the proper tools for success. Law firm management and HR departments that take the time to truly evaluate the ways they can support remote working beyond providing the basic tools to function will be able to tap into a new paradigm for both business and client success.
As an attorney working remotely, I have appreciated the following ways in which my employer has handled these times of uncertainty and helped me be successful in working from home:
- Transmitting important information regarding COVID-19 safety issues in the workplace and how business operations will be handled for those still working remotely. Naturally, employees will have a lot of questions regarding workplace safety, job security, and possible absences from work to care for their or a family member’s health.
- Addressing educational needs for employees with children. As many school districts across the country are making the decision regarding how students will resume schooling, employees are left wondering how employers will respond and what support they can expect to receive, should their district elect remote learning, a hybrid schedule, or a parental decision to not return his or her child to an in-person classroom setting.
- Facilitating and issuing the proper equipment and tools to help the employee be successful in remote working. Thankfully, I already had a work-issued laptop and was easily able to access the work network. At first, there were a few minor issues with connectivity issues or outages, but the system has gotten much smoother the longer we are at home. Providing extra IT support and clear information on software and network access is vital.
- Recognizing that employees may be facing more stress and mental health issues during the pandemic. Employers should ensure that employees are aware of resources available to help those in need. Along these same lines, employers should encourage regular social interactions and check-ins among their employees. Also, employers should encourage their employees to take days off for mental health breaks or to use vacation time. While many employees will find themselves unable to travel as they had planned, encouraging a stay vacation to unplug and relax is important.
As businesses go through these unprecedented times, it is not only vital that employees take care of their mental health and practice self-care each day, but it is also essential that employers take care of their employees. To be successful while working at home, employees must maintain balance in their lives. Work responsibilities are important, but so is the quality of the other parts of your life. After all, tomorrow is not promised. We are all just trying to get through life, day by day, moment by moment. The best we can do is to make life a little easier for someone else by sending an encouraging email, making a friendly phone call checking in, or being available to others for help with legal questions. Because working from home may become the new normal for many of us attorneys, we can accomplish our goals with a little help from others and being kind to ourselves.
About the Author
Ann Marie Wittgraf is an appellate attorney who has worked for the Iowa state courts for more than 15 years.