Thea Gallagher, PsyD
About 16 months ago, our lives changed overnight as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. Now, as nearly 70 percent of adults in the United States have received at least one vaccine shot, life has started to regain some normalcy. Schools have re-opened, meals can once again be enjoyed indoors at restaurants, families and friends are celebrating life moments in person, and some businesses are slowly bringing employees back to the office.
While the return to pre-pandemic lifestyles is a cautious path as we mitigate vaccine hesitation and COVID-19 variants, it’s certainly on the horizon. Before the world makes the big jump back to “normal” life, now is the ideal time to reevaluate your goals and set boundaries to maintain your priorities, says Thea Gallagher, PsyD, an assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.
“A lot of the social rituals and traditions we previously had embedded in our lives — from weekly yoga class to monthly happy hours with colleagues — we don’t have anymore. Instead, many have been balancing work and life while mainly stuck at home. Now with the vaccine, things are picking back up again, but it’s important to be intentional about what you add back to your schedule,” Gallagher says.
Instead of going full-force back into every previous commitment, Gallagher recommends taking the time to figure out what you want to maintain.
“We lost everything that we once considered normal. Now that we can start getting back to life as usual, first take a magnifying glass to what you want that life to look like, especially now. It’s vital to be thoughtful about what you want to put back on your plate so you can protect your mental health and feel more fulfilled,” Gallagher shares.
What to take off your plate
Unsure where to start? Gallagher recommends a reflective exercise.
First, think back to your life pre-pandemic. Write down what it looked like, unemotionally. Then, write down what your life looks like now — how you spend your week and time. You can even create a pie chart of how you spend your time if you prefer visuals, Gallagher says.
Next, reflect on what you liked about your life before the pandemic and what you did not like. Then, think about what you like and don’t like about your life now. This analysis can help you identify what has been working for you, and what you might want to gravitate away from.
“For example, it can be hard for people to admit that they actually don’t completely love virtual work. Yes, it provides a lot of flexibility and freedom, but we’re finding that many are actually working more now than they ever had before, since our living rooms have turned into offices. Or for some, it has contributed to feelings of isolation,” Gallagher explains. “It takes purposeful reflection to really understand what works for you and what doesn’t.”
The future of office work
Work often plays a big role in mental health. Office-based businesses that went fully remote to stem the pandemic are now making plans for employees to come back to work in-person, some are going fully virtual, while others are trying to find a balance for hybrid work.
“There is fear on both sides. People don’t want to lose their freedom, while some are miserable with exclusively working from home. But, within the past year it has been hard for people to really evaluate what works, as the work environment got ripped away along with an influx of massive societal change, stress, and grief,” Gallagher says.
Gallagher encourages people and companies to have a trial and error period, so employees can figure out what works best for them in their professional and personal worlds.
“It can feel like a luxury to work from home, but it’s not always the case. While virtual work does bring some aspects of flexibility, we know it also comes with longer work hours as people have fewer boundaries. But with trial and error, people can test out different approaches for what works for them and their teams.”
If a person’s job is now 100 percent virtual, they could benefit from intentionally putting smaller social interactions back into their day-to-day schedule. “Think about the breadth of relationships we have and the little social interactions we used to have in a day. It’s not just about friends and family, but coworkers, bus drivers, coffee baristas — they mean and meant something, and it can be helpful to try to work those moments back into your day to fight off social isolation,” Gallagher explains.
The hybrid model of work, where employers have employees come in part time, or less, can be a beneficial model for some people, as they get the best of both worlds.
Others might be fully back in person at the office. But, if it’s not ideal for you — for example many women and working parents prefer the flexibility of working from home — Gallagher recommends trying to advocate for yourself.
“Get as many data points as you can,” she says. “Over the past year, share how your productivity went up, for example, and have a frank conversation to make a case for yourself with your boss or leadership about how to maintain somewhat of a hybrid approach as it worked for you and worked for them.”
If you feel anxious about asserting yourself, find ways to practice. Gallagher suggests role playing with a loved one or writing down a letter that you practice saying out loud.
For those who have felt a negative impact due to fewer boundaries between their work and personal lives, Gallagher recommends taking small steps towards disconnecting.
“You can start small with setting boundaries that allow you to disconnect. Take notifications off your phone first. Or promise yourself you won’t check your email on weekends or after hours. Then, maybe you can even work yourself up to taking email off of your phone on weekends,” Gallagher says.
Physical separation from devices helps as well. Even if a device is in a room but one isn’t using it, it can still provide a level of distraction. Actual physical separation is helpful.
When in doubt, write it out
We are on the precipice of post-pandemic life as COVID-19 rates continue to decline and public health parameters such as mask wearing wane.
“Now is the time to choose for yourself how to prioritize your life at home and at work,” Gallagher says.
Go back to your priority list. Write down what you learned, what you want to keep, what to discard, and then what you want to get back to.
“Don’t find yourself getting swept up by other peoples’ decisions or choices — you need to sit down and think about what you want, and then go advocate for it,” Gallagher says. “Choosing yourself first and putting yourself first is not a bad thing. If you are doing the best for you that means you can be at your healthiest when you’re helping others.”