Gay Men and the Mental Health Aspects of Working from Home
If you do a Google search on “tips on working from home,” you find almost too many returns. It’s overwhelming. I did a survey of them informally, and tried to find the “best of” those lists. But what’s missing from them is where I come in as a gay men’s specialist licensed psychotherapist and life/career/relationship coach for the past 28 years, and it’s the specifically mental health and gay men’s angles.
Working from home for gay men is very much like that experience for other demographics, except perhaps for a broad generalization that most of the gay men I’ve known as clients or as friends are probably more tech-savvy overall than the general population, and might be already used to working on online or video platforms (I’ve been doing webcam-based sessions for years, in addition to my in-office clients in Los Angeles/West Hollywood). What these lists definitely leave out is the mental health angle.
During this current (March/April, etc., 2020) era of the coronavirus/COVID-19 global pandemic, with the current global/national “lockdown/stay at home” orders, being able to effectively work from home is more important than ever.
Regular followers of my blog and podcast have been asking me for my take on all this, and here are my various thoughts:
Psychological Tips for the Working from Home Mindset
- As with all individual or collective challenges, we must try to maintain hope and “moving forward” thinking, even if everyone is in “tread water” mode these days. We must maintain the hope of survivorship, just as I’ve done working on the front lines of AIDS going back to 1988, and my own 30 years (in 2020) of living with HIV myself. Our country had to endure, and ultimately recover as best we could, from the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918, World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and 9/11. My friends in colleagues in LA were in “lockdown” or curfew during a time in the 1992 Los Angeles riots. We gain hope if we put the current COVID-19 scare in a certain historical context with other challenges that have a beginning, peak, and subsiding.
- My mom is a three-time cancer survivor. When a client last year was diagnosed with cancer and had to have extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatment (which he survived well), I asked her to weigh in on any tips for him. She said, “Try to keep your life as normal as possible. The treatment throws off your routines enough. Try to maintain what your normally do, like a ship guided by a North Star.” I think that’s true about this, too. Try to look at your work calendar, especially, from January and February, and see how you can create a facsimile of it, if you have the kind of job where you can (actors, writers, designers, restaurant/bar/hotel workers, etc. might find this impossible; in those cases, think of how time involuntarily “off” could be used toward a longer-term purpose, such as skill development or some kind of home/personal improvement, especially through reading).
- Embrace what is at least temporarily a “new normal”. We can always “go back” to how things were later, but for now, your home and your office are the same general dwelling, even if you have designated “work from home” space, like a desk in the corner of a room, or a re-purposing of your dining area table.
- If you can work from home, try to focus on the cultivation of your Professional Sense of Self in all this. Think about the unique contribution that your talents and skills make to a commercial, capitalistic, global economy workforce. You are an important professional piece of the pie, your position, in your organization, in a national/global marketplace. Think about what “makes you, you” in that context.
- Differentiate who you are, between your Professional Self and your Personal Self.. (Last night, after working all day with my husband at home in the other room, also working, I emerged from my home den/office, as I opened the door and said, “Honey, I’m home!” and then we proceeded to make dinner and watch TV. That’s the kind of mental delineation you need, even if you’re both behind the same front door.)
Survey of Working from Home Website Tips
Here are some of the “best of working from home tips” that I found on various websites, and my thoughts on the mental health and/or gay male aspects of each. (The tips are from the various websites; the commentary is my addition):
20 Tips for Working From Home
Maintain Regular Hours. Set a schedule, and stick to it: – People with OCD or similar traits will find this easy, but those with ADD might find it harder. In times of uncertainty or anxiety, structure (such as keeping a schedule), can “bind” our anxiety and give a sense of calm, like a baby in swaddling clothes (or kink/sub enthusiasts in bondage or a leather straitjacket, let’s say…). Our bodies and minds crave regular routines such as when we work, eat, sleep, and play. Regular hours also underscore hope that we are, indeed, alive and well and not only “existing” but also being a generative member of society by working, albeit in a different setting. Gay men have often embraced a certain “work hard, play hard” routine, and while we might not be able to “play hard” these days, we can still work reasonably productively. Gay men who are influenced by a lifelong “need to achieve” (in part as a defense against social or peer criticism for being gay) know a lot about self-discipline. I work with many gay male professionals, and I’m always impressed by a pervasively strong sense of dedication and self-discipline, on everything from how they work, to how good they look doing it. They care about themselves, because gay men have had to fight for their place in the world — including in the workplace — after many years of advocacy and activism efforts. Plus, gay men are still men, and men can be very competitive at work and play.
- Create a Morning Routine: Part of my morning routine is the “Waking Up” app, by Sam Harris (not the singer one) that teaches and supports a practice of mindfulness for 10 or 20 minutes. For many people, morning coffee is part of the routine, but meditation, exercise, stretching, healthy foods, reviewing goals, or repeating affirmations are also good habits to support a strong start to your day, that lends a certain empowerment and optimism. Gay men I know are often ones to “seize the day”, because we have had to fight for what we get, and the early (gay) bird gets the worm!
- Set Ground Rules With the People in Your Space: Setting strong boundaries can be crucial to productivity. Don’t be afraid to assert your needs, and set limits with those around you, to minimize distractions and support getting actual work done. This reminds me of a meme I saw about a trim, well-dressed male breezing past someone near a copier machine, with a the line, “Out of my way. I’m gay.”
- Schedule Breaks: This is a marathon, not a sprint. To make your endurance last throughout a reasonably regular work day, such as 8 hours, schedule regular “coffee breaks” and certainly a lunch hour. We have to keep up with Instinct.com or Towleroad.com somehow!
- Take Breaks in Their Entirety: Don’t give in to the impulse to cut breaks short by answering a work-related email or text message. Really un-plug during break times, so you can “re-plug” afterward. The combination of rest and exercise (mental and physical) helps build endurance.
Leave Home: Our current “lockdown” or “social distancing” does not mean you can’t ever leave your front door. Observing social distancing, go out for walks (your dog will love you for that, if you have one!), go out on a patio or balcony, doing a walking errand (say to a neighborhood mailbox, or even a takeout restaurant). Leaving home can help relieve anxiety, channel excess energy/anxiety into a physical movement, and remind you of a whole world outside, that can have a mood-buoyancy effect, as well as the physiological benefits to the brain of getting natural light (especially with longer sunshine in these Spring hours).
- Don’t Hesitate to Ask for What You Need: The name of my book is Self-Empowerment: Have the Life You Want. Part of self-empowerment is having a command of assertive communication, something I teach my clients in therapy and coaching sessions. Put words onto feelings, and speak up to get your needs met, by a partner, roommate, boss, colleague, neighbor, or employee.
- Keep a Dedicated Office Space: You don’t have to have a large home with a separate office room; even a small apartment that many live in in our more urban areas with expensive-per-square-foot living spaces can have a dedicated “work-from-home” corner, table, desk, or setup. Compartmentalizing your space physically can help you focus mentally, especially if you have ADD and are easily distracted, or if you are depressed and need a space that underscores your identity as a productive, working contributor to your employer (even if you are self-employed).
- Socialize with Colleagues: Part of the challenge of the COVID-19 crisis is an increased sense of isolation. It’s pervasive; most of us are feeling it. Since we don’t have collective bars, restaurants, theatres, sporting, or meeting events, our socialization must be done with extra creativity and initiative. If you get tired of exchanging emails or text messages with colleagues, try a FaceTime or Skype or Zoom meeting, but also differentiate “shop talk” from socialization. Have a “lunch hour” with a colleague via webcam where you don’t talk about work. Have a “happy hour” after work via webcam with one or more colleagues (although I would separate alcohol from the work day, in general; it’s just good form). Psychodynamic concepts like “mirroring” and “twinship”, in which we see our existence reflected in the person of others, contribute to a sound mental health.
- “Show Up” to Meetings and Be Heard: Even if you have no trouble speaking up in work meetings in a conference room, it can “feel” different online in a webcam platform like Zoom or Google. It can be psychologically validating to dress like you normally do for work (clothes, hair, possibly makeup, even feeling the right shoes, even if they aren’t seen!), and to see your colleagues as you normally see them in their “work drag.” Be digitally visible online, as your image underscores your “place at the table” on your staff, even virtually. This can contribute to the sense of normalcy, and even amuse you to see how Matilda from Accounting always has the odd hairdos with too much hairspray, or how Bruce from Marketing can never seem to coordinate his shirt with his tie. Some things never change.
Get Face Time: This is not in the sense of the app for the iPhone, but with others. We can still get human interaction even by observing the recommended 7 feet of social distancing, such as in spread-out lines to go in the grocery store, or picking up takeout food. It’s important (especially if you live alone and you’re single) to get some kind of three-dimensional human exposure, without risking contagion exposure. This can be done safely if you follow the guidelines.
- Take Sick Days: This is important in working from home, because if you’re not feeling well physically (symptoms of COVID-19 are another story) because of a cold or “regular” flu, or stomach trouble, etc., it’s important to validate your feelings that you deserve time off to get better, and that applies to work from home, as well. This is even true if you need a “mental health day” in all this. You can “call in sick”, even if you’re still at home.
- Look for Training Opportunities: This might be a good time to look for continuing education in your field through online classes. Negotiate with your boss if you can get the company to cover the fee. Lots of online training programs are out there, and have a paywall to access online educational videos and .pdf workbooks. Free trainings exist on apps like YouTube or Vimeo. If you have an overall less workload, this is a great time to hone your skills, which when the crisis is over, you will feel especially empowered, skilled, and equipped like never before, and this can enhance your Sense of Professional Self, your self-empowerment, and your confidence, and these can be antidotal to feelings of stagnation, helplessness, or depression.
- Overcommunicate: When working from home, no one can see that you’re busy at your desk. While people working from home have been said in various studies to actually be more productive than being at a traditional office, your bosses are still entitled to be reassured that people are working from home in reasonably good faith and are a sound investment of salary resources of the company/organization. Email others when you accomplish something. “CC” more than you would normally. Contribute copies, where possible, to a shared server or (reasonably protected) Google Docs or Dropbox area. Make sure there is some kind of “virtual paper trail” that you’re working from home, not just “saying so” while actually doing something else (like binge-watching Netflix; that’s for your down-time, just like a “regular” work week).
- Be Positive: If you’re a supervisor or in some kind of position of staff leadership, shift the emphasis even more toward positive, encouraging, strengths-based feedback. Correct or guide employees with lots of empathy that they might be dealing with serious challenges at home, such as restless kids, or even a sick (with COVID-19, or something else) family member at home. The last thing they need is unjust criticism or workplace politics. Supervisors have a right to expect reasonable accountability, but since you can’t see your employees as much, you can’t see that they look upset or disheveled in the way that you could observe them in person at an office. If everyone takes a positive outlook, it will be “contagious” in an inspiring way.
- Take Advantage of Your Perks: If you work for a company that has a 401(k) and you need to access some of that money in a loan, see if that’s an option for you (although other government benefits might be accessible first). If you have paid sick or vacation time, take some of that if necessary (although many companies are not requiring employees to use these banks during the crisis). If your HR department offers access to some kind of special professional databases that you haven’t taken advantage of, see what they have to offer employees that might be “hidden” fringe benefits you didn’t know about. If you have an expense account, see if the company might cover the cost of everyone in a virtual working lunch meeting expensing their home delivery orders.
- Don’t Be Too Hard on Yourself: It’s always healthy to be conscientious and work in good faith, but be careful of being too hard on yourself if you’re frustrated at not making monthly sales goals or other productivity markers. You won’t be as productive your first month working from home as you will be the second, and that’s OK; it has its own learning curve. You will find your groove. Have patience and experiment with what works for you in the at-home environment. Trade tips with colleagues or friends. The “yardstick” you use to measure yourself professionally has to be adapted in times of crisis like these.
- Make It Personal: While this COVID-19 scare is possibly the most widespread, global, dramatic event you might have experienced in this lifetime, up to now and possibly in your whole future, try to make meaning. One of the last stages in processing any trauma is finding meaning in what you have been through, which can give you a profound perspective as not a victim or circumstance, but a survivor, who emerges with a resilience and self-empowerment that I’m afraid only hardship can teach you. For those of us who are gay men who survived the AIDS crisis, or a history of bullying, or were thrown out of houses for being gay when we were young, or were the victims of harassment or discrimination, we know all about this already, and we just have to rally our adaptive coping mechanisms anew. For many gay men, there is a feeling with COVID of “Oh, shit, not this again,” but we also can be especially equipped to endure and recover from hardship from those are who relatively naïve to it.
Other important websites that had helpful tips include the following:
I might offer another list of tips as a follow-up in another article, since there are many more that are discussed online about how to maximize the “working-from-home” model. Developing resilience requires us to call on our internal resources of hope, confidence, determination, motivation, stamina, and even a certain defiance that the crap that happens to us in our lives need not diminish us. We will get through this, and how we get through it depends on developing the skills of adapting coping, and having a robust social support system of friends, family, colleagues, mentors, and professionals. If you would like more support in the professional department, consider therapy (for readers in California, where I am licensed) or coaching services with me (for those outside of California, or outside the United States). I believe in your abilities, but I’m also here to provide help if you need it; call/text 310-339-5778 or email Ken@GayTherapyLA.com for more personalized support, customized to your individual (or couple) circumstances.