Reflections on ‘isolation’ and support networks

29 Mar 2020, 6:00

Being alone successfully is a strategy that can be learned. Just a few behavioural techniques will make working home alone bearable – and even productive, writes Jo Maher

As working at home becomes the new norm, I’ve seen countless social media comments and blogs on how people in various professions such as the armed forces have coped with extended periods alone or away from civilisation. Strange as it may seem, my education career has also been marked by periods of isolation.

It turns out good isolation practice is also learned. From being quarantined with colleagues in Zambia during the swine flu outbreak, to having to work at home as a result of various joint surgeries, I’ve learned a few coping strategies worth sharing, in the hope of saving readers the steep learning curve involved.

First and foremost, structure is essential. For me, it’s not about writing a timetable (though it may be for you, especially if you have children). I am not naturally someone who likes rigid structure if I can avoid it. I find physical cues are most helpful to help my mind switch between tasks. I wear smart/casual clothes as a cue that it is “work time”, and, as funny as it sounds, it helps my dog as well. She genuinely knows the difference between outfits. A pair of jeans means “walk time”. I suspect the same is true for any company you might keep while working from home.

One golden rule I have set up with my friends and family – another cue – is that a phone call is to discuss serious topics and concerns, while a social media call is exactly that, a social catch-up to focus on positives. If you haven’t yet downloaded the Houseparty app, or another like it, on your phone, do. It’s a great way to bring people together. (Wine is preferable throughout.)

Next, managing the small things gives you a sense of psychological control and promotes mental wellbeing. I set my workstation up in the same place each day and I mirror my work times, even down to sticking to the diet that I would have at work, in order to avoid unnecessary snacking.

I’ve also found it helpful to add in things I would not have time to do at work, such as five-minute rehabilitation breaks every hour, to breathe, relax, stand up, move around. I avoid the living room until at least 8pm every day, because in my mind this is an evening relaxation space. Walking the dog also helps to change the scenery.

My experience of surgical recovery has been one where my wife and family have supported me for the first week or so, but as you become more able to do things for yourself, people migrate back to their other commitments, and rightly so. The same is likely to be true in our current circumstances even if other commitments get thin on the ground. Contacting friends is hugely beneficial for you and them alike. Don’t wait for others to contact you. You get out what you put in! Adapt to others’ patterns, and let them know how to adapt to yours. It made a huge difference to me. 

“Contacting friends is hugely beneficial – don’t wait for others to contact you”

In the coming weeks and possibly months, many will be isolating with families and children in the house. In this case, it is vital to find ways to adapt for them as well as to them. Checking in with people in a similar position to yourself to share tips can really help too. Colleagues both close and distant can provide great support, and it’s worth remembering that talking to someone who isn’t as emotionally involved in your situation can provide much-needed objectivity when the going is tough.

Looking out for other people can be challenging if you are not looking after yourself. Keeping yourself physically and mentally well is essential. Access your support networks through your colleagues, family and friends and do not be afraid to ask for help, even on the small things. I have lost count of how many staff put my suit jacket on for me when I had my arm in brace!

It’s together that we’ll get through this. Stay safe.

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