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Switch Off Covid-19 Stress: 5 Ways to Achieve Work-life Balance in the New Normal The pandemic has triggered stressors in careers, personal finances, and family life with nearly 70% of workers citing COVID-19 as the most stressful moment of their career-even more stressful than other major events like 9/11 and the Great Recession of the late 2000s

By Sunshine Farzan

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The unexpected shift to remote working during COVID-19 is taking a toll on workers' mental health with many unable to find respite, even in the comfort of their own homes. The pandemic has triggered stressors in careers, personal finances, and family life with nearly 70% of workers citing COVID-19 as the most stressful moment of their career—even more stressful than other major events like 9/11 and the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

The culprit? The 24/7 "always-on" culture that has emerged from hyper-communication. Digital connectivity is at an all-time high, which is helping businesses adapt, circumvent, and respond to the disruptions waged by COVID-19. But, suddenly, work meetings can take place at any time of the day without warning and instantaneous responses have become the expectation and the norm. Recent data shows that remote workers are likely to clock an additional 60 hours a month as a result of COVID-19.

More and more, we're feeling the pressure to be just as responsive as the automated technology we're using. Even before the pandemic, remote workers were particularly squeezed by the trend toward hyper-communication. For example, data from Owl Labs found that those who work remotely were 43% more likely than on-site workers to clock over 40 hours a week.

Although working times appear to be on the rise for full-time employees during the shakeup of COVID-19, stress is compromising overall productivity. Accelerated connectivity has its advantages, but the bulldozing trend of hypercommunication may wreak havoc on our personal lives. Eventually, if we're not careful, it will compromise our productivity and subject us to information overload, constant distraction, and burnout.

Since it doesn't appear that the "always-on" culture will be switching off any time soon, here are key strategies that can help safeguard your personal life, promote well-being and maintain high productivity levels during this critical time.

Honor thy balance

For starters, it is very important to understand why work-life balance benefits you and whatever organization you work for. According to workplace productivity statistics from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA), the areas most affected by workplace stress and anxiety include productivity (56%) and relationships with coworkers and peers (51%). Meanwhile, according to data from Wrike, more than half of workers lose sleep because of workplace stress and a quarter say their work quality suffers due to stress.

The verdict is clear: in order to perform at the top of your game, you need to identify ways to reduce workplace stress. And falling asleep with your phone in hand so you can respond instantly to notifications at any hour is not offering any relief.

The onus is on each of us individually to set feasible boundaries and destress, as achieving work-life balance will help up your engagement level at work. A study led by the University of York and the University of Florida showed that more than 40% of our creative ideas come when we are taking breaks or allowing our minds to wander. And, according to Gallup, engaged employees are 28% more productive and teams with higher engagement levels see a 41% reduction in absenteeism and 59% less turnover.

Travel has been largely halted and COVID-19 looks set to disrupt the remainder of 2020. Many workers have not taken a break since the start of the pandemic and there's little relief in sight. Given the extenuating circumstances of this pandemic and the magnitude of stress it has promoted, people should make sure they retreat with mental health days, family days or even digital detox weekends. You owe it to yourself and to your team to make sure you are maintaining a healthy work-life balance that allows you to thrive, both personally and professionally.

Intentionally disconnect: let airplane mode be your friend

COVID-19 has changed how and where we work, resulting in unique clashes between our work and home lives that most of us have never experienced. But, despite new demands both at home and at work, nobody needs to be omnipresent.

Visualize how you would like to spend each day and what would make you most productive. As Stephen Covey prominently said, "The key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but to schedule your priorities." Start making small, deliberate changes that allow you to uphold your priorities and get them done effectively.

In the remote workforce, many workers are going without designated lunch breaks or midday coffee breaks. But mental health breaks should still be scheduled and prioritized. Additionally, you should think about other priorities that are important to you such as family dinners, video calls with friends, reading, exercising, etc. Proactively put each of these into your calendar to block the time and effectively schedule your priorities.

Preemptively controlling some of the residual effects of hypercommunication is also key for defending your priorities. This could mean using airplane mode, removing yourself from group chats that are not relevant, declining unnecessary meetings, and working with other team members to delegate tasks.

Delegate workflow for "off-hours"

There's no way around it. No matter what is happening at work, life is happening outside of it at the same time, especially during the time of COVID-19. Family members may get sick or childcare needs to take precedent. If your team is seriously incapacitated when one person is unavailable, there is a resource issue to address. No one function should suffer from someone's absence. And as hypercommunication demands more of our time during COVID-19, it is important for teams to plan for how work matters are addressed at various points of the day.

According to the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), 50% of the positive changes in communication patterns can be attributed to the interactions that happen outside of the workplace. Making arrangements for how communications and workflow are handled off-hours can establish expectations for employees—and help companies better navigate the new environment of hypercommunication.

Mind your physical health and don't forget to laugh

The body and mind go hand in hand. When stress disturbs the brain, the rest of the body suffers. The good news is that exercise can help alleviate this cycle, as physical activity has a positive impact on the brain and lowers stress levels. Exercise has been shown to cut the tension, stabilize mood, improve sleep, and raise self-esteem. It can even stimulate anti-anxiety effects.

A healthy diet can also help counter the impact of daily stress by lowering blood pressure and fortifying the immune system, which are especially helpful given that COVID-19 is linked to these. But there are further comprehensive benefits associated with eating certain foods. Magnesium deficiency triggers headaches and fatigue so foods rich in this essential mineral, such as spinach and nuts, can ward off common symptoms of stress and even depression.

How often are you smiling each day? It may be difficult, given the grave circumstances of COVID-19, but happiness and laughter are critical coping mechanisms for the human body. The late comedian Milton Berle would often say that laughter is like an instant vacation, which would be especially welcome at a time like this when many of us cannot travel and have been confined to our homes. Not only can laugher enhance the immune system, increase endorphin levels, relieve pain and alleviate stress, it also benefits us emotionally. Humor has a way of putting things in perspective, offering a comfortable buffer between us and our worries. Doing this can help us confront situations more rationally and face our greatest fears.

No joke!

Become sustainable beyond COVID-19

With global unemployment at an all-time high, employees must approach work-life balance with a degree of caution. In other words, you'll need to ensure that work remains a priority and that your schedule does not compromise your job security amid what's shaping up to be a tight job market.

But occasionally sitting out and taking a breather doesn't have to be a bad thing, as it can help you do more and go further in the long term. After all, success is a marathon and not a sprint. And if you respect your own time, others will come to respect it too. By setting a precedent, people will come to you only when they really need help as opposed to making you the default go-to person for any small problem that arises. This can lead to more efficiency and higher quality work, which will be appreciated by your employers, colleagues and clients.

Sticking true to your priorities and scheduling them with intention can help workers maintain an essential work-life balance and maximize productivity in the long term. This shift can also open up opportunities for teams to better distribute workflow and nimbly adapt to the changing demands of an evolving workplace that is always on and a remote workforce that is always connected.

Sunshine Farzan

Group Head of Marketing and Communications, Tricor Group

Sunshine is a results-driven award-winning integrated marketing, digital and PR leader with B2C and B2B experience driving innovation across insurance and financial services industries. She has held senior marketing positions at MetLife, American Express, Harte Hanks, and Kraft Foods, and has worked in Mexico City, Sydney, New York and Hong Kong. She currently leads the Group Marketing & Communications function at Tricor, a PE-backed professional services firm, where she develops highly targeted, digitally-led integrated marketing and communications campaigns to elevate brand awareness and brand reputation across 20 markets. Prior to this, she was Head of Marketing and Communications for MetLife Hong Kong where she spearheaded the company's most significant branding, marketing and digital efforts in its 20-year history.

Sunshine conceptualized and oversaw integrated marketing and branding strategy and execution across digital, advertising, product marketing, mobile, social media, PR, media relations and community engagement. Her passion for using social media and mobile to connect with consumers has been evidenced by award-winning campaigns to acquire and engage with customers.

Most notably launching ‘My Dad’s Story’ video ad campaign, selected by Unruly as ‘one of the 20 most shared video ads’ globally and the award-winning Infinity mobile app, achieving top 10 download ranking on Apple Store & Google Play and 99% user engagement rate. Her brand campaigns have been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The Telegraph, The Huffington Post and Adweek. She also pioneered the insurtech go-to-market strategy, launching the first suite of online insurance products ever introduced in the Hong Kong insurance market.

Sunshine has been recognized by Campaign Asia as one of the ‘40 under 40’ marketers in Asia and a ‘Woman to Watch’, a Gold award recipient of ‘Female Executive of the Year in Asia’ at the Stevie Awards for Women in Business, and selected to Holmes Report’s ‘Innovator 25 in Asia Pacific’ list. She has been selected to join Forbes Communications Council and serves on the APAC Advisory Board of the CMO Council. She is an MBA/MSC career coach at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of Hong Kong. Sunshine holds an MBA from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan where she received a full merit fellowship and graduated with honors.

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