Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
The late poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was talking about sailors in his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but he might as well have been describing the scores of workers getting aboard the remote-work ship and struggling to stay afloat.
In fact, here’s a look at the uptick in searches on cabin fever1 just weeks into this “new normal.” It’s clear that the struggle is universal.
While there are definitely benefits to remote work, one of the chief complaints against it is the loneliness and isolation that comes with it. Which also happen to be two of the key symptoms of a centuries old ailment experienced by shipwrecked sailors and people trapped indoors by harsh weather conditions.
Cabin fever, like a never-ending Monday mood, is a series of negative emotions and distressing sensations people face while they’re isolated or feeling cut off from the world. Or, you know, working from home.
The distinctions between weekdays and weekends begin to blur. The walls feel like they’re closing in. One can start to feel the onset of an unexplainable sluggishness and, sometimes, even daytime sleepiness.
Symptoms of cabin fever include, but are not limited to, irritability, impatience, short temper, and low motivation.
Cabin fever, while common, is also an extremely unhealthy state. It can trigger anger, confusion, and even symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
Unquestionably, the best way to cope with cabin fever is to, well, get out of the cabin, so to speak. A clear idea of when “this” will end might even help. But under the current circumstances, it’s simply not possible to know when these quarantine measures will be lifted.
So how then do we cope?
In this article, we’ll cover
8 tips to cope with cabin fever
1. Soak up some vitamin D
Spend some time every day in your balcony or by the window (but remember to wear sunscreen). Working indoors, we often lose out on a critical natural source of vitamin D: sunlight. Low levels of vitamin D are associated with both major and minor depression, as well as mood disorders and faster cognitive decline2. While it’s not a cure for depression or any other mental illness, a little time in the sun can boost your mood and improve your sleep3.
2. Be strict about your boundaries
Time flies when you’re working at home and it’s easy to put in more hours than you normally would. Maintain boundaries and set aside time for self-care, family time, and chores. Switch off your phone and remote working tools or put them on Do Not Disturb mode so your mind can truly leave work. This is the first step to be able to make time for any activities that can help you cope with cabin fever.
3. Take frequent breaks
Use a kitchen timer to remind you to get up every 45 minutes to an hour.
Set aside your gadgets, get up from your (hopefully ergonomic) desk, and get your blood circulating. Either take a stroll around the block, water your plants, or simply, stretch. Maintaining a steady rhythm of work and rest throughout the day can ease stress and help you get through long workdays much more easily.
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4. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is an extremely effective tool to combat anxiety and stress (especially when you don’t have access to a mental health professional). If you’re not into meditation apps, leave your gadgets at home and take a long stroll around your block.Take time to notice as many details as you can with your five senses: birds chirping, trees swaying, little animals scurrying, or even the noise of traffic far away. This exercise, especially on quiet days, can be very soothing for an anxious mind. (Learn more in this WFH mental health guide.)
5. Improve your living and working space
Your house is going to be your haven for some time now, so shower some love on it. Find new ways to stay organized, or refresh your home and office space—start with a nice decluttering (why not try out the KonMari method?) and repair broken things around your home. Clean the back of your cupboard, get more indoor plants, rearrange your furniture, or get started on those DIY home improvement projects you had in mind.
6. Break a sweat… or several
Give yourself a kick of endorphins by introducing an exercise routine that you enjoy. If you’re experiencing mild to moderate symptoms of cabin-fever-induced depression, try to get in about 3 sessions a week, lasting about 45 minutes to 1 hour each, ideally something you can keep up for at least 10 to 14 weeks4.If you’re new to exercising regularly, set small goals and build up towards the recommended routine.
7. Foster strong support systems
Meaningful relationships are extremely comforting and reassuring in difficult times, and now is a great time to nurture them. Have meals with family members, show up for online game nights, and host safe virtual team building activities with colleagues on video conference calls. If you have the bandwidth to, why not volunteer or offer help to those who need it?
8. Reach out to a counselor
Many therapists are now taking their services online using video conferencing software that’s designed for healthcare providers. (If you’re struggling with symptoms of depression and anxiety for longer than two weeks, seek help from a licensed mental health professional.)
3 ways leaders can help their employees cope with cabin fever
Never has work been so explicitly intertwined with our homes. What’s the best way to run a productive (and healthy) remote team? It’s one thing to manage workers in the same physical space, but another to manage a stressed and unprepared workforce that’s going remote for the first time. What will your employee retention strategy be in a WFH world?
Here are a few ways managers and company leaders can support their employees in coping with and preventing cabin fever. (Of course, work-life balance is important for company leaders too!)
1. Account for mental health while setting goals
The World Economic Forum has anticipated “a secondary epidemic of burnouts and stress-related absenteeism in the latter half of 2020.”5 Set realistic targets for team productivity and be aware of the fact that cabin fever and collective stress over the pandemic might affect productivity levels.
Ease employees into newly remote processes and give them time to adjust. Consider implementing asynchronous communication tools (such as email) or other techniques that remove the necessity of “instant responses,” allowing your employees to also take care of their domestic duties and self care.
2. Normalize conversations about mental health
Many people might be unaware of the mental health fallout of the ongoing coronavirus crisis or be too overwhelmed to seek help. Companies have to take the initiative to educate employees on the signs and symptoms of cabin fever and, wherever possible, provide them with the tools and resources needed to cope.
If you’re a manager, regularly check in on your employees and normalize conversations about mental health and potential burnout. (It’s not always obvious when someone is approaching burnout!) This is where teams can pitch in and support one another.
3. Recreate an online community
Work isn’t always just a source of livelihood. It’s also a major fulfiller of interpersonal needs. We go to work to grow as individuals, make friends and maybe if we’re lucky, follow our passion.
It’s a comfortable routine of coffee machine banters, post-work hangouts, and a social life. Your employees are certainly missing these things. Take these activities online—here are a few ideas for how to take in-office socializing online. You could get your team on an employee engagement app or organize virtual yoga lessons, online game nights, or even just a casual virtual happy hour on Fridays.
Ready to combat cabin fever while working from home?
There are lucky ones among us who have access to sprawling homes, maybe a backyard pool, or easy access to nature. But the majority of us are likely sheltering with big families in spaces that are starting to look very small and cramped after a few weeks.
Cabin fever isn’t something you can prevent under these circumstances. Until we have a vaccine, health and safety measures will require us to stay indoors for the most part.
The hardest thing about cabin fever is the isolation. But with sophisticated communications technology, we don’t have to be so alone. We can transcend the physical walls confining us and lean on our support networks through virtual meetings and more importantly, each other.
Originally published Jul 01, 2020, updated Feb 26, 2021