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Beware the remote work cabin fever – What is cabin fever and how to stave it off

Reading Time: 5 minutes

While self-isolation in the face of COVID-19 is certainly necessary, that doesn’t make it easy. You start to lose track of how many days have gone by, the places you used to go become hard to remember, and you could swear your laundry basket was talking to you a moment ago. 

Cabin fever can take its toll on anyone, not just lonely woodsmen up in the Rockies. So today, we’re looking at the current risks of cabin fever when working remotely in the age of Coronavirus (and beyond). 

The consequences of cabin fever

Cabin fever is more than just a combination of boredom and loneliness. Even if you’re self-isolating with family or housemates and have lots of movies, games and good books on-hand, you can still fall victim to its effects. 

Social isolation doesn’t just keep you away from other people; it coops you up alongside the people you’re already with, which overtime can lead to issues.

Key symptoms of cabin fever include:

  • A decrease in motivation
  • Feelings of restlessness
  • Increased irritability
  • Irregular sleeping patterns
  • Lethargy
  • Difficulty waking up
  • Lack of patience
  • Persisting depression
  • Feelings of distrust and social paranoia

Address concerns with family or housemates

With everyone self-isolating, we don’t just have to worry about cabin fever in remote work, as anyone could potentially suffer from it, regardless of employment. If this whole thing were just getting started, then we would advise you to sit everyone down for this conversation as soon as possible. Voicing concerns early on can make them easier to address if they become problems later on.

But even though we’ve all been isolating ourselves for what feels like forever, it’s still a conversation that’s worth having. If you or someone you know has been dealing with anxiety as a result of quarantine, it may have been difficult for them to speak up about what’s bothering them. Having this conversation early on can help establish some ground rules to keep everyone from treading on each other’s toes. We’re not suggesting you go full-on, dividing the house with lines of tape, but making sure everyone is on the same page before cabin fever sets in can help to stop tension bubbling up later.

Creating a daily routine and sticking to it is a key strategy for staving off remote work cabin fever.

Establish a routine

One of the most profound effects of cabin fever in remote work, and in general, is when we lose our sense of time. While this isn’t Shawshank, and we’re not exactly getting two months in the hole with no sunlight, the breakdown in routine can make the days start to run together. Routines are vital during times of confinement and isolation, as highlighted by some of the other points on this list.

Those of us able to carry out our jobs remotely should count ourselves lucky on this one, because it’s a major advantage in terms of keeping up a basic daily routine. But just because our work days are intact doesn’t mean everything else is going to run like clockwork.

Try to make sure you have meals at roughly the same times, and resist the compulsion to work in your PJs. Having these things in place can help give a sense of progression to your day. People experiencing difficulty often use the phrase “one day at a time.” But when the days seem to drag on indefinitely, it can help to break it down even further. If you’re struggling to make it through the day, just make it to lunch; then to the end of work, and then to dinner, and so on.

It won’t make the difficulties of cabin fever go away entirely, but building up a solid routine makes sure you keep looking after yourself, which is something that can become easier to lose track of the longer you spend in isolation.

Create a remote workspace

Working from home, especially full-time, blurs the line between your professional and personal lives. Having finished your day seems like just another break at the office. Throw in the fact that we’re more-or-less confined to our homes at the moment, and things can start to feel just a little bit Kafka-esque.

Set up a workspace somewhere quiet. Ideally not in your bedroom or living room, because those are the places you want to associate with relaxation. But then, most of us aren’t self-isolating in mansions, so that might be easier said than done. If you don’t have much choice, it might help to set up in a corner to limit distractions. Once you’re done for the day, don’t come back to your workspace until you’re ready to get started the next morning. Much like our advice on establishing a routine, this is important because it provides structure. Aside from letting you switch off at the end of a day, a proper workspace can also help you to stay focused at your desk.

Setting up different spaces can also be helpful for anyone you might be living with as well, even if they aren’t working remotely. Using different areas in your home for different activities can help limit the feeling of being stuck in the same place.

Remote work cabin fever can present a real threat to the wellbeing of employees working from home.

Use creativity as an outlet

Whether it’s drawing, music, or you’re thinking of dusting off that novel you’ve been working on, doing something creative is one of the best ways to protect your wellbeing and get away from your surroundings when you can’t do so literally.

Aside from staying on top of cabin fever in general, one of the biggest challenges remote workers can face at the moment is keeping themselves engaged over time. Having something you’re looking forward to working on in your own time is a great morale booster to get you through the day. 

But if, between the remote work and the rigours of self-isolation, you don’t have the energy to teach yourself guitar or learn French, don’t beat yourself up about it. It’s important to remember that present circumstances are taxing everyone’s mental health to some extent, and everyone handles it differently.

Mind your mental health

Cabin fever isn’t technically a formal diagnosis, but rather a colloquialism for a generally well-known state of being. We know scientifically that prolonged social isolation is bad for mental health. But cabin fever is characterised by a general range of symptoms, and they can affect all of us in different measures. Cabin fever in remote work can go beyond limiting productivity and can negatively impact your employee’s long-term wellbeing.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s important to make use of available remote services such as the NHS IAPT service, or the Samaritans. You should also notify your employer and find out what help they can give you. If your organisation uses regular check-ins, these can be useful for raising personal issues privately.

Stream shows and play games, but in strict moderation

As anyone who has ever binged anything on streaming services will tell you, cabin fever isn’t the only thing that can render the passage of time meaningless. Sure, a good portion of getting through this is going to involve killing time. These things can be great for that. And judging by all the played-out Tiger King jokes going around, it sounds like Netflix is playing a key role in keeping us all sane. But it’s important to break up time spent in front of the TV with other things.

This is another area where having a job you can do remotely is a huge help, especially if it’s full-time. Streaming and games are great rewards, but depending on how much spare time you have, they can still be a bit of a vortex. Especially considering you’ll have been staring at a computer screen all day, it might not be the best idea to spend the rest of your waking hours staring at just another screen.

Like to know how a weekly check-in can help protect your team from the issue of remote work cabin fever?

Research Associate