18 Ways to Boost Your Mental Health and Productivity as a Remote #SApro

Grad school probably didn’t prepare you for working remotely during a global pandemic.

At least mine didn’t. And, unfortunately, working from home isn’t as simple as packing up your laptop and changing locations. Being away from your coworkers and students can introduce surprising stressors. It requires a unique type of self-discipline and may make many of your usual workplace routines impossible. 

So, my Presence teammates and I put ourselves on the case. Here are 18 tips for working remotely, while balancing both mental health and productivity in a reasonable, responsible way.

Mental Wellness

1. Go easy on yourself

You cannot expect to be your usual self when the world — including your workplace environment — is far from usual. A global pandemic doesn’t exactly make for ideal working conditions.

Even if you’re fortunate enough to still have a steady paycheck and maintain good health, stressors are everywhere and they’re impossible to ignore. You can feel grateful for your privileges and relative good fortune but still be in a rough spot mental-health-wise. That doesn’t make you weak nor spoiled; that makes you, well, human.

In fact, you may be grieving. But don’t take it purely from me; take it from a grief expert, David Kessler, who literally wrote the book on the subject. 

In this fantastic interview with the Harvard Business Review, Kessler says :

“We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. Just as going to the airport is forever different from how it was before 9/11, things will change and this is the point at which they changed. The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

He later adds:

“There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. So many have told me in the past week, ‘I’m telling my coworkers I’m having a hard time,’ or ‘I cried last night.’ When you name it, you feel it and it moves through you. Emotions need motion. It’s important we acknowledge what we go through.”

Go easy on yourself; you’re grieving. Then, read the full interview. It may help a bit.

2. Open up to others

Express your needs to your coworkers and students. Feel free to ask for more time to complete a project, inform them that you need to take a midday stress-reliever nap, or admit that your work isn’t at its best.

I’ve been communicating with my teammates in this way and have found that everyone perfectly understands. In fact, most of them are relieved; they’re facing similar challenges, and so, my admittance reassures them that it’s ok to be operating at less than one hundred percent.

We may need to be physically far from one another for a while, but emotional closeness can help everyone mentally cope.

gif of Bill Nye saying 'we're in this together'

3. Chat with students or coworkers — but not about work

I’m not saying that you should never dial a coworker to discuss a work initiative, but you should also consider chatting them up about other things, too. Discuss your emotions, swap cheesy jokes and topical memes, make your pets videoconference each other, or squeal over your latest Netflix find. (Tiger King is the Presence team’s newest favorite.)

When you’re on campus together, you’re likely not all business, all the time with students and coworkers. So, you don’t need to be that way now either. 

4. Take sick days, mental health days, and vacation days

Have you had to cancel an upcoming vacation? Me, too. (RIP April family cruise.) 

But I still plan on taking a vacation — or rather, a staycation within my apartment — during those days. I’ll mark myself as “out of office” in my work calendar and set up automatic email replies. Maybe I’ll even dance to Caribbean music and indulge in a strawberry daiquiri or two to mimic the vacation that COVID-19 stole. 

But most importantly, I won’t work. I encourage you to do the same for a few upcoming days. It’ll be good for you.

You should also take full days off if and when you’re sick, whether it’s a physical alignment or a mental health struggle.

Doing so may help you heal faster. And beyond that practical consideration, you simply deserve it. Working remotely shouldn’t mean having to work through anything. 

5. Take short breaks 

I love taking quick breaks because —

“Don’t wanna be a fool for you / just another player in your game for two / you may hate me but it ain’t no lie / baby, bye, bye, bye”

Whoops, sorry about that. I had writer’s block and *NSYNC was the only cure.

Anyway, quick breaks are great for refreshing your thinking, refocusing on tasks, and gaining energy. Here are some ideas:

  • Walk or jog around your neighborhood (Yes, this is safe during the virus outbreak — if you take simple precautions.)
  • Jam out to energetic beats or mediate to soulful tunes (Perhaps utilizing a special “work break” playlist that you cultivate yourself or borrow from others)
  • Savor a hot drink (Maybe you’ll discover a new favorite tea brew, coffee blend, or homemade hot cocoa recipe)
  • Cuddle up with your pet (Bonus points if you send us a photo)
  • Challenge yourself to a bake-off (Here are some recipe ideas that don’t require milk, butter, or eggs)
  • Dance around, not worrying about your talent or lack thereof (Who’s judging you now?! Although, if you’d like to enhance your skills, you can find loads of dance tutorials on YouTube.)
  • Nap (Bring your favorite Kindergarten activity back! Here’s the recipe for an epic power nap.)
gif of Robin Williams saying 'you deserve a break today'

Now that you agree that breaks are great, (Yes? We’re all in agreement?) you might still forget to take any. 

So, consider setting reminders for yourself throughout the day — either via calendar alerts, phone or smart speaker alarms, or an app designed for this purpose. You could even designate a friend or coworker as a break accountability buddy. 

6. Connect with former coworkers and classmates

Have you ever promised to stay in touch with a coworker or classmate… but then, didn’t?

(Whoops, consider this my own confession of guilt.)

With our usual busy lives, it can be hard to remember and devote time to the upkeep of such relationships. But now, you probably have time! Consider reaching out to see how your ole buddies are doing. You could share ideas for workplace success, brag about new elements of your lives, and reminisce about old times. 

Either way, it should be a comforting nostalgic activity. (Indeed, nostalgia has mental health benefits. It’s science.)

7. Volunteer

Given all the devastating news across the globe,  you might be grappling with guilt regarding your relatively privileged circumstances. (This isn’t to say that you should feel guilty; I just want to acknowledge that you might already feel that way, as I am.) 

So, consider volunteering. As I shared in tip #36 of my post with 53 virtual activity ideas, you can do it without leaving your quarantine bubble. Good Morning America also has a great list of virtual volunteer opportunities.

8. Don’t watch the news

I’m partially including this tip to critique myself. You see, I’m a news junkie. I constantly find myself checking in on cable TV programs, local news blogs, and impassioned Twitter accounts. It’s addicting. 

Unfortunately, it’s also akin to a black hole, sucking up every last ounce of a viewer’s energy and preventing escape. The resulting anxiety even has a psychologist-coined name: Headline Stress Disorder. It’s not an official health diagnosis, but it’s prevalent and invasive. 

So, try to stay away. Consider putting your phone on airplane mode, using an app or browser extension to block your access to news sites, or simply refusing to look

You don’t need to quit permanently. Just a few hours each day without hearing any urgent COVID-19 updates or reading about the latest political crisis can improve your mental health. 

You deserve at least a bit of ignorant bliss. CNN will still be there when you return.

9. Reward yourself and share your successes

gif of Donna from Parks and Recreation saying 'treat yo self'

When working in a shared office space, you probably receive compliments and affirmations on a job well done. But when you’re home, this will slow down. 

So, praise yourself! Celebrate your accomplishments by giving your pet an extra-long snuggle, soaking up a bubble bath, or engaging in a cake.

Oh, and cake! You don’t need to wait until your birthday to bake yourself one. 

You can even use rewards as motivation. For example, you could eat a few M&Ms after completing a paragraph, relax with a sitcom after a challenging phone call, or wait to listen to the next episode of a riveting podcast until after you’ve answered a dozen emails

You should also announce your successes to your coworkers. Shout it from the metaphorical social media rooftops, announce it via group text, or simply update your supervisor, unprompted.

It’s not about vain ego-stroking; it’s about keeping up your motivation and boosting your confidence.

10. Practice mindfulness 

“Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” — definition from mindful.org

That last bit sure does sound idyllic right now, doesn’t it? I think we’d all love to avoid feeling overwhelmed by the world outside of our self-isolated walls.

Mindfulness practice can help, and you don’t need to become an expert on the concept. 

We doled out some mindfulness practices here, plus there are many gems among this list of 71 exercises. Several mindfulness apps have even released free audio and video meditations specifically aimed at helping folx cope with the pandemic. And Headspace is offering free access to educators.  

Productivity and Creativity

11. Don’t pressure yourself to be a productivity superstar

You may have seen the above tweet or ones like it in recent weeks, as they’ve gone — er, for lack of a better word — viral. 

And while that’s great for Shakespeare (seriously, go Will!), you shouldn’t pressure yourself to live up to that impossible standard. I’m pretty sure Shakespeare didn’t have a full-time student affairs job. 

And in addition to your work, you’re trying to stay healthy, care for friends and family, and mentally adjust to unexpected life disruptions. That’s a lot. 

No decent supervisor should expect you to be valiantly productive, harnessing Shakespearearen power beyond your usual job responsibilities.

So, you can stop working on your 2 King 2 Lear: An Epic Sequel screenplay. 

Letting go of most (if not all) of your self-imposed pressures should ease your stress, which, ironically, might actually help you be productive — in healthy, reasonable ways.

12. Wear institution clothing and surround yourself with memorabilia

Even if there are no in-person events to attend or nearby quads to wander around, you can still soak in a bit of campus spirit.

Consider wearing clothing with your institution’s name, adding sports team memorabilia to your home workspace, or taking a digital tour of your campus via the admission’s website.

These small actions might help you feel connected to your students and coworkers from afar. You could even order pizza delivery from a beloved local restaurant that frequently caters campus events.

13. Adjust your schedule

If you aren’t held to strict work hours, consider customizing your schedule to fit your energy levels throughout the day. Tools like RescueTime, TimeTag, or Clockify can help you track your productivity, so you can figure out when you’re most active and focused. 

Or you can go old school with a trusty journal, by noting your mood and energy levels throughout the day in order to discern patterns.  

Just because you usually work a 9-5 day, that doesn’t mean it’s what best for you as a remote worker. Chat with your supervisor to see if there’s some flexibility for alternative commitments.

14. Create starting and ending routines

Without a commute, there are no natural start and end times to your workday. But you can create such signals for yourself.

Consider incorporating new habits into your remote life, beyond brushing your teeth, putting on clothes, and washing your hands for 20 seconds. 

These habits can mimic what you’d ordinarily do upon first entering your office, such as brewing a pot of coffee, chatting with your coworkers, or organizing your workspace. 

gif of Michael Scott walking into the office and saying 'top of the mornin to ya'

Alternatively, you can mimic your commuting routine. Maybe you listen to a podcast on your daily drive, play a mobile game while riding the bus, or sip on a smoothie during your walk to campus. 

You don’t have to put these simple pleasures on hiatus because of COVID-19. You can do them at home, perhaps while taking a stroll outside or simply letting your eyes adjust to the morning light as you lie in bed. 

Then, you can repeat these habits (or different ones) to end your day. 

These routines will help signal your mind and body when it’s time to enter and to leave work mode. Plus, you’ll get to continue enjoying your treasured routines!

15. Set ground rules with your students, coworkers, and cohabitants

You shouldn’t be working 24/7 just because you’re at home 24/7.

Set boundaries with people. Let your students and coworkers know when will and won’t be available. Tell them how you prefer to be contacted. Block time off in your calendar and make it available for anyone to view.

And if you have kids, a romantic partner, roommates, family members, a talking pet lizard (wow, cool — congrats!), or anyone else living with you, discuss what you need from them — including when that’s simply “don’t talk to me.” Make sure these folx know that you’re not on vacation; you’re working.

That said, feel free to be a bit lax on that rule, in order to boost your mental health. Family, friends, and roommates can be tremendous sources of comfort. Enjoying lunch with them, taking quick breaks to jam out to music together, or simply sitting near one another as you work doesn’t mean you’re a less devoted SA pro; it just means that you understand how to utilize your support systems!

And some folx reading this may have to devote time to their coinhabitants during work hours. If you’re a parent or other type of caregiver, chat with your supervisor about your at-home responsibilities. They should understand and can help you work out a plan for juggling your SA pro and caregiver hats.

16. Ask your supervisor for support

Speaking of your supervisor, be sure to communicate your wants and needs with them. 

Perhaps access to a digital tool (such as any of these 62 options) will help you stay organized, think creatively, and communicate smoothly with students. Maybe you need to adjust your hours to care for a sick child. Or you might prefer to check in with your supervisor each day via video phone calls, rather than emails or texts. 

Even if your supervisor has keen insight into your usual work habits, remember that you’ve entered uncharted territory. That might not be able to anticipate your needs as a remote worker.

And on the flip side, be sure to extend this courtesy to any student leaders you advise or student staff you supervise. Ask them what they need to be successful, feel confident, and care for their mental health.

17. Take advantage of virtual professional development opportunities

Much of the earlier advice here assumes that remote SA pros have a mountain of tasks to tackle, plenty to keep them busy for the foreseeable remote future. 

But I realize that this isn’t the case for every reader. Perhaps your to-do list has vanished along with your on-campus programs and live-in residents. You might be in search of things to fill up your workday.

Enter digital professional development opportunities! They can keep you occupied while boosting your resume.

Here are some to consider, including free options:

18. Ignore some advice

Some well-intentioned advice that you read online (including here!) or learn from your coworkers won’t work well for you. 

You may find, for example, that donning business attire makes you uncomfortable, not productive. You might dread using productivity apps. Or, like me, you might not have space available in your home to set up a desk.

All of that is ok. You can stay in your pajamas, use pen and paper, and work from your couch. You’re not failing anyone by picking and choosing from the unofficial Ideal Remote Worker’s handbook. 

Try things out and stick with what works best for you; you can dump the rest.

If you have any unique habits or additional creative solutions for working from home, we’d love to hear it. Connect with us @themoderncampus.

gif of Judy Dench saying 'I send you my very very best wishes'

For more tips and tricks on dealing with disruptions to our field due to the coronavirus, see my previous blog posts on virtual activity ideas and actions you can take to support students. We also made a wellness worksheet to help you and your students track your mental health progress.

Jodi Tandet

About the author: Jodi Tandet (she/her) is Modern Campus's Content Marketing Strategist. She's a proud graduate of Emory University, where she majored in Creative Writing, and of Nova Southeastern University, where she earned her master's degree in College Student Affairs. She previously worked for Hillel: the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, where she engaged students in co-curricular programming at Cornell University and The University of Pittsburgh. Learn how we can help get your students involved.