Maintaining Emotional Safety & Healthy Work Boundaries from Home

When I worked at the Community Counseling Center in Denver, Colorado, I knew that no matter what kind of crisis, trauma, and grief I had witnessed in my clients, I had a 40 minute-drive home in which I could decompress and reorient myself into home life. My front door was the threshold that once I crossed, the weight of the work was left behind me. It is not only good self-care, but also ethically imperative to practice and maintain healthy boundaries. The sudden shift to work-from-home has been a challenge for many. Change is hard anytime; change in the midst of crisis can feel flat-out painful. There is an added strain being faced by professionals like therapists, social workers, lawyers, and caseworkers. Their work requires them to provide tele-therapy, psychological assessments, case management, legal counsel, and more from their homes. Most of the time the biggest challenge working from home is finding space that will keep the outside distractions of home out. However, when work exposes a professional to trauma and acute emotional distress, their biggest challenge is keeping that distress from seeping into the safe sanctuary of their homes. Here are some things that can help create healthy boundaries of work within the confines of home:

Create Dedicated Space:  As much as possible, set aside one room or specific location from which to work. Avoid, however, working from your bedroom. Your bedroom should be preserved as a sanctuary of rest and peace. If you don’t have a separate room, keep the location as consistent as possible. If you are working from the kitchen table, for example, do something different with the table during “work hours.” That might mean something simple like covering the table with a different tablecloth or turning the table in a different orientation. If you were able to pick up things from the office, set out a few desk items (photo or knick-knack) that you only put out during work. As much as possible, have your work ‘stuff’ completely out of sight when you are not working.

Beginning and End of Work Ritual: Be intentional about the start and end of each work period. When you don’t have the ritual of walking through office doors, saying good morning to colleagues and grabbing your lunch bag from the refrigerator at the end of the day, it is all the more important to create stand-in rituals at home. They can be serious and functional or silly and fun.

  • Change clothes for work. I’m not suggesting dressing up for work (although, if it works for you, do it!). What you are wearing isn’t as important as the fact that it is different. Think of Mr. Rogers changing from his jacket to his cardigan.
  • Have a song that you play right before working and a different one you play at the end. One that pumps you up and one that helps you calm.
  •  Do a little dance at the end of the day to shake your body into a new space. Our bodies hold our stress and strain. Movement releases that anxiety.
  • Take a drive around the block before and after working (bonus points for listening to your song while driving).
  • Take 10-30 minutes of after work before re-engaging with family/housemates. Let them know that you will need space for “re-entry” and when you are ready, greet them with a “Hi. I’m back home.” 

Mindfulness: In the practice of meditation, “coming home” is to an internal spiritual place, not an external physical one. Taking a few moments of mindfulness can reestablish the feeling of coming home. We can create a safe space within our bodies to come home to no matter what it going on in our external lives. If you are not a practitioner of mindfulness or meditation, choose an activity during your “re-entry” period between work and home that is repetitive and mindless: chop veggies for dinner, fold clothes or play a game of solitaire. Put headphones on and think of nothing other than the simple task at hand. I am a terrible gardener, but when my family sees me in the front yard pulling weeds, they know to give me space.

We all need safe sanctuary from the outside world. Ironically, the need for us to work inside our homes to keep ourselves physically safe right now, can make it more challenging to stay emotionally safe. My wish for you is to discover that the safe harbor that you need is within you.

Be well. Stay resilient.

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