Many people have been working from home since lockdown began, swapping offices and desks for kitchen tables and sofas. Although restrictions are beginning to lift, lots of us will continue working remotely for the foreseeable future.
There are a lot of well-touted perks to home-working, but it’s not always easy. Few people have proper home offices, it’s hard to switch off and suddenly, you’re around your partner 24/7. Tensions are high amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its disastrous impact on businesses and jobs, so it’s easy for tempers to fly — and stress to take over.
Even if you are managing to cope, your partner might not be. So how can you stop their stress from becoming your own, while supporting them?
“We tend to pick up on the emotions of those around us, especially when we are in close relationship with them,” explains psychotherapist and counsellor Lucy Fuller, a Counselling Directory member.
“The same is also true when you are engrossed in watching a film or tv programme. If you are focusing on someone who is feeling sad or anxious, your own feelings mirror that of the character you are watching. This is why we cry alongside someone who is sad or get butterflies and feel jittery alongside someone who is nervous.”
When we’re around someone who is stressed or overwhelmed, it’s likely we will pick up on those feelings. We might also start to overthink the consequences of their stress, such as whether they will quit without a plan for the future, Fuller adds. “This can add an additional layer of concerns and worries to our situation,” she says.
It can be tricky to strike the right balance between being supportive and protecting your own mental wellbeing, but it is important. So what can you do?
When it comes to stress, Fuller says it is essential to try and separate our worries into things we can control and those we can’t. “Our energy is wasted on feeling anxious about those things that are beyond our ability to change. So think about the actions that are within your power to change,” she says.
“For example, you might be able to support your partner by empathising with their difficulties and helping them find good ways to relax, de-stress and think about their need for self care. You can also be supportive by being able to discuss with them, adult to adult, how best to try and change their work situation to make it less stressful.”
By getting stressed yourself, your partner will sense your anxiety and become even more distressed and agitated too. “So the more you are able to be calm yourself and talk logically about the situation, the more this will help your partner to think clearly about their situation and how they might be able to make some positive changes to their work/life balance,” Fuller says.
Anna Barez-Brown, co-founder of the coaching consultancy Shine, says it’s crucial to remember that you aren’t in their workspace — and you don’t experience their day-to-day work culture.
“Your partner, on the other hand, will be used to it,” she says. “They will likely be looking for some way to vent to relieve pent up stress and worries, particularly during these uncertain times when situations are perhaps easier to misconstrue as they're communicated virtually and without the flexibility to confide in colleagues in person to gain a second perspective on the situation in hand.”
Creating boundaries is also key, which means removing yourself and creating more time for yourself. Setting household rules can also be an effective coping mechanism. “Limit work-related conversations to work hours, creating these time boundaries will ensure you do not let work consume your relationship,” Barez-Brown says.
Be empathetic and listen if they want to talk about what is stressing them out. But it’s also useful to suggest coping mechanisms that you’ve found helpful, such as writing worries down, taking regular breaks or having a cut-off point in the afternoon or evening.
“Perspective is hugely important. Understand clearly what your partner wants from you,” Barez-Brown says. “Often this will be to just listen, not to fix the problem. Remember, it is not helpful for someone who has no affiliation with the company culture in question to offer ways to solve the issue. You are not familiar with the environment, so don't be tempted to try.”