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Every day is the same. Bella* waits, staring aimlessly out of her flat’s first floor window until they appear: two children riding their horses – one chestnut brown and one dusky white – in single file down the streets of Kingston-upon-Thames. “I watch them coming round every morning,” she laughs. “I have no idea where they keep those horses. One day I will follow them.”
When she’s not peering out the window, Bella spends around six hours a day aimlessly scrolling on Twitter. She used to work in central London, but now she is among the thousands of people stuck at home every day with nowhere to go, and finding it almost impossible to concentrate.
For those that still have jobs, the prospect of working from home until the end of the year, or possibly forever, stretches out like limbo. Shops, pubs and restaurants may have reopened and the first cohort of office workers are testing the waters of a socially isolated workspace, but for many working from home any hope of sustained concentration has whimpered and died.
People admit to being constantly distracted by foxes and birds in neighbours’ gardens, haplessly playing online games during work hours, or secretly watching delivery people on their rounds every day (even though they never ordered anything themselves). Every day is the same as the next, they say: stuck at home, which is also work, and failing miserably at being productive.
They are experiencing a neurological phenomenon, chronic low-grade stress, which was triggered by the coronavirus lockdown, and has sent our bodies into overdrive and is wearing down creativity and concentration.
When we experience mental and physical strain that is potentially health threatening, our brains fire off cortisol and adrenaline to keep us in survival mode. That reroutes the blood flow in the brain and keeps the resources that the blood gives to the brain, like oxygen and glucose, for the things that you need to survive, rather than thrive, explains Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and author of The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life. “Concentration, memory, collaboration, creativity – the brain isn’t going to give up resources for those things when it doesn’t know when the danger is going to be over,” she says. “When we went into lockdown, the stress was in the background but it was pretty powerful. Now it’s been there for nearly five months.”
Unchecked long-term chronic stress that forces the body into perpetual survival mode can lead to mental health problems such as depression or anxiety, and has been linked to cardiovascular dysfunctions, diabetes, cancer and autoimmune syndromes
As some people return to the workplace now and over the coming months, the concern is that that low-grade stress will upgrade to full-blown anxiety. People are just as afraid of being in public, shared spaces as they are about missing out on promotions or securing their job future by going into the office with their colleagues. “Whichever way they choose, people are getting one form of anxiety. It’s such an unprecedented level of uncertainty for all of us,” Swart argues. “Some people have tried to maintain their motivation and their focus. It’s not possible to maintain it like it was before.”
Based on population norm studies, women are more able to recover their resilience after prolonged periods of stress, Swart notes, whereas men are better at coping with an “acute stressful event” but need proper recovery time afterwards. Put simply, men are more likely to suffer from higher episodes of “spacing out”.
Unchecked, this stress could be a key contributor to what experts are already warning will be a mental health tsunami in the UK. Research from mental health charity Mind found that two-thirds of adults and three-quarters of 13 to 24-year-olds with a pre-existing mental health problem said that it worsened during lockdown. Already, employers have been inundated with requests for mental health support as people cope with the effects that the disease and the prolonged lockdown has had on their lives.
In South London, Whitney* started a new job during lockdown, but says her mood still varied wildly week to week during the crisis and she struggled to get work done. “There were a couple of weeks where I would feel super distracted and restless. I could focus for maybe an hour and that would be it, I would be completely tapped out for the day,” she explains. “It’s really bad – I’d just read the news. It doesn’t seem that bad until it’s like ‘oh my God, the world is ending’. It’s very overwhelming, every time I open social media, another black person is dead, there’s another rally, there’s another protest.” She soon felt like she had no escape from bad news online. But these last two weeks have been worse, she explains, because she feels like the world is moving on and she is still standing still, “very much in lockdown mode”.
This is a common feeling for the vast majority of office workers that are still at home, says Jo Yarker, senior lecturer in organisational psychology at Birkbeck, University of London. “You feel left behind without the control and have no power to do anything about it,” she says. “But the longer that we have been on our own and under pressure, there is a spiral that is very difficult to break.” We might stop doing things like exercising and eating healthily, which are good for our bodies and our concentration and can diffuse the feeling of loss, she explains.
One of the approaches that psychologists refer to is the IGLOO framework, which attempts to bring workers back to work following a mental health crisis. Applied to entire workforces after the coronavirus crisis, this would involve identifying the things that a person, their team and their companies can do to make the adaptation easier.
In this approach, we tend to think about working on one thing at a time, Yarker says, spanning from what technology people need to better do their jobs and relieve stress, and how people communicate with each other to be more considerate about others’ stress levels. “But we need to get our house in order as individuals, as managers and as organisations so that we can at least get through the summer.”
The advice on how to battle harmful lapses in concentration is simple: drink water, cut the caffeine after midday, do exercise, get some sleep and stop working excessive hours. But most importantly – give yourself a break.
“For many of us, when we’ve been through a traumatic event, it will take time but we will naturally heal and feel okay. From redundancy research for example, six months to a year after the event those feelings of anxiety and depression all reduce for the majority of people,” Yarker says. “We find that people who manage their mental health well, particularly after a period of being unwell, are people who worked hard to put in strategies to control their reactions to technology, to limit the news, to put in clear routines about how they are engaging with things that they know don’t serve them well.“
Don’t worry, not everything we do during lockdown is motivated by gut-wrenching chronic stress. This length of isolation has turned us all into strange creatures who make up backstories for strangers we’ve never met, are incapable of writing an email without several breaks, and who doomscroll on TikTok for hours every day. That is mostly driven by boredom, which as a negative emotion can still act as a powerful motivator to seek more mental stimulation.
If you place someone in an empty room with nothing to do, they will often try to entertain themselves to pass the time, because when we are trapped in isolated circumstances, our brains are wired to seek something to entertain us – even if it’s slightly strange. Enter Ben* who claims that since the start of lockdown, the streets where he lives are very quiet. “Birdsong erupted every morning,” he writes. Faced with nothing else to do, he started spying on his neighbour.
Before the easing of lockdown, his neighbour’s son and daughter in law and their child moved in and became his sole entertainment. “They were the only people visible to me,” he confides. “A white man on a balcony across from me became my touchstone.”
*Some names have been changed
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