Yes, “Work From Home Brain” Is a Thing. Here’s How to Handle It

Photo: Getty Images/Aleksandar Nakic
For many, working from home has become the new norm since the pandemic hit. While some office workers are going back to cubicles and water-cooler chat, many are still working on their computers from their living rooms—or really, anywhere.

Your mind may work differently in this remote lifestyle than it did within an structured, in-office schedule. Call it WFH brain—and as a team at Microsoft discovered, it's an actual and measurable thing thing. The company's Human Factors Engineering group had a theory: At home, they thought, people may be more likely to book meetings back-to-back, which could lower productivity as compared to an in-office culture with incremental breaks in the day. Here's how their conclusions could help you WFH… but better.

Experts In This Article
  • Brian Wind, PhD, Brian Wind is a clinical psychologist in the Nashville metro area.
  • Jaclyn Bauer, PhD, Jaclyn Bauer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the CEO of Virtue.
  • Mark Miller, Mark Miller is COO/CTO of humm, a neuroscience tech company.

The WFH study and its findings

The team conducted a new study by having Microsoft Outlook automatically carve out breaks between back-to-back meetings. They had 14 volunteers wear EEG equipment—i.e., those devices that attach electrodes to one's scalp—during video meetings to monitor the electrical activity in their brains.

One Monday, the volunteers attended four 30-minute meetings consecutively without breaks. The following Monday, they attended the same four meetings but punctuated them with 10-minute breaks, during which they meditated with Headspace. Surprise! On the day without breaks, beta wave activity—aka, the brain waves associated with stress—was higher than the day with breaks. "That allowed people to start their next meeting in a more relaxed state,” says Brian Wind, PhD, a clinical psychologist in the Nashville area.

The study participants were more engaged and focused when they had breaks.

As it turns out, participants were also more engaged and focused when they had breaks. "With breaks, participants showed positive levels of frontal alpha symmetry, which correlates to higher engagement and/or focus, so there’s an importance of taking short breaks at work to reduce stress and improve focus and engagement," says Mark Miller, COO/CTO of humm, a neuroscience tech company.

This research might help companies create new policies around WFH. "As more companies shift towards a hybrid remote model where employees work part of the day at home, it may be important to implement a policy of breaks between video meetings to increase productivity and help employees manage stress," says Dr. Wind.

What are the pros and cons of WFH?

Working from home has been a mixed bag for many people. "People have enjoyed not having to commute and sit in traffic, the ability to spend more time with their families, and working from the comfort of their home," says Jaclyn Bauer, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the CEO of Virtue supplements. Working from home provides the opportunity to pop outside for a walk, sleep in due to a nonexistent commute, and squeeze in a yoga routine.

For some people, the line between home and work is disappearing.

But, says Dr. Bauer, there are negative aspects as well. "[They include] trying to balance work and home life—kids, laundry, cleaning—as well as lack of social interaction and brain fatigue from back-to-back virtual meetings." Plus, for some people, the line between home and work is disappearing, which means it's harder to leave work at the office, proverbially speaking. "Some people have also found themselves working beyond normal working hours and answering emails at all hours of the day, since there is now no physical separation between work and personal time," says Dr. Wind.

And if you feel like you're not remembering things as well as you used to, you're not imagining things. Working memory performance is easily affected by everything from too much caffeine to worry. "The pandemic has put further stress on our daily lives, which then impacts sleep, physical well-being and therefore, working memory, too," Miller adds.

How to use WFH to your advantage

Breaks are important—not just in sequential online meetings, but also in all mind-intensive work activities. "To perform your best, you need to take regular breaks to reset," says Miller.

The Microsoft study participants used their breaks to meditate, but that's not the only option. "Meditation is wonderful, but for people who would like to have other options for their breaks, here are additional activities: sitting outside without electronics, going for a short walk, moving our bodies and doing some simple stretches, or playing with a pet," says Dr. Bauer.

And when it's tough to keep your mind on task, try the Pomodoro technique, which Miller recommends for focus. It involves setting a timer for a duration of time (typically 25 to 45 minutes) during which you work. When the timer goes off, take a short (3-5 minute) break before starting again. "We recommend pairing this practice with lyric-free music for best focus, something with 60-70 beats per minute," says Miller. Even if you don’t use the Pomodoro method, you can set a calendar reminder or timer on your phone to remind you to take an hourly break for a brain reset.

How long will people be working from home? That depends on the situation. But as long as your "office" is your living room (or bedroom corner—no judgments!—these techniques can help your brain do its best work.

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