Working from Home? Here's How to Keep It Healthy
Dec 20, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has sidelined most non-essential workers to their homes since March 2020. Everyone who can work from home has worked from home – especially those living in major cities where commuting on public transportation poses an obvious risk for infection spreading. By sheer numbers, the United States has effectively become a “work from home economy” – with nearly twice as many employed people working at home as people going into the work. (1) Many companies have started embracing remote work as a viable option for their employees through recent years – pandemic notwithstanding. People have been increasingly asking for greater flexibility in their working arrangements and locations to help account for balancing work and personal priorities. The state-level “stay at home” orders and the pandemic at large have merely hastened the acceptance of such work environments. By some measures, workers have proven they can be even more productive at home. (2) Productivity levels aside, successfully working from home has introduced significant challenges and can have specific implications on your health and wellbeing. Learn more about related health issues and ways you can get ahead on addressing them.
Don’t Have a Home Office? Set up a Dedicated Workspace
If you do not have the luxury of an in-home office, you will want to set aside a designated workspace. Having a specific place where you work can create a sense of “going to work” without leaving your home – setting you up to get into a different mindset while working and sticking to established working routines. Beyond the space itself, you will want to make sure your office furniture and supplies are comfortable. Get a supportive, comfortable chair to help keep your posture in check. Ensure your desk or table is at a comfortable height for a full day’s work. Consider setting up an external keyboard if you use a laptop to help support overall body mechanics. Get a standing desk if you do not have a surface at the right height, or prop your laptop up on some books so you are not forced to hunch over while working. Able to set your space up in a spot where you can get sunlight or fresh air? Even better.
Start Work on Time and Finish on Time
Keeping a healthy work-life balance is always a priority, but it is particularly easy to fall into an unhealthy working schedule when “work” and “home” are the same place. Blurred lines between career and personal life can create new stressors – especially if you are also balancing remote schooling for children or otherwise caring for a loved one. Working longer hours is okay when needed, but it should not become a pattern. Studies have shown that working long hours consistently can have serious, adverse effects on your health – including: (3)
- Cardiovascular health problems
- Chronic fatigue
- Depression, anxiety and other mental health symptoms
- Difficulty with sleep
- Increased alcohol consumption and smoking
- Personal perception of health Remember – just because you are no longer commuting does not mean you owe your job any additional hours of your time without reason. ## Take Mental Health Breaks Working from home can be emotionally taxing – especially in the context of the pandemic. It is easy to get caught up in the stresses of work and to let that negative energy spill over into your personal life when work and home are the same places. It can be difficult to “turn off” at the end of the day. Scheduling and honoring mental health breaks can help improve productivity and, more importantly, your overall health. The optimal frequency, duration and nature of mental health breaks inevitably vary from person to person, but trial and error can help you figure out what works best for you. The American Psychological Association notes that regularly detaching from work can increase your energy in the short term and avoid long-term burnout. (4) Practicing mindfulness during these scheduled times can help maximize the benefits of your break. Mindfulness, put simply, is the act of being aware of and paying attention to what is occurring in the present moment without judgment. It allows you to observe what is happening around you and what you feel in the moment without attaching interpretation to those things – bringing a sense of calm and clarity. Meditation and breathing exercises are examples of activities that promote mindfulness. (5) ## Schedule Time for Movement Each Day Working from home creates little natural opportunity for meaningful movement. This is especially true in the pandemic context, where most people are encouraged to stay inside their homes whenever possible. Quarantine or no quarantine, it is imperative to carve out time in your day for movement to avoid falling into a sedentary lifestyle pattern. According to the World Health Organization, living a prolonged sedentary lifestyle can lead to increased death of all causes and the following dangerous health conditions (6):
- A doubled risk for cardiovascular diseases
- High blood pressure
- Depression and anxiety
- Lipid disorders
- Increased risk for colon cancer You do not need expensive home gym equipment to get the movement levels you need to avoid a sedentary lifestyle. Taking a walk, doing yoga or even some floor exercises are all great and affordable ways to keep yourself in shape. Creating a schedule will help make it a part of your daily routine and improves the overall likelihood that you will stick to good habits. ## Stay Social (from a Distance) One of the benefits of working in an office environment is the ease with which connections are made and relationships are fostered. Right now, we are encouraged to say away from one another – physically speaking – but keeping up social relationships at work can do wonders for both health and overall productivity while boosting morale. Some ways you can stay connected to your coworkers from afar include (7):
- Schedule daily check-ins to give everyone on the team an opportunity to talk about how they are and what they are working on
- Use the camera on conference calls where appropriate to imitate “face-to-face” interaction – but do not overdo it. “Zoom fatigue” is real
- Put time on the calendar dedicated explicitly to catching up with your friends about work and life in general
- Set up time dedicated specifically to socializing – such as a virtual happy hour or weekly book club
- Host health challenges to keep people moving and engaged – such as a steps challenge ## Work from Home Health: The Takeaway Outside of the pandemic context, working from home is considered a desirable employment perk. Flexible work from home policies allow people to strike a better balance between personal and work obligations – but people in prolonged work from home situations need to be wary of this lifestyle’s potential consequences if not carefully managed. Following the advice above and other general wellness tips can help to ensure that your time working from home is not only productive, but also healthy.
- Stanford University. Stanford research provides a snapshot of a new working-from-home economy. Published June 29, 2020.
- Harvard Business Review. Research: Knowledge Workers Are More Productive at Home. August 31, 2020.
- Wong K, Chan AHS, Ngan SC. The Effect of Long Working Hours and Overtime on Occupational Health: A Meta-Analysis of Evidence from 1998 to 2018. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019;16(12):2102.
- American Psychological Association. Give Me a Break. Monitor on Psychology. 2019;Vol. 50 No. 1, published January 2019.
- Toniolo-Barrios M, Pitt L. Mindfulness and the challenges of working from home in times of crisis. Bus Horiz. 2020;10.1016/j.bushor.2020.09.004.
- World Health Organization. Physical inactivity a leading cause of disease and disability, warns WHO. April 2, 2002.
- PricewaterhouseCoopers. How to stay connected when working remotely. March 24, 2020.
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