Thanks to the pandemic, millions of people went from commuting to work to commuting to their kitchen tables, and it hasn’t been an easy transition for everyone. According to a Yahoo Finance-Harris poll, 40% of Americans were working at home full time in June 2020. And the continuing COVID-19 crisis means working from home is a reality for a large sector of American workers. If you’re one of them, you’re probably feeling the strain as you adapt.
A work-at-home lifestyle can mean significant changes in your daily schedule. Working conditions that were OK in a pinch aren’t always sustainable over a long period. Your health comes first, and working where you eat, sleep, and spend time with your family isn’t always ideal. Taking the time to frame your workday around your physical and mental health goes a long way in making your at-home workspace more sustainable without making big changes or spending a lot of money.
How to Stay Healthy While Working From Home
Whether you’ve seen the difference in energy levels, on the scale, or in sleep habits, health issues are a common side effect of any major life change. Suddenly shifting to telecommuting can be uncomfortable at first, but it’s crucial to take the time to check in with your physical and mental health. No matter how long you expect to work from home, focusing on your environment and health contributes to everything from your work-from-home productivity to your relationships.
Hunching over your kitchen table or trying to work from the couch is OK for a few days, but it can have long-term repercussions. From headaches to back pain or sore hands and wrists, poor ergonomics in your home office space make working from home feel physically draining and even painful. Follow these guidelines from the Mayo Clinic to make sure your home office has the ideal setup:
- Adjust Your Computer Monitor. Move your computer monitor up or down so your eyes line up with the top of the screen. Adjust your monitor so it’s no more than an arm’s length away from your body.
- Move Your Chair. Move your chair so your elbows form a 90-degree angle when resting on the computer keyboard. If possible, adjust your chair height so your feet are flat on the floor and your hips are square with your workspace.
- Check Your Keyboard. When your hands rest on your keyboard, check to see that your wrists are straight and hands are comfortably at or below your elbow level.
- Reach Less. To avoid straining your neck and back, store your most-needed supplies where you can easily access them without continually reaching. If you can’t keep them in drawers or a space near you, put them far enough away to force yourself to stand to get them.
If you can invest in a comfortable office chair or adjustable desk, you can easily experiment with positions. If not, try different configurations for more comfort: a yoga block or box under a tall chair, for instance, can give you a better footrest.
Schedule Physical Activity
It’s easy to become absorbed in your work at home. With all your creature comforts at arm’s reach, you don’t have the opportunities to get up and move around like you did at the office. That’s why it’s vital you schedule physical activity breaks throughout the day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends healthy adults get at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Broken down into 30-minute chunks, it’s a completely doable goal that benefits your mental and physical wellness.
Schedule exercise the same way you would an urgent meeting or appointment. If you can’t head to the gym, try one of these budget-friendly at-home workouts:
- Walk around the block for some fresh air on your lunch hour.
- Join an online workout via YouTube or browse workouts with a free app like FitOn.
- Reserve a workout DVD from your local library. DVD rental is just one of the many free resources many libraries offer, and some libraries offer reservations and pickup without face-to-face contact.
- Break your physical activity into 15-minute chunks, and do a quick yoga routine or go for a jog.
- Take a walk when on a phone call that doesn’t require you to be at your computer.
- Set a timer to chime every hour to remind you to stand up and stretch for a few minutes before getting back to work.
- If other people are working and learning in your home, schedule a break at the same time. Head outside for a game of soccer or walk the dog together to connect.
- Use chores as a way to get physical. Spruce up your workspace and sneak in some exercise by taking a break to vacuum or sweep.
Scheduling physical activity means making it a priority and stepping away from your computer regularly throughout the day. As a bonus, it can help you reset and refocus so you’re even more productive.
Working from home often makes it hard to maintain a healthy work-life balance. It’s all too easy to pick up work during family time or allow home life to distract you when you need to focus on work.
Healthy boundaries help lower your stress level and develop a healthier work-life balance. A study of 526 teachers published in the May 2020 issue of the Journal of Organizational Behavior found that information communication technology (think cellphones and email) intruding on home life could result in negative effects like insomnia and negative thoughts.
Boundaries are a healthy way to delineate between work and home when you don’t have the physical separation you used to. Some boundaries to consider (and hopefully maintain) include:
- A Daily Work Schedule. Use a schedule or calendar app to plan your day by the hour and clearly allocate time for work and home life. You don’t need to detail your day by the minute, but you should block out chunks of time without overlapping work and family time.
- Set Alarms. Use your phone’s alarms to tell you when to start and stop work for the day, including scheduling time for breaks and lunch.
- Set Co-Worker Expectations. Let your co-workers know when they can and can’t reach you. Sending a quick text or message might not seem like a big deal, but it saves you from disruptions during time you carve out for yourself and your family.
- Talk to Your Family. Discuss your schedule and set expectations for noise and interruptions at home. It’s much easier for your kids to be quiet if they know it’s for a finite time and that they’ll get your undivided attention when quiet time is over.
- Work Opposite Schedules. If you have a partner, try to plan your work schedules around each other’s. If only one of you is working at a time, it frees up the other to help around the house, spend time with kids, and handle unexpected calls or visitors.
- Close Up Shop. When deciding where to put your home office, focus on moving your workspace into an area away from your living space. A basement, closet, or guest room allows you to work with fewer interruptions and put your work away at the end of the day.
Plan Healthy Meals & Snacks
It’s inevitable: With your kitchen just a few steps away, easily accessible snacks are bound to tempt you. The trick is to make sure your fridge and cupboards are stocked with healthy snacks to you reach for instead of chips and sugar, which give you a short burst of energy and result in a crash later. Focus on snacks that are high in fiber or protein, which are super-filling without being calorically dense. Home-popped popcorn, steamed edamame, a veggie tray, or beef jerky are healthy options for all-day grazing.
It’s tempting to use a food delivery app and eat at your desk when working from home, which busts both your budget and your diet. If possible, make a meal plan and eat your meals away from your desk. It makes for a healthy break, and being more mindful and intentional about your meals can help you recognize your hunger and satiety cues. A study published in a 2017 issue of Nutrition Research Reviews found that more mindful eating can reduce your food intake to avoid conditions like binge or emotional eating. Working from home can be stressful. Avoid turning to unhealthy foods to cope.
Meal planning can be simple and doesn’t necessarily require a lot of prep. Instead of preparing entire meals, keep your fridge and pantry stocked with healthy ingredients, and you can mix and match a meal plan based on what you already have. Some things to keep at the ready include:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Cooked quinoa
- Washed and cut fruit
- Washed and cut vegetables
- Cooked chicken
- Mixed greens
Quick lunches like scrambled eggs with tomato and basil or a quinoa salad with chicken, olives, cucumber, and feta keep you full and satisfied while you work. Making lunch and eating away from your computer creates a healthy ritual to become more mindful and choose foods that help you work smarter.
If you’re dragging throughout the day, easy access to your kitchen coffee pot makes that quick hit of caffeine even more valuable. But that often leads to consuming more coffee than usual or simply forgetting to drink water without the office watercooler as a reminder. Unfortunately, coffee, sugary sodas, and juices can add up fast — both calorically and in your grocery budget.
Water is the best, least-expensive way to healthy hydration. Keep a water bottle on hand and set goals for hydrating throughout the day. According to the Mayo Clinic, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends men drink 3.7 liters and women drink 2.7 liters of water each day, so set a timer to remind you to drink up.
If you’re feeling watered out, a squeeze of lemon or a floating cucumber offers a little extra flavor, while unsweetened green tea gives you an energy boost. Avoid sugary drinks, and if you do drink caffeine, keep your intake under the United States Food and Drug Administration’s recommendation of 400 milligrams per day.
When you’re used to chatting around the watercooler or grabbing a coffee with your co-workers, working at home often feels isolating. Ironically, if you feel alone, you’re not alone: Buffer’s 2020 State of Remote Work found that 20% of at-home workers cited loneliness as one of the biggest struggles of their work-from-home routine. Those feelings of isolation and loneliness add to anxiety and even depression, so it’s essential you make an effort to connect whenever you can. Regular conference calls don’t replace casually connecting in other ways, such as:
- Create a Casual Chat. Use a service like Slack or Gmail Chat to check in on your co-workers and talk about what’s going on in your life.
- Create a Private Facebook Group. Invite your co-workers to a private Facebook group to swap ideas, share funny videos, create conversations, and stay in touch.
- Organize a Happy Hour. A virtual happy hour might not be the same as your usual real-life ritual, but it gives you a chance to socialize outside work. Set up a meeting via Zoom, create a theme for cocktails, and challenge your co-workers to develop creative recipes as you catch up.
- Attend a Virtual Conference. The pandemic has changed many aspects of society. Many industry conferences are going virtual because of COVID-19. If you usually attend a conference or seminar, check with the organizers, and register and attend any virtual events they’re having.
- Start a Workplace TV Show or Book Group. Create conversations around a shared interest by creating a TV show watch group or book club with your colleagues. Set a deadline for watching the show or reading a chapter each week, and then discuss it over Zoom.
- Take a Coffee Break. With your manager’s permission, schedule a virtual coffee break where you chat about nonwork-related topics in your Slack channel or Facebook group at a specific time before heading back to work.
Social distancing throughout the pandemic might already have you missing connection with your family and friends. Your co-workers represent a built-in network of individuals you communicate with regularly. Leverage that as a way to connect and feel less isolated and part of a community.
Create an End-of-Day Ritual
The stress of working from home and caring for your family while completing your work duties — all within the same space and time frame — takes its toll over time. You feel mentally overloaded, and that stress can have physical repercussions too. The National Alliance on Mental Illness warns that a sustained level of high stress can result in insomnia, headaches, low energy, intestinal issues, and aches and pains. It suggests creating self-care rituals to help you unwind, so why not use those rituals as a way to end your workday? Doing so signals to your brain that you’re done for the day while allowing you to participate in some much-needed self-care.
Try some of these rituals to help you put a period at the end of your day:
- Close your laptop or turn off your monitor so you’re less likely to get distracted by emails or messages.
- Light a candle to switch your home from work to family mode.
- Keep your phone charger in a separate room, and put your phone away when work is over.
- Take a shower or pair a soak in your tub with some DIY beauty treatments, then change into comfortable clothes.
- Do something active to release any built-up work stress. Go for a jog, take an online spin class, or look up relaxing yoga videos through an app like Aaptiv.
- Do something you love. Try a new recipe, catch up on your favorite reality show, or listen to a podcast.
- Meditate. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health suggests that meditation helps reduce stress, high blood pressure, and depression and can help with insomnia. Try apps like Calm and Headspace for guided meditations and prompts to help you get started.
Schedule a clear end to your day, and do something to switch your mind off so you’ll be ready to tackle work the next morning.
Working from home has its perks, but it has some challenges too. Whether you’re sharing the space with your kids or partner or feeling isolated, don’t neglect your self-care when working from home. If your temporary workspace has become your long-term situation, think about how it’s affecting your health. What seemed like a short-term arrangement for some has become a long-term lifestyle adjustment. It’s all too easy to put your health on the back burner while operating in survival mode.
Instead, putting plans in place to set boundaries and nourish your body and mind helps keep you healthy while you stay productive.
Are you currently working from home? What are some of the ways you’ve coped with the change?