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Working From Home: Taking Care of Physical and Mental Health

By Dr. Mehrtash Amini

Think back to February 2020. Remember the cold mornings when you’d bundle up and dash from your home to your car while trying to stay warm. Recall the long commutes on snowy roads. Remember fantasizing about skipping all of that and working from home.

If you’re like many Canadians, you can vividly remember these days and these thoughts. A few short months ago, working from home in your pajamas seemed like a dream.

But then that dream came true.

With restrictions imposed by the COVID pandemic, more people are working from home. While working remotely has its advantages, it can also affect your physical and mental health.

Read on for a comprehensive physical and mental health checklist to ensure that you take care of yourself while you take care of your remote work responsibilities.

Checking on Yourself: A Physical and Mental Health Checklist for Working From Home

Physical and mental health go hand-in-hand. If you’re suffering physical symptoms, your mental health can take a hit. If you’re struggling mentally or emotionally, you often feel physical effects. A comprehensive approach to well-being is, therefore, important.

As you evaluate your overall well-being, ask yourself the following questions.

1. Are You Physically Comfortable?

If you worked a desk job in the office, you’re probably still working a desk job at home. Your office setup and workday habits have changed, though, and they may be impacting your health.

Evaluating Your Home Office

You spend much of your day in your home office. It’s important, therefore, to evaluate it for comfort.

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is your home office conducive to your physical comfort during a long workday?
  • Do you have an ergonomic desk and chair that helps you maintain good posture throughout the day?
  • Does your home office offer adequate lighting to reduce eye strain?
  • Is the temperature comfortably cool?

Evaluating Your Workday Habits

In addition to your physical surroundings, your own habits can impact your physical comfort. These habits, too, have likely changed since you’ve begun working from home. Perhaps, in the office, you had a routine that injected movement into your day. You took a walk to the copier. You checked in with your boss. You chatted around the water cooler or visited a colleague.

At home, those reasons for moving have all but disappeared. Your printer is right on your desk. Your boss and your colleagues are no longer steps—but now miles and a Zoom call—away. In other words, you have fewer reasons to get up from your desk.

Without a reason to do so, you might forget to step away from the computer and give your eyes a break. You might forget to move and stretch throughout the day.

As you become more sedentary, your physical health suffers. Eye strain and muscle tension contribute to headaches. Muscle tension in your back, shoulders, and neck can also have a ripple effect, producing pain elsewhere in your body. Perhaps your wrists begin to ache from hours of typing. Maybe you notice that you’re gaining weight.

These are negative changes, but noticing them is a step in a positive direction. Noticing them means you can adjust your home office setup and habits.

Maintaining Good Posture

Besides choosing an ergonomic chair, you can also enhance your physical comfort by maintaining good posture. To achieve optimum desk posture, maintain a straight upper back and support your lower back’s natural curve. Don’t slouch or lean to one side. Also keep your shoulders relaxed.

As you sit at your desk, keep your eyes level with your computer monitor. Your keyboard and mouse should be close enough to reach with your elbows bent. In fact, you should keep any objects you use regularly within an arms reach. If you need to stretch to reach something, stand up to get it.

While you’re sitting, your lower arms should rest parallel to the floor. Meanwhile, your upper legs should be supported at a 90-degree angle from your body. If your feet don’t reach the floor in this position, lower your chair, if it is adjustable. If it’s not, use a footstool. 

Remembering to Move

Equally important to sitting comfortably is remembering to get up and move. Experts recommend moving every 90 minutes to maximize your energy levels. If you have trouble remembering to do so, set a reminder in your calendar or an alarm on your phone.

Pro-Tip: Taking Office Comfort to the Next Level by Taking a Stand—or a Walk

Maybe you already have a comfortable setup, and you remember to move throughout the day. Consider upping your game with a standing desk or other flexible seating.

The benefits of standing desks include reduced risk for weight gain and improved energy and mood. Standing desks can also reduce your risk for pain and chronic diseases associated with prolonged sitting. These include heart disease and diabetes.

Experienced remote workers also incorporate movement into their days by getting up to walk while making business calls.

Finally, if you’re struggling with physical pain and self-help measures provide no relief, contact your family doctor. He or she can help you manage chronic and acute pain.

2. Are You Eating Well?

When you worked at the office, lunch might have been the highlight of your day. You’d never consider skipping it. It was your chance to refuel and refresh with colleagues who had become friends.

A lonely lunch at home doesn’t have the same appeal. Thus, it’s easier to skip.

If you do remember to eat, you’re still probably not eating well. While working from home, you’re likely not preparing your lunches in advance. Instead, you grab the most convenient—and often least healthy—options.

The result is inconsistent eating habits that prioritize convenience over nutrition. Inconsistent eating habits, in turn, promote weight gain. This is especially true when food choices include more junk and fewer whole foods.

Eating Well While Working from Home

Eating well while working from home is simple, but it requires you to make a commitment—to yourself. Commit to fueling your body regularly throughout the workday. Make nutrition a priority. Schedule it into your day, and don’t compromise. Giving your body the fuel it needs is not selfish, and it does not reduce your productivity. In fact, it enhances it by promoting a positive mood and energy levels.

Also make nutrition a priority by planning your meals and snacks in advance. Perhaps you don’t need to use a lunchbox, but you can “pack” a nutritious lunch and snacks each night. Designate a spot in your refrigerator for your work lunch and snacks. As you prepare these meals, balance convenience, nutrition, and portion control. Snack-sized Ziplock bags of vegetables, crackers, and cheese offer an easy solution.

Finally, remember that good nutrition and good health require good hydration. Keep track of your water consumption throughout the day with a refillable bottle.

3. Are You Sleeping Well and Maintaining a Consistent Daily Schedule?

Sleep is essential to allowing your body to function properly. Adequate sleep promotes physical and mental health. It also enhances productivity. Inadequate or excessive sleep, in contrast, contributes to a host of negative physical and mental consequences.

Working remotely can make it easier to slip into poor sleep habits and an inconsistent schedule. When you work remotely, it might be easier to hit “snooze.” Sleeping later means working later to maintain your productivity. This, in turn, throws off your schedule for the rest of the day.

Another trap remote workers fall into is choosing work over sleep or other self-care activities.

Perhaps, while working from home, you feel the need to prove that you’re working as hard as you worked in the office. Maybe you worry that a full day’s work isn’t enough. Maybe these worries haunt you at night. And maybe the lure of your nearby home office is enough to get you out of bed when you should be giving yourself a rest.

With modern technology, it was difficult to maintain a work-life balance when you worked at the office. When you’re working from home, this balance can be even more elusive. It is, nevertheless, possible.

Maintaining a Schedule, Sleep, and Adequate Work-Life Balance When Working From Home

Once again, balancing work and self-care is simple, but it does require making a commitment to yourself. Commit yourself to maintaining a normal schedule. Wake up at the same time each day. Work consistent hours as much as possible. Schedule breaks and lunches.

Include personal responsibilities and self-care activities in your formal schedule. When the workday ends, close the door on your home office. Review your calendar for your evening activities, and be sure that those activities promote your own well-being. Schedule workouts, time for family and friends, and time to journal, read, or watch your favorite show. Make yourself a priority.

4. Is Your Emotional Outlook Positive?

Making yourself a priority helps to address what is, perhaps, the most significant remote work challenge: mental health.

Working from home means that you are more isolated. Unsurprisingly, studies show remote workers report the highest levels of “extreme personal isolation.” Isolation, in turn, increases the risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

It’s important, therefore, to monitor your emotions and mental outlook. Take time to ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

  • Do I feel happy and content—or sad, anxious, and upset—most of the time?
  • Am I more irritable than usual?
  • Do I still enjoy activities that used to make me happy?
  • Do I feel connected to others, including family and friends, and do I take steps to maintain these connections?
  • Do I feel confident, competent, and capable of fulfilling my responsibilities, or do I often feel overwhelmed?

Answering these questions honestly and taking steps to address any concerns is essential to ensuring your mental health. If your answers raise red flags, consider how you can improve your mental health.

Perhaps you can incorporate additional self-care practices into your routine.

Journaling helps not only to identify negative emotions but to work through them. Scheduling regular workouts promotes physical and mental health. Reaching out to others, even via text, phone calls, or Zoom, can reduce isolation. Creating to-do lists and checking off tasks as you complete them can provide a visual record of your accomplishments. 

If you’re already struggling with mental health and working from home or find that these self-care steps aren’t enough, discuss your concerns with a qualified health provider. Working from home with depression or anxiety can be a particular struggle. However, experts in working from home psychology suggest that no struggle is insurmountable.

Self-Care Is Not Selfish

In any work environment, you aim to succeed. When you work from home, however, it can be more difficult to balance self-care and professional success. It’s important to remember, therefore, that the two are connected. Self-care is not selfish. In fact, self-care contributes to your overall personal and professional success.

By using the physical and mental health checklist above, you’re setting yourself up for success.

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