Published: 7 December 2020. Written by: Jo Carnegie
Working from home has become a way of life for millions of us – so how can you get the best out of it and swap out unhealthy behaviours that have crept in for habits that will serve us better? Vitality investigates.
How’s working from home going for you? It’s been the year of Zoom, Slack and Teams as nearly nine million of us have swapped office life for our bedrooms, kitchen tables and any other surface we can balance our laptops on.
At first, we embraced the change: no more commute, more flexibility and the chance to put our feet up and watch a bit of daytime TV while we ate poached eggs for lunch. But 10 months on with 65% of us reporting an increase in mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, longer working hours and rising levels of loneliness, the gloss has started to wear off.
But with things not looking to change for the foreseeable future and global companies such as Microsoft leading a trend to let employees work from home permanently, WFH isn’t going anywhere.
Here we look at some of the ways WFH has affected our health and how we can start 2021 afresh.
WFH problem 1: ‘I’ve swapped my commute for an extra hour in bed’
Swapping the commute for more time in bed might sound like a good health trade. But research shows that we’ve actually been sleeping worse since the pandemic, so chances are we’re not getting the restful benefits of a decent slumber.
Instead, consider using that time to create a new start to your day: go for a walk when you would normally be commuting, start a meditation or yoga practice or even go for a drive. The temptation to stay in our PJs is strong, especially now winter is here, but it could be having a negative effect on us.
Lizzy Dening is a journalist and author of newsletter Out of Office and says that getting dressed in the mornings, even if it’s into a tracksuit, makes an important distinction between work and home life. ‘It can be a challenge working in the same spaces where I rest and spend time with my husband,’ she says. ‘Making sure I’m wearing something different can help to set boundaries. This then makes it easier for me to switch off into “pyjama mode” later on.’
WFH problem 2: ‘I feel really lonely not being in an office’
‘Social isolation is one of the two major negatives of working from home,’ says Dr Rachel Lewis, occupational psychologist and Director at Affinity Health at Work and Birkbeck, University of London.
Working from home means we miss those spontaneous interactions that formed the social glue to our day. Technology might not feel like a real substitute for seeing someone in the flesh but we can use it to feel more connected.
Set time at the start of each meeting to ‘check in’ with colleagues, hold regular non-work social webinars where you talk about anything other than work, and plan three informal contact points per day (even if just a quick text),’ advises Rachel.
WFH problem 3: ‘I’ve never felt so busy and overwhelmed in my career’
The second big drawback of working from home is what Rachel calls ‘work intensification’ – in short, an increased workload.
Away from the beady eyes of our bosses and co-workers, we might have thought we could slack off a bit, but research shows we’re working up to two hours extra a day.
A major reason for this is down to boundaries, or rather a lack of them. ‘When we’re in a workplace, we have our commute in, which is a transition into the workplace, and we have our commute home, which is a transition out of the workplace,’ Rachel explains. ‘We might do some overtime but it’s very clear that it is overtime.’ But with WFH, there is a danger that those clearly defined parameters can disappear, along with regular breaks.
‘You lose a lot of the social cues you get in an office,’ says Rachel. ‘People are more likely to get up and go straight to their computer, and not break for lunch and find themselves sitting in the same position six hours later.’
To counteract this, have a daily routine and try to stick to your old working hours. ‘Breaks are necessary for us to cognitively recharge,’ says Rachel. ‘Take a break every 1-2 hours, focusing on respite and connection.’
WFH problem 4: ‘My boss emails me at all hours’
Katie, 35, is a worker from London. Her company has been working at home since the pandemic. ‘My boss introduced a “no emails after 6.30pm” policy at work but it applies to everyone but her,’ she says. ‘I continue to receive text messages, WhatsApp notifications and emails late into the night and at weekends. It’s really starting to affect my mental health, but at a time where people are losing their jobs, I feel pressure to respond to every message.’
It can feel daunting bringing it up with your line manager but suffering in silence may only make things worse. ‘It’s best to talk to our bosses about the way we are feeling and how we are affected by it, and then work out what will help us,’ says Rachel. ‘We’re all having to work different times at the moment.
‘As bosses, we have to be conscious of that and tell employees that we don’t expect them to respond if we’re emailing them outside of their work hours.’
It works both ways, however. ‘From an employee point of view, we have to set our own boundaries as well,’ says Rachel. ‘So we need to put an out of office response on our emails when we finish for the day and turn off work notifications on our devices. In that way, it sends a constant reinforcement to your boss about when you’re working and when you aren’t.’
WFH problem 5: ‘My back and shoulders feel like they’re on fire’
With no meetings to walk to, stairs to take or lunch to pop out and get, many of us have become a lot more sedentary. It’s not surprising that the number of musculoskeletal disorders have risen during lockdown, especially as most of us haven’t even got an ergonomically designed space to work in, let alone an office chair.
Dylan Salamon is a yoga teacher and co-founder of Down to Flow . ‘[During lockdown] lots of people have forgotten to use the biggest and arguably most important muscle in their body – their glutes,’ he says. ‘Adding three sets of 10 squats and three sets of 15 glute bridges to your day will really help lower back pain.’
If you need guidance on technique, check out a YouTube tutorial – and, don’t forget, your mind needs support as well. A daily meditation practice or committing to regular acts of mindfulness has been proven to lower stress and anxiety levels, improve concentration and unfug foggy brains.
Looking to the future…
While we might be feeling the burnout, WFH still has many benefits. The fact that so many of us took to it so enthusiastically is a sign that the old work model of going into the office five days a week had run its course. With more companies starting to offer employees a mix of both office-based and WFH going forward, it’s about taking the best from both scenarios and making it work for us.
‘When you have the choice to work from home and have flexibility over your days and hours, the evidence is clear for increased wellbeing, job satisfaction and organisational commitment,’ says Rachel.
‘As long as we can get our boundaries established and our homes set up to be safe, comfortable and secure environments to do our jobs in, I see real positives for the future.’
Here, we asked five people how their mental health is right now.
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