5 Strategies for Improving Work-at-Home Wellness
By Pamela DeLoatch
When Muthu Hanu began working from home in 2014, he had his system set up. As a human resources transformation consultant, he had a home office with a desk that converted to standing, a comfortable chair, and good lighting. But when the pandemic curtailed his travel to see clients and work solely from his Morrisville, North Carolina, home, he started feeling new aches and pains.
“When I was going to work or visiting offices [pre-COVID], I did not have any issues as I used to walk around a lot,” he says. Now, without that outside activity, his back hurts. His neck feels tight. He’s more tired than usual.
Hanu’s experience is not unusual. As employees around the globe are approaching almost a year of working from home, what started as a temporary measure is becoming a long-term reality. Employees who initially carved out spaces in makeshift home offices, kitchen tables, couches, and even beds have been working in less-than-ideal conditions for months. With those changes, coupled with a more sedentary lifestyle and the dreaded COVID weight gain, the physical cost is starting to surface.
Dr. Archana Dubey, HP’s global medical director, says physical issues are exacerbated when work and home life start to blend. “When you don’t have a designated office space, work can ease into other areas, like the couch or bed, which don’t provide the needed support.”
She adds that working from home can also impact employees’ vision and hearing. “People get headaches because of eye strain and squinting at their screens,” she says. “Also, when working in shared spaces, people use earphones or headphones and don’t realize the higher volume can result in hearing loss.”
But, remote employees don’t have to resign themselves to working in discomfort. Here are a few tools and strategies that can help optimize your setup and alleviate the (literal) pain points that can come from working at home.
Check in with your body
Proper seating is crucial for good posture, so make sure your work surface and chair are at optimal heights. The best height for each person will vary, but Dubey says a good rule of thumb is to make sure that when seated, your body is at a 90-degree angle at the hip and at the knee. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s checklist for creating a safe computer workstation provides additional tips for adjusting your workspace for safety and comfort. In general, look for a desk chair that has armrests, can recline, and has an adjustable seat. If your feet don’t naturally rest flat on the floor when sitting, use a footrest to help straighten your spine. If you have a dedicated office space, consider a gaming chair to relieve back stress from hours of sitting.
Equally important is getting out of your chair and moving throughout the day. Greg Henning, an assisted stretching professional and lead flexologist at StretchLab in Cary, North Carolina, says lately, a lot of his clients, including Hanu, are remote employees looking for relief. “They start working and have Zoom meetings back to back, and next thing you know, three hours have gone by,” he says. “They usually have very tight hips, especially hip flexors, from sitting at their desks. Their shoulders and necks can get very tight, and they get naturally dehydrated.” Try a standing desk to avoid staying sedentary for too long, or set a reminder to stand or move around every 45 minutes.
Watch out for your eyes
After spending an eight-hour workday looking at a laptop, many of us then spend even more hours with a phone or tablet, watching movies or catching up on social media posts and videos. That adds up to a lot of screen time, which tires the eyes. To ease eye strain, be sure to take periodic breaks from looking at the screen. HP laptops with Eyesafe certification can help protect eyes from continued strain by limiting exposure to blue light, which can cause eye fatigue, dry eyes, and other issues. A second, larger monitor to supplement your laptop screen can also help give your eyes a break from the strain caused by reading on a small screen for long periods of time.
Stay on top of stress
Stress can be magnified by feeling out of control or not having enough time to get work done. Make your work-at-home life more manageable strategies like the popular Pomodoro Technique, which segments your day into periods of focused work and rest. Project management tools — many of which are available in free versions — can help ensure tasks don’t slip through the cracks while taking the responsibility of remembering everything off of your plate. And, stress reduction tools like meditation apps can help you manage daily stress, breathe, and maintain calm.
Stress can make it hard to fall asleep, and too much screen time can make everything feel worse (hello, doomscrollers!). The screen’s light fools the brain to think it’s daylight, even at night, making it difficult for the brain to shut down. Changing your phone to the dark or night mode setting in the evening, or better yet, powering off your devices a few hours before bedtime can help.
Create a structure that works for you
Although tools can help improve wellness, it also takes routine and structure. Erika Zauner, CEO and founder of HealthKick, a digital corporate wellness program, suggests carving out a separate workspace at home to create that structure away from an actual office. Granted, that can be challenging, with partners, roommates, children, and pets at home. However, it is critical, she says. “Separate your workspace from your living space. This helps you make sure you are taking time for yourself, in addition to taking time for your career.” If an entirely separate space isn’t possible, at least try noise-canceling headphones that can filter out distractions without using a higher volume, reducing the impact on your hearing. Normal conversations aren’t likely to cause hearing loss. However, if you play music through headphones or earbuds, keep the volume below 70 decibels, or about 60% of maximum volume.
Zauner also suggests creating structure in the day by making time for lunch or an afternoon coffee break when you can take a short walk outside to recharge. “Making sure you spend time moving is key,” she says. For inspiration, keep track of your steps on a pedometer, fitness watch or smartphone. If competition moves you, count those steps toward a virtual step or mileage challenge with your co-workers.
Ask your employer for help
Although working remotely can feel isolating, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Employers large and small have taken steps to help employees stay healthy and productive away from the office.
“Employers can truly step up and help proactively address stressors to support what employees need,” says Dubey.
For example, Dubey says companies are adjusting meeting times so people have time to exercise, and creating family-friendly schedules that work for parents. “Instead of a meeting starting at the top of the hour, they start 10 minutes later so parents can get their child on Zoom class that starts on the hour,” she says.
Zauner notes that when employees worked in the office, companies provided wellness initiatives like on-site gyms, company-wide fitness challenges, and healthy on-site cafeterias. Now, many employers offer their remote workforce resources such as virtual exercise classes and healthy meal deliveries.
Together, incorporating steps and strategies like these can add up, making working from home more comfortable and more sustainable for both employees and employers.
“We do know that the mind impacts the body and body impacts the mind, and either of those will impact creativity and productivity,” Dubey says. “Being intentional about solving for physical and mental well-being actually solves for a very productive workforce.”