Home-working: how not to break yourself

Tips for increased productivity and improved physical & mental health through good home-working practices,

I’ve worked from home for over a 10 years.  So I like to think I’ve developed a healthy home-working set-up and routine, refined over many years. However, I am occasionally guilty of forgetting all of this, especially when I’m busy! 

For those who have never worked from home, or not had home as a full-time work base, this is a completely new experience: there’s the abrupt change from a bustling noisy office environment, plus the added challenges of Zoom/Skype/GoogleMeeting fatigue, a hastily-assembled physical office set-up, and – for some – juggling of carer responsibilities too

So I decided to share my tips for good home-working practice. I hope it aids your productivity, and your long-term physical and mental health – the latter all the more appropriate given that this week in the UK is Mental Health Awareness Week.

It’s also a very good aide memoire -cum- kick up the bum for me!

Treat your home office like your work office

Key tips:-

  • Don’t say yes to every meeting request: you don’t do that in the office, so no need to do it now
  • On a similar note, you don’t *have* to do all of your meetings online, nor communicate via email. Could you make a telephone call instead?  In the case of emails you’ll not only save the recipient from yet another message in an already-overflowing inbox, they may welcome that direct voice interaction – for some, it might be the only person or peer they speak to all day
  • It’s OK to take a break, or an occasional extended lunch, just as you would when working in an office.  Take yourself into a new room or an outdoor space if you can; but even something as simple as opening the window, closing your eyes and tuning into the sounds & smells of the world outside, will give your brain and your eyes a break. 
  • Keep yourself hydrated. A colleague mentioning tea / coffee is often the communal signal in an office for a break, and you no longer have that. But staying hydrated is not only important for your physical health, studies have shown it can affect your mood, memory, pain sensitivity and cognitive & motor abilities too.  I love my tea and a good coffee, but to make sure I keep hydrated I take a large jug of fresh water – sometimes with added lemon or cucumber slices or mint leaves – up to my desk in the morning and refill it 3-4 times a day.

Acknowledge that life has changed

Key tips:-

  • after over 2 months of lockdown, many of us are experiencing ‘online fatigue’ from multiple daily online Zoom/Skype meetings, and the frequent technical challenges involved.  Good meeting discipline is more important than ever to try to stave off that fatigue and keep everyone enthused and productive.  For example, if you are leading the meeting make sure there is an agenda, and keep meetings as short as possible; as attendee make sure you are prepared and have brought notes of points you wish to raise or discuss. Give everyone space to finish their points to allow for internet glitches and delays
  • Allow 5 minutes at the start of each meeting to allow people to chat – just as they would in ‘normal’ times.  People are dealing with the stresses of this strange new world in different ways, and it’s important to enable space for them to express their thoughts and experiences with colleagues.  Studies have shown that sharing experiences brings comfort to all parties involved.  For some of your colleagues, they may lack confidence in initiating that conversation, or have no other opportunity to talk about how they feel.
  • Don’t feel you must stick to the usual 9-to-5 office working day if your employer/client doesn’t insist.  But at the same time NEVER feel that you should be ‘switched on’ and contactable all of the time.  Create a distinct boundary between “work time” and “non-work time” so that they don’t blur into one another, and mentally exhaust you.  One simple but effective tool I use is to turn off all laptop/mobile notifications at what I have decided is my “home time” that day: I don’t switch them back on until I am back at my desk/laptop the next day.

Make your new home workspace as healthy as possible

Creating a healthy workspace at home has been difficult for many, due to challenges in accessing specialist office outlets or deliveries, or a lack of employer support. 

But there are things you can do in the interim that both your body and your mind will appreciate, and lots of resources on good home-office ergonomics online for further advice and ideas.

  • If at all possible you should set up a workspace that has a separate seating + flat working surface to avoid straining your neck, your eyes or your shoulder, elbow & wrist.  If your chair is too low for the desk/working surface, use cushions or dedicated booster cushions.  If the chair is too tall for you to place your feet flat on the ground, cushions or a couple of chunky books (large-size dictionaries are perfect for this I’ve found!) will suffice until you can get an adjustable footstool.  A plump cushion or a rolled-up towel placed between the chair-back and the small of your back will provide lumbar support and prevent you slumping into a bad outward ‘C’ shape
  • Vary your working posture throughout the day.  Humans aren’t designed to remain in the same position all day, and especially not seated!  Set a timer to remind you to get up & walk around at regular intervals. I change my working posture at least 2-3 times a day: for example, I’ll sit for a while, then move to a spot where I can work standing up; or swop my office chair for a large inflatable exercise ball, which is great for mobilising lower spine/pelvic and releasing tension (whilst sneakily giving all of the muscles in those joints a good work-out without you realising!)
  • If you use a laptop, try to get a separate screen or a separate keyboard.  The body position you will tend to adopt when using a laptop over long periods can cause tension headaches as well as physical strain.  I use a bluetooth mouse & keyboard, and an adjustable riser stand so my laptop can safely sit with the screen level with my eyes, thereby negating the need to stoop & put pressure on my neck.
  • For those who use a mouse a lot, especially for things like drawing, now is the time to practice using a mouse with your other hand!  Not only is it a good neuro-muscular challenge, the joints in your dominant arm & neck will thank you for it!  I had to switch my main mouse hand permanently a number of years ago, and am now not far off ambidextrous – but for some close/fine-drawing tasks I do switch back to my original ‘main’ mousing hand.  Re-balancing yourself by using both hands will also help alleviate other little upper-body niggles too, which are often to do with built-up postural tension

I hope these tips are of much use to you as they have been to me over the years. Stay safe, but stay healthy too!