Since the coronavirus lockdown began, many of us have switched to working from home. It’s a big change, both mentally and physically, as we lose a large part of our daily structure that comes from commuting to and from our place of work, and might be less active as a result. Our social network can also feel smaller, as we miss out on chatting to our colleagues throughout the day, and a quick video call just isn’t the same at times.
Then there are those among us who are working remotely whilst juggling childcare or homeschooling their kids, which only adds to the stress of working and living under the same roof without much of a break. That’s why it’s vital to learn some proven skills and techniques to help you learn how to stay healthy and feel happy when working from home.
Of course, frontline staff have no choice about whether or not to go out to work, and some argue that having a job to do from home is a luxury when so many are losing work or are being furloughed. (If you have lost your job, you can get a free subscription to the Headspace meditation app). And they’re right, but that doesn’t mean you have to put on a brave face when having an off day (or several) when working from home.
To help ease any burden on your mental health, we’ve spoken to a range of mental health and wellness experts to ask for their advice on how you can work as healthily as possible remotely.
If you are experiencing mental health issues, speak to your doctor or mental health practitioner as soon as possible – they are qualified to give you the expert advice and support you need.
Protecting our mental health is vitally important for all us, but more so for people with pre-existing conditions, as Stephen Buckley, Head of Information for the mental health charity MIND explains: “If you already have a mental health problem, it’s possible that the worries of coronavirus may be affecting how you’re coping. Therefore, it’s important that we all recognize how it may affect our mental health and ensure we are taking care of ourselves and our colleagues.”
Create a manageable daily routine
“Having a reliable routine works wonders for mental wellbeing and stress reduction, as it provides you with a method of identifying goals and tasks you want to complete, and prioritizing the things you care about the most," says Gerard Barnes, CEO of mental health treatment specialist Smart TMS.
“For those in self-isolation and working from home, being unable to engage in regular outdoor activities or even losing your commute to work can disrupt one’s routine, sleeping patterns and productivity. Writing down tasks you want to accomplish during the day, for example, will keep you feeling productive.”
Stephen Buckley of MIND adds: “Try to follow your ordinary routine as much as possible. Get up at the same time each morning, follow your usual morning routines, and go to bed at your usual time.”
When we work from home, we’re more likely to overwork, meaning our work days get longer, our leisure time shrinks, and we’re at risk of burnout. “It’s easy to work longer hours and take fewer breaks when working from home. Why not put a reminder in your diary when you plan to finish working?” Stephen suggests. “Try to take at least a 30-minute lunch break. If you can, get some fresh air and go for a short walk.”
Dedicate a specific area to work in
There’s lots of advice out there about how to create the perfect home office, but general consensus seems to be that a dedicated space is best. That means, something you can screen off when not in use, or a room you can close the door on at the end of a working day.
In an ideal world, set up near a window so that you're exposed to natural light. According to various studies, including the Daylight and The Workplace Study by Professor Alan Hedge of Cornell University, workers seated by a window experienced an 84% drop in symptoms of eyestrain, headaches and blurred vision, a 2% boost in productivity, and a 10% decrease in drowsiness.
Exposure to natural light also increases the brain’s levels of serotonin, the feel-good chemical, and helps control our circadian rhythms (our body-clock) for a healthier sleep-wake cycle.
Use a light therapy lamp each morning
There’s no substitute for getting outdoors and soaking up the sunshine, but as we’re all in COVID-19 lockdown to varying degrees, our time spent outdoors is currently limited. There’s no issue if you have a garden or yard to escape into, but it isn’t so easy if you live in a block of flats… especially one located in a heavily populated area where it’s harder to practice proper social distancing.
And what if you have low mobility and can't easily leave home during the working day, or you're considered at high-risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and have therefore been advised to shield at home? Getting outdoors to soak up the sun isn't so easy then.
A good substitute here could be one of the best light therapy lamps. These are traditionally used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder, but they're also used to boost energy levels and productivity. Consider setting one up on your desk and using it for roughly 30 minutes each morning. The exact length of time differs depending on the lamp’s lux output, so read your lamp's instructions before use.
Eat well and stay hydrated
Stephanie Snell, a registered dietitian with UCHealth, recommends the following snacks and drinks for staying energized throughout the working day: “I focus on foods that are nourishing and filling for snacks. These foods are often fiber-filled, like a fruit or vegetable, with some side of protein or fat. I’m a fan of veggies and hummus. I also recommend drinking water throughout the day.”
Stephen Buckley also recommends staying hydrated: “Make sure you are drinking enough water. It’s important to look after your physical health as this has an impact on your mental health.”
"Anxiety is likely to increase during the current crisis, but a well-nourished body is better at handling stress," adds Daniel Mansson, clinical psychologist and co-founder of at-home depression treatment Flow Neuroscience, and suggests a Mediterranean diet. "Traditional Mediterranean food [is known] for its anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and includes whole grains, vegetables (particularly green leaves), fruit, berries, nuts (including almonds), seeds and olive oil."
Check with your doctor before undertaking a new diet if you have an existing medical condition. If you'd like to eat better when working from home, we've also spoken to a registered dietician for their guide to healthy eating.
Talk to colleagues
Speak to colleagues daily
“Working from home can be isolating,” says Stephen, “so ensure you and your team, if you’re part of one, have regular check-ins virtually. Find an online tool that works for you, whether it’s Microsoft teams, Skype, or by phone. Make sure these regular check-ins are scheduled in advance by having some daily scheduled chat time.”
If you’re managing a team remotely, Stephen has a suggestion for you: “Why not encourage your team to complete a Wellness Action Plan (WAP) and share this with you? Everyone can complete a WAP – you don't need to have a mental health problem in order to feel the benefits. It just means that you have practical steps in place to ensure you are supported when you aren't feeling great.”
If you're chatting remotely with colleagues, especially when using a group chat service such as Slack, Chanty or Flock, make an effort to say hello to all of your teammates who check in daily. It's easy for people to feel left out or neglected when communicating in these kinds of environments, especially in a fast-moving group chat.
Exercise to boost your mental health
“Exercise is one of the best ways to fight symptoms of mental health problems,” says Gerard Barnes, “and people who are less physically active are more at risk of anxiety and depression.” There are also proven mental health benefits of walking, which is one of the most accessible forms of exercise for able-bodied people.
In recent weeks, we've seen home exercise equipment selling fast due to gyms temporarily closing and people looking to exercise more at home. The World Health Organization recommends for adults aged 18-64 to undertake 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise. The best fitness trackers can help you keep tabs on your activity levels.
"Experts recommend between 30-40 minutes of exercise, 3-4 times a week to work up a sweat. People with depression often struggle with exercise, so start small with a 10 minute walk, then add a few minutes daily," adds Daniel Mansson of Flow Neuroscience.
Getting active can involve anything from washing your car and cleaning your house to going for a walk or run (remember the social distancing rules). You can also get free at-home fitness classes with leading personal trainers, with workouts aimed at a wide range of fitness levels. Like the thought of exercising at home? Take a look at our guide to the best treadmills too.
Enjoy your hobbies
Try to make time for your hobbies
The monotony of working from home five days a week is compounded by how much we’re all staying inside right now. One way to stave off potential cabin fever is by enjoying your hobbies or taking up a new one. “It’s important you keep your mind occupied and challenged, so try and set aside time in your routine for this,” suggests Stephen Buckley. Even a few minutes a day makes a difference to your mental health.
“Read books, magazines and articles, or try listening to podcasts, watching films and doing puzzles.” By digging into your hobbies whenever your schedule allows, you’ll have less time to dwell on the rolling COVID-19 news too. “For those finding news coverage difficult to cope with, think about limiting what you listen to or read for a while. You might find that taking a break is helpful to your wellbeing,” says Stephen.
Not all of us suddenly have bags of time or money to invest in hobbies – many people are losing their jobs due to the economic fallout of COVID-19, and plenty of us are exhausted by trying to hold down a job whilst home-schooling our kids.
But if you do have time and want to explore a new hobby, there are plenty to try, from reading, painting and knitting, to cooking, family tree research, making music and learning a new language – take a look at our guide to the best learn Spanish software and the best learn French software for inspiration.
Practice sleep hygiene
Practice sleep hygiene
It’s easy to step outside of your normal wake-sleep routine when you’re working from home; you don’t have to commute, so technically you could spend more time in bed each morning and head to bed later each night. But science says that isn't great for your general mental wellbeing. Here’s why…
Research published in the journal Scientific Reports, and conducted by Jessica Lunsford-Avery, PhD, assistant professor in psychiatry at Duke University School of Medicine, points to adults not only needing to get enough sleep every night – the CDC recommends at least seven hours for adults – but also needing to maintain consistent sleep routines to benefit their mental health.
A consistent sleep routine, according to the CDC, includes going to bed at the same time each night and getting up at the same time each morning, including on the weekends. Yeah, that last part stings. Other tips include avoiding large meals, caffeine and alcohol three hours before bedtime, and making sure your bedroom is quiet, dark and cool so that you aren't disturbed by light or noise pollution, or by feeling too warm to sleep.
Sleep hygiene is very important for people with existing mental health conditions. In a piece published by the Harvard Medical School, it was acknowledged that ‘sleep deprivation affects your psychological state and mental health. And those with mental health problems are more likely to have insomnia or other sleep disorders.’
Relaxing before bed is a good way to ready yourself for sleep, and wind-down yoga, meditation and journaling can all help you clear your mind of any worries or to-do lists. Of course, what you’re sleeping on also counts, so make sure you have the best mattress for your posture needs, as well as the best pillow.
Get the support you need
There is never any shame in talking about mental health, and now is the time when we all need to support each other more. However, not all of us feel comfortable discussing our mental health and wellbeing. If you are experiencing mental health issues it's important to speak to your health practitioner or mental health provider as soon as possible to get their expert guidance.
In the wake of COVID-19, demand for remote therapy, in the form of mental health apps and services and tele-therapy, has spiked in America and the UK. Sanvello, a UnitedHealth Group company, recently announced free premium access to its digital care delivery platform. The app has over three million users and offers stress and anxiety management care. Aetna Inc is also offering no-copay telemedicine, including mental health care, until June 4. Mental health app Thrive, endorsed by the NHS, is now available for free to all UK users.
Further mental health resources to discover:
- Mental Health America
- The National Institute of Mental Health
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- The Child Mind Institute
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention