By Dr Martie Conradie (MBChB, Diploma in Child Health, Diploma in HIV Management, currently busy with a Diploma in Occupational Health)
Have you been struggling more with low back pain or trouble sleeping? Maybe you are experiencing worse headaches, or the scale is giving you warning signals when you are checking your weight…
These are common problems, but I have seen a rise in these complaints since more people are now working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. You must make changes to be able to come out of this time of change as a better and healthier person, and to prevent the burden of more medical bills.
So, what can you do? A few tips will be discussed to address ergonomic aspects, diet, exercise, sleep, prioritising relaxation and more ways to prevent mental health problems.
1. Create a workspace that considers ergonomics
The aim of looking at ergonomics is to optimise the interaction between the work environment and the worker. Many organisations have started to invest in improved workspaces for their employees to prevent problems such as low back pain from sitting in incorrect positions or headaches due to poor lighting.
You probably do not have a workspace at home that was designed to consider your health and productivity. If you follow these tips to create a space to work, it will reduce awkward postures and the risk of injury:
Optimise your seating
Choose a space and a desk that can be dedicated for computer use. No more sitting on the bed or couch.
A separate computer monitor is best, because it can be adjusted to reduce strain on your neck. If you need to use a laptop, place it on a stand (or even books) to ensure that you can keep your neck in a natural position and at eye level. Use an external mouse and keyboard to reduce strain in your shoulders. The angle of your elbows should be nearly 90 degrees without the sharp edge of a table putting pressure on your lower arms or wrists while typing.
A chair must have low back support with a cushioned seat. If you do not have an office chair, insert a seat cushion and roll up a blanket to place in your low back area.
Use ample natural light and do not tuck your desk into a dark corner. You can use lamps where needed with globes which provide good quality illumination.
If there is a window nearby, the best placement of a desk is perpendicular to the window to reduce glare and strain of your eyes. Your monitor should be the brightest object in your field of vision.
Take movement breaks at least every 30 minutes and if your body becomes tired, change your posture. If you do a lot of work using a computer, give your eyes a break often. There is a rule in ergonomics called “20-20-20” stating that you must spend 20 seconds looking at an object 20 feet (6 metres) away, every 20 minutes.
2. Make healthy diet options
Maybe you got so caught up with work that you suddenly realise you have not eaten anything all day. Or the “I’ll just eat one piece of chocolate while I work”, turned into accidently eating the entire slab!
It happens, and therefore meal planning is so important while working from home. There is recurring advice found everywhere: keep healthy snacks, don’t eat snacks directly from the bag, don’t work in the kitchen, don’t buy junk food, pack lunch in the mornings, plan your snack and mealtimes, don’t eat while working, and plan balanced family meals.
These are all true and if you can follow the above advice, you will probably have no problem keeping your diet healthy. I want to explain why you must eat healthy, and it is not just to control your weight.
Balanced and nutritious food have a positive effect on productivity. It keeps you fuller for longer which improves focus. Therefore, try to consume more healthy fats, vegetables, fruits, protein and fibre.
Your gut and mind are in close communication all the time. If your gut is healthy it is good for your mental health and if your mind is healthy you tend to have less problems with your gut. Therefore, you must focus on what you eat. Too much sugar, gluten and proinflammatory foods negatively affect gut health, which in turn leads to changes in your mood.
Overeating is another problem. If people continue working through lunch or eat while being distracted, they tend to overeat. This is because the message from your brain that you are actually not hungry anymore, is delayed.
Part of a healthy diet is the supplementation of vitamins or minerals. It was found that working from home puts you at risk of developing a vitamin D deficiency, which can result in a depressed state of mind. So, it is important to spend a bit more time in the sun, but also boost your system with good quality vitamin/mineral supplements, especially if well-balanced meals are not part of your day. Vitamin B helps with energy, vitamin C supports during recovery from infections, zinc is good for gut health and plays a role in prevention of infections, and the list goes on.
3. Increase your water intake
Your body needs water to function properly. Dehydration is likely to lead to headaches and fatigue, which in turn will reduce your productivity and happiness.
Unfortunately, drinking coffee alone will not result in optimal hydration. Too much caffeine is known to cause headaches, digestive problems and even anxiety. Aim for no more than two cups a day and drinking rooibos tea is better if you want something warm more often.
Keep a glass of water near your workstation then you will probably drink more. I actually tried it while typing this article and my consumption doubled!
Exercise is healthy, we all know that. It can negate some of the poor habits we follow: it helps to shake off the extra weight gained from those unhealthy snacks, it forces our minds (and bodies) to take a break from the stress of working and it can result in better sleep.
Cardiovascular exercise, where the heart beats a little faster for 30 minutes for at least 3 days a week, is important. Weight bearing exercises are good for optimal bone health and stretches for flexibility will improve that lingering lower back pain or neck spasms.
5. Have good sleeping habits
Are you guilty of having some of these bad habits: playing on a phone while lying in bed, watching television until late in the evenings or drinking coffee and alcohol too late?
Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep each day. Certain factors reduce the amount and quality of sleep we have. Lack of sleep can cause memory problems, depressed mood, weakened immune system and overeating, among others.
Blue light is one of the biggest culprits. It messes with your body’s ability to get ready for sleep by blocking melatonin, the hormone which is supposed to make you sleepy. Indoor sources of blue light include smartphones, televisions, LED light bulbs and computer monitors.
Caffeine directly stimulates your brain and is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug. There are very few positives about coffee or other caffeine containing drinks, so try to limit the amount as far as possible.
If you have difficulty sleeping and are experiencing high levels of anxiety, book an appointment with a psychologist or someone experienced in providing psychological support. Sleeping tablets should not be used if it can be avoided.
6. Prioritize relaxation
When you are not busy with work, there is likely a load of household chores waiting for you – much more than usual, because everyone is now at home most of the time!
This can be extremely draining and although it might seem like there is no time to fit in something you enjoy, you must allocate a slot in the calendar for YOU.
Getting outside while relaxing is advised, fresh air and a little vitamin D will do wonders for you mental well-being.
Do anything that helps you to relax…if it is to go for a run, then that’s good because then you cover the healthy habit of exercise too. But do not use this timeslot to fit in something you feel you have to do. Take time to read, do something creative, or just spend time with the people you love.
You will see, if you do this, your productivity will soar.
7. More tips for mental health
The negative impact that working from home has on stress levels, are thought to be related to overworking, working in non-workspaces at home and difficulty in finding a work-life balance.
Although having flexible working hours can be good, the opposite is true if work schedules are unpredictable and irregular. Therefore, try to follow a scheduled plan for the day.
Working from home is also associated with household tasks being neglected. As much as we hate doing those tasks, an organised surrounding will have a calming effect.
Feelings of loneliness and less interaction with friends have always been reported by employees to be some of the most negative things that they associate with remote work. In a time such as now with the country being in lockdown, it is even more difficult to have social interactions. Find creative ways to reach out to friends and be there for other people, since they probably need you as much as you need them.
To prevent overworking, follow the advice of taking breaks and making time to relax, but the other side is also important: be productive and work efficiently.
Keep consistent work hours where possible and limit interruptions – those caused by others as well as by yourself, like when you purposelessly walk to the kitchen looking for snacks.
Mark Twain once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, you can go through the day with the satisfaction of knowing that that is probably the worst thing that is going to happen to you all day. In practice, it teaches you to do the worst task first which will take a lot of anxiety away.
If you have young kids at home, it can be very hard when they start saying that you work too much. My 4-year old told me that he is going to tell his baby sister to have more dirty nappies because then I can’t work. It is painful and learning how to balance work and personal life is something you take one step at a time. You have to prioritise, and work does not always come first.
Hope you are all able to adjust your workplaces and work habits at home. I sometimes struggle, but it is worth the effort. Despite many challenges, working from home can be extremely rewarding. Keep yourself as healthy as possible and learn good habits, then you will be able to handle the other issues. You will start enjoying the flexibility, higher productivity and perhaps even your life outside of work more.