Making your own hours, wearing what you like and escaping a dreary commute are often the dream. Yet according to experts, working from home – even when it isn’t sprung upon you by circumstances out of your control – comes with a host of problems for focus, productivity and health. So, how can we make working from home easier on our minds and bodies?
Feeling isolated? Tech helps
Dr David Cook, an anthropologist at University College London (UCL), has been researching the same group of remote workers for the past five years. “They all start the same way, with the excitement of the utopian dream. But often after only a couple of weeks that turns into boredom and isolation and they find themselves going into co-working spaces such as cafes.” Home-working can become quite a burden quite quickly for most people – which is why we have offices in the first place, he says.
A psychological concept called ‘co-presence’ explains a human need to simply be with others in a workspace. “Co-working spaces are often not so much about being social than about being somewhere you know other people are working.”
While self-isolation makes co-working impossible, technology can help, says Anna Cox, a professor in human computer interaction at UCL.
“I have been working from home with a remote team for five years and we connect by having a daily stand-up meeting remotely across Slack [team messaging software],” she says.
“Everyone then knows what everyone else is doing and gets to see and hear each other.” In fact, speaking to people where you can – instead of relying on email – is a key way to break the sense of existing in a parallel universe at home. “This tech can also prompt staff to congregate in the same way they would around a boiling kettle in the office. For example, by setting up a new Slack channel and calling it Coffee Time and agreeing with a few colleagues to join it at 10.30 every morning.”
Cross the boundary into work – same time every day
You’ve probably heard it a million times by now that keeping the same work routine will keep you well. But this isn’t entirely right. While the best remote workers indeed have a routine, according to Dr Cook, they change theirs to suit their new circumstances.
One of the key parts of that is crossing the boundary into work every morning. You’re not commuting but you can’t just roll out of bed to your laptop (and if you’re working in bed, forget it). “People often say that if they don’t get outside in the morning – even if it’s only a 15-minute walk – they lose sight of where work starts and their home life stops.
“They might end up working all hours in their pyjamas and once your manager/team knows you’re available 24/7, it’s impossible to wrestle back your own time. Get up, create a new morning routine, meditation, listening to a podcast, a walk outside, then have a shower and get dressed.”
Get that PlayStation out – it’s good for you
Likewise, schedule downtime in your diary, whether that’s calling people or watching Netflix so you can cross the boundary back into your non-working life. What you might be surprised to find helps is playing video games.
“We did a survey of the British public and found people who played games recovered from work stress faster than those who didn’t. It can also give you some control at a time when there is little. Even if it’s just a car going around a track, having control over something has a positive impact on people’s wellbeing.” Likewise, you can connect with older people in self-isolation by playing scrabble or bridge apps with them. “Plus, all the old board games such as Monopoly and Trivial Pursuit have apps and can be played by people in different locations.”
Plummeting step count? Take movement breaks
In the regular world, your Fitbit will have registered 3,000 steps by the time you get to the office, right? Well, get ready for that to nosedive. “We find people’s step counts drop roughly by half when they’re working from home,” says Dr Cook.
Louise Goss, who has working from home for the last decade and edits a magazine, says taking regular movement breaks can help combat this. “If you find yourself taking 3,000 steps during your commute, try taking a walk before work for 30 minutes, which will achieve the same thing,” she suggests. “It punctuates the start of your work day.” It’s possible to take a walk in the park of the same length at lunch time and maybe even one after work, by which time you will have easily clocked up your healthy 10,000 steps a day.
Take a 10-minute self-care window
Goss also suggests taking little self-care windows through the day which could be 10 minutes stretching or yoga, or a quick HIIT home workout. Search YouTube for 30-day challenges which give you 5 to 10-minute workout videos daily for a month to perfect anything from squats to press-ups.
Use your breaks as a reward
There’s no proven time after which all humans need a break, but a good way to gauge it is when you start to get the urge to move or feel any niggle, ache or pain, says Ash James, a chartered physiotherapist specialising in occupational health. “Your body is designed to move and those aches and pains are signs that it’s been in the same position for too long,” he says.
Having said that, Dr Cook says you can turn your breaks into rewards using a productivity method called the Pomodoro Technique, designed specifically for tasks you don’t want to do. “Break up the task you’re dreading into four chunks and allocate a set amount of time to doing each one, say 20 minutes,” he suggests. “Set a timer and stop working on each chunk after each 20 minutes, take a break and move on to the next bit,” he says. Knowing there’s a break coming makes you work through it, and stops the element of perfectionism which can blight the life of home workers when there’s no extra set of eyes to tell you the job is fine as it is, he says.
If you’re finding it hard to stay focused, the app FocusMe can switch off your social media when you ask it. Another technique called MIT, Most Important Task, can help, too – you identify one key thing you have to do that day and switch off all distractions for the first four hours to work on it – remote workers love it, says Dr Cook.
Stopping the endless snacking
Why is hunger so much more acute when you’re working from home? Because, it’s probably a need for distraction, not real hunger, says Jenny Tschiesche, a nutritional therapist and founder of lunchboxdoctor.com. “The lack of daylight and unprecedented stress we’re under means a lack of vitamin D and increased cortisol [stress hormone] combine to create a drop in the brain’s happy chemical serotonin so we crave sweets and biscuits for quick focus and calm.” So what to do instead?
First, eat proper meals, ensuring they’re high nutrient, high protein, low calorie and low-carb. “This isn’t the time to be eating lots of carbs because... they’ll be stored as fat,” says Tschiesche. “That translates to lots of fresh vegetables and fruit to ensure you’re getting nutrients to keep your immune system strong, without lots of calories, then high protein, low-fat foods such as eggs, tuna, tofu, legumes, white and oily fish, pulses and beans in your meals to keep you satisfied for longer.” Focus on serotonin-boosting foods too, such as eggs, cheese, salmon, nuts, seeds and turkey.
Crucially, when you want to snack, determine whether you’re stomach (i.e. really) hungry or just mouth hungry, she advises. “If you could eat a piece of salmon or an omelette, you’re stomach hungry but if you crave a bag of crisps or a biscuit, you’re probably only mouth hungry.” Try drinking water as you might be thirsty, having a builder’s tea or taking a brisk 10-minute walk around the block - exercise is proven to work as an appetite suppressant.
Having said that, you’re going to want to snack at some point, says Louise Goss. “Have raw vegetables chopped and ready in the fridge as these will give you nutrients without calories, and then prioritise protein foods such as blueberries and yogurt, boiled eggs or a teaspoon of nut butter on a cracker.”
That rubbish dining chair – it’s not ruining your back
Those chairs that were so stylish at dinner parties are not so good under forced self-isolation. But don’t blame the chair, says Ash James, the pain you’re feeling is because your everyday routine has changed, you’re not used to this new way of working and it’s exacerbated by the effect of the stress you’re under.
“Be assured, those hard dining chairs aren’t hurting your back but you do need to take movement breaks whenever you feel any pain,” he suggests. “Every time you need to make or take a call, move around the house,” he says. “Then as soon as you feel a niggle, get up and move again.”
Back pain is by far most common among home workers, along with neck and shoulder pain. “If you’re hunched over a laptop, make sure you regularly break to twist your spine either side and arch your back, and do regular shoulder and neck rotations.”
But don’t elevate your laptop to eye height as the strain on your forearms will cause more problems than looking down. The best evidence for relieving back pain is taking regular walks, especially in nature. So, until we’re under house arrest, head for your nearest park at least once a day – keeping your distance of course.
The Daily Telegraph