A health psychologist's guide to working from home

·3-min read
<span>Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: 10’000 Hours/Getty Images

Over the past number of years more people have started working from home. In 2019, over a quarter of the UK population had some experience of remote working but only 5% worked from home exclusively. This year’s coronavirus pandemic has seen a sharp shift in what was once a flexible working option become mandatory for many.

This sudden change from office to remote work has raised concerns for employee wellbeing. Prior to COVID-19, almost three-quarters of the population reported feeling overwhelmed by stress: in 2019 more than half of working days lost were accounted for by stress, depression and anxiety – and the pandemic has only exacerbated the issue for those working at home. According to figures from Nuffield Health, around 80% of those working at home have experienced a decline in mental health, with the challenge of loneliness raised by 25% of those surveyed.

Feelings of stress or loneliness are natural in response to the changes and restrictions brought on by the pandemic. However, when these feelings become a day-to-day reality, they can have negative implications for physical health, including an increased risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

As a health psychologist I am well versed in the importance of nourishing our mental health to ensure our ongoing physical health. Here are some evidence-based tips on how for maintaining mental fitness while working from home.

1. Establish home-work boundaries

Journaling is a great creative and emotional output.
Journaling is a great creative and emotional output. Photograph: Mengwen Cao/Getty Images

Working from home means that boundaries between work and leisure can become blurred. This can be exacerbated by technology and the feeling of constantly being ‘available’. Having a routine helps establish the necessary boundaries and is mood boosting. This can involve setting an alarm in the morning, scheduling breaks and, importantly, putting away your laptop at the end of the day.

2. Engage in positive behaviours

When you are having a busy or stressful day try to make time for positive health behaviours. Even something as a simple as short walk can reduce your stress levels and can improve your cognitive function. Avoid using smoking or excessive alcohol consumption as coping mechanisms to deal with stress as these behaviours negatively impact your health in the long term.

3. Make time for relaxation

It is important to schedule time for relaxation. The best activity is the one you find soothing. For example, mindfulness is known to have stress-reducing effects but may not appeal to you. Other activities that could help you relax include taking a bath, trying a new recipe or re-reading a favourite book.

4. Draw on your social network

While we may be physically distanced from friends and family, this does not have to mean we are socially distanced from them. In times of stress it is important to draw on our support networks. There is evidence that video calling may be more mood boosting that other methods of communication.

5. Focus on the positives

It is easy to forget the positive aspects of life when we are feeling stressed and overwhelmed. One way to orientate yourself to these is to keep a gratitude diary. This can be as simple as writing down one thing you were thankful for in the day, and is a type of journaling that is known to improve mood and may even have physical health benefits.

Dr Ruth Hackett is a chartered psychologist and lecturer in health psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London. With Pixie Turner, she runs our Diet myths and mental fitness masterclass. See her academic profile here.

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