Working from home-the ‘new normal.’

One of the many changes that have come about as a result of COVID 19 is the move to working from home.

Any workforce that has been able to carry out their work from home has had to adapt to this with no opportunity to plan ahead.

This includes call centre workers, lawyers, accountants and many other ‘office based’ professions.

Teachers and many health care practitioners including opticians, dentists and some doctors have also had to make this move.

Many doctors, both hospital specialist and General Practitioners have had to move to doing some of their work from home.

There are lots of reasons why this has happened.

Whilst we are seeing far fewer patients ‘face to face’ we are still doing as many, if not more, consultations by phone. We have also had to do a lot of work contacting patients to discuss shielding and various others bits of work that have come about due to COVID.

This has meant working more hours than normal some weeks, especially when we have had colleagues off sick. With many of us also looking after kids and ‘home schooling’ we have had to do these hours at home.

Some of us have been shielding and doing all of our work from home and others have worked from home during periods when they have had to ‘self isolate’ due to a family member being ill.

Home working-the reality

Over the years, I have envied friends who work, at least in part, from home. I always thought it would be great to be able to pop the washing on.

I thought I’d stop mid morning and do a wee bit of exercise then go for a walk at lunch or nip to the shops while they were quiet mid week.

Maybe catch up with a friend for a quick coffee while the kids were in school.

But home working has never been common place in General Practice.

COVID 19 has changed that.

Like many people, I have not found the transition into part home working easy.

I don’t have a room in the house that I can use as an ‘office.’

All of the rooms are either bedrooms or open plan communal areas apart from my front room which has no space for a desk.

I’d taken to working at the kitchen table, but it took me days to find a chair/desk height/lighting that didn’t result it a sore neck/sore/back/headache within half an hour of sitting down.

Added to that the noise created by 3 kids and it’s safe to say I spent the first couple of weeks muddling through.

How did I get on?

Like many people who responded to surveys about their mental and physical health during lockdown:

I was sore.

I felt stressed.

My sleep was disturbed by my sore back and by constant worry.

I wasn’t eating well. Most days I found myself grazing on high fat/high sugar foods throughout the day, snacking at night and not planning meals well.

I wasn’t getting up to move around regularly. Breaks were non existent as I felt the work just piled up when I was away from the screen. The kids needed help when they were there and the usual household chores still needed to be done.

All the while, more people were getting sick and there was no real end point in sight.

The turning point

I knew why I was feeling stressed, anxious, sluggish and generally unhappy.

My work involved talking to patients about how they were feeling because of the same changes several times a day.

I knew what I needed to change. But I just felt so overwhelmed by the volume of GP work and home schooling that I didn’t take time out to get myself organised at the start.

I was also only just getting an idea of what my ‘new normal’week would look like.

So, I went back to basics and looked at my daily routine. I got back into some of the good habits that I had lost and the not so good ones that had crept back in.

Top tips for staying healthy while working from home.

So, I thought I’d share some top tips I’ve used for staying healthy while working from home:

1. Have a clearly defined work area.

This can be tricky. Like me, you may not have a room or even a big cupboard you can use as a dedicated work space. I set myself up either at the same place at the kitchen table each day or upstairs in one of the kid’s rooms.

It doesn’t have to be the same space each day: changing your environment can be a good thing but it does have to be a defined space. Working where you sleep is not ideal, so if avoid working in your bedroom if you can.

Try to make sure your chair is supportive and comfy. I had to invest in an office chair as using my dining chair gave me a sore lower back and neck. if you can afford it, it’s worth considering a sit/stand desk so you can vary your position. You can get these form under £100 online.

2. Have a regular start and finish time.

Not easy, I know especially if you have kids/are looking after someone/work in a business that operates across different times zones. Sticking to a regular routine will help you when it comes to taking breaks, eating regularly and will help your body clock stay in check which should help your sleep at night.

3. ‘Walk to work’.

If you can, go for a walk in the morning before you start. Not always possible and can be more difficult with kids but we started the ‘home school’ day with a walk most days.

If you can’t fit the walk in at the start of the day, try to get out at some point as fresh air really helps keep your brain ticking over. For those who are shielding, open the windows and, if you can, get outside your back door even for a few minutes.

4. Take regular breaks.

I’m sure I’ve written about this before. I am not good at taking a break when I feel there is a lot of work to be done. My husband, and my partners at work are all more adept at this than I am. I really have found that taking a break every 25 minutes or so helped me regroup mentally and physically.

5. Vary your tasks.

I try to switch between admin tasks and telephone calls when working from home. This keeps work interesting, allows me time to re group between calls and provides a ‘natural break’ between tasks which makes me more likely to stop and stretch my legs.

6. End your day with noting down what you have achieved and writing a ‘to do list’ for the next day.

Sounds like extra work doesn’t it? But, it can feel like you don’t achieve much despite working hard all day and writing down what you have achieve is a good way to boost self esteem and to stay motivated. Starting the next day with a clear plan helps you set off on the right foot and saves time in the long run.

7. Maintain boundaries.

It’s easy even when working in another building to avoid blurring the lines between work life and home life, but this becomes even more of an issue when working from home.

Decide when your work day ends and avoid the temptation to check e amils or just ‘do another wee half hour’ later in the evening or at the weekend if you can. Again, I have found this very challenging when trying to also teach the kids.

Sometimes I have had little choice but when I have worked in the evenings or at weekends I’ve clearly defined when I working and when I will turn the computer off.

Perhaps its worth agreeing a cut off time for work e mails or whats apps with colleagues to avoid stress inducing messages hitting your inbox at half ten at night.

8. Eat well

I’ve found its so much easier to just graze throughout the day, especially if I haven’t planned or prepared any meals for me or the kids.

More often than not, I tend to grab high fat/high sugar snacks and end up feeling sluggish, bloated and tired.

I’ve gone back to my usual habit of planning meals at weekends and making sure I’ve got lunches prepared for the week. I’ve always got fruit and veg washed/chopped and ready to eat.

I leave it lying out so I have to physically walked past it to get to the crisp/chocolate drawer.

9. Stay Connected.

Working from home is isolating. Essentially, you are a lone worker and lone working, for many, comes with increase risk of poor health outcomes like stress and anxiety.

It’s important to stay connected. This is the up side of social media. Make sure you check in with friends, family and co workers regularly. Try to vary the topic of conversation-it’s easy to get caught up in talking about work or COVID.

If you can keep up you can old hobby or start a new one then why not connect with others who share the same interest?

10. Actively manage your mental health

Whether that involves making sure you are taking steps to keep your stress levels down or doing some work on managing anxiety or low mood, it’s important to take time each day to notice any changes in your mood and try to address them.

There are several blogs on the ‘A year of small changes’ website that give lots of advice on how to manage stress, anxiety and low mood.

Try to dedicate some time each day to making sure you are looking after your mental health.

Include some physical activity like walking, some down time with friends and a few things that you know always make you smile.

I like a good comedy on TV or a wee 20 minutes on the piano. It’s loud enough to drown out the kids too.

If you feel like your need help with stress, anxiety or depression then speak to your employer as there are loads of resources out there.

The most important thing is to communicate how you are feeling to others who can support you.

11. Make sleep a priority

Multiple studies have demonstrated the importance of sleep in terms of both productivity and good mental and physical health.

Back ache, headaches, stress and anxiety can all adversely affect our sleep. So too can lack of a daytime routine. Prioritising sleep is a good way to improve your health and avoid burnout when working from home.

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