With more and more people working from home than ever before, the pros and cons of remote working are becoming evident. Some think it’s great – there’s no commute and you can wear whatever you want! (Zoom calls aside) – while others have been exposed to the bad things about working from home: the loneliness, the lack of face-to-face human interaction, and the negative physical effects of such a sedentary lifestyle. For some, this is just a temporary situation, a break from normality that will – whether in weeks or months – come to an end when they head back to the office. For others, this lockdown living could herald a new era of home working for everyone in their company. Businesses no longer have the money to hire out large offices, or they may have realised they can save a lot of money by having their employees work from home. Many people, of course, have found themselves without a job at all, a situation that brings its own physical and mental challenges, and some of the tips and tricks in this article will help them too. There’s no doubt about it: it’s a tough time, and we simply must look after ourselves. As our lifestyle changes, so too must our habits, and the first step is to get educated about the pitfalls and perils of WFH.
I’ve been self-employed for many years now, and for about six of them I’ve worked from home, full-time, on my own. I’ve lived with housemates in the past, but now I both live and work alone, and most days between 9 and 5 (and sometimes all day) the only people I see in real life are the postman or possibly one of my neighbours. Sometimes I’m able to see a cat or two from my window, sitting on top of the shed, and if that happens, it’s a good day. So, I know what it’s like to work from home, alone, and I also know how doing so can affect people’s health – both physically and mentally. I’ve experienced it all, so I thought I’d write a blog post about some things to look out for, some things to avoid, and some things you can do every day to make sure you keep yourself as healthy as possible.
Sitting down is killing you
This point applies to home workers, office workers, and anyone else with a sedentary job that involves sitting on your derrière for several hours a day. Humans were not designed to sit all day, and they certainly weren’t designed to sit on uncomfortable office chairs with hardly any breaks. This, obviously, is a problem for all office workers, but I find it’s much worse when you work at home because you hardly have to move at all; you’re not physically going out to a workplace and coming back in the evening. You’re literally getting up, walking into the next room, and sitting down for the next eight, nine, ten hours, and probably staying in the exact same position for much of that time.
I did this for many years – sometimes working really long hours to keep my business afloat – and what did I get as a reward for all my trouble? I got a herniated disc and really, really painful sciatica that plagued me for two years. Some months I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t work… it was constant 24/7 pain that stopped me from functioning like a normal human being, and it lasted for months at a time. I saw many professionals about my problem – doctors, physios, chiropractors, specialists – and they all told me the same thing: I’d been sitting down too much. It wasn’t due to too much exercise or a sports injury, and I hadn’t been involved in a terrible accident of any kind. It was just sitting. Scary, isn’t it?
So, what can you do?
Invest in a better chair
Before my back troubles I used to get up and walk around every so often, but when I moved to a small mid-terraced house where there weren’t that many places to walk around, it didn’t help. It also didn’t help that I was using the same old office chair that provided zero lumbar support for my lower spine.
So, a simple thing you can do is to get a better chair. If yours is several years old and a bit shabby, replace it with a nice new one, one that offers lumbar support. These don’t have to be super expensive – I paid about £60 for mine – though you can get really super advanced ones for hundreds of pounds. I also got a footrest for under the desk and adjusted it to the angle I need when I’m sitting down.
Invest in a standing desk converter
If you’re working from a desk rather than your sofa or your kitchen table (which I know many self-employed people do), get yourself a standing desk converter. Standing desks themselves can be super expensive, but I just bought a mini one that you plonk on top of your existing desk and that you can raise and lower whenever you want. Mine was about £40 from Amazon, and, honestly, it’s worth its weight in gold – especially when my back pain was so severe I couldn’t physically sit down.
Invest in a laptop stand
I then got a laptop stand for my MacBook (about £12, also from Amazon) to go with my separate keyboard and mouse. Putting your laptop on a stand, with the screen at eye-level, is ideal for your posture when you’re standing and working. It also means it’s at a similar level to my second monitor, making everything a lot easier to look at, without craning my neck.
Invest in an anti-fatigue mat
Finally, I got an anti-fatigue mat to stand on, making the whole standing thing a lot more comfortable. This was about £40 (again, from Amazon – and no, this isn’t an Amazon ad!), but it’s definitely worth it if you’re going to be standing a lot; it’s nice and soft and it puts a lot less pressure on your feet and spine.
Invest in a fitness ball
I also purchased a fitness ball on the advice of my chiropractor. As I hadn’t been moving much for months when my back problems were really bad, I lost all of my core strength, and I needed to build it back up again. Sitting on a fitness ball instead of a chair (even for just some of the day) can help build up your core strength, and it gives you a nice change from the office chair. Personally, I’d alternate between sitting in an office chair, sitting on a fitness ball, and working standing up. Ideally, you should also leave your desk to go for a little walk as much as you can without interrupting your work, even if it’s just to the kitchen to pop the kettle on, having a little walk around while it’s boiling.
Get some fresh air
A lack of fresh air can have a really negative effect on your mood, so if you’ve got a big garden or if there’s a nice outdoor place nearby, make sure you get outside and breathe in deeply. Clear your head, get some sunshine on your skin, and take a moment to just centre yourself before heading back inside and getting back to work. If you don’t have the outside space or the time to keep going outside, opening the windows a little throughout the day can help clear your head and stop you from going loopy. Another thing to keep in mind is plants – I never used to own plants, but now that I work and live in quite a small house, I need all the oxygen and clean air I can get. Plus, I don’t have any pets of my own, and people are encouraged to talk to plants, right? It kills two birds with one stone. You can even check out the list of NASA-approved houseplants for improving indoor air quality to really make the most of the plants in your home.
Exercising has all kinds of benefits, but if you have a sedentary job, it goes beyond keeping fit. Your body was built to move, so when you spend endless hours not moving (especially if it’s in a terrible position, such as hunched over a computer), you could be doing some serious damage to your spine and your joints in general. If at all possible, take breaks from your work every so often to walk around, jump on the spot, do stretches, dance… whatever works for you to get your body moving so your muscles and joints don’t seize up. Of course, any kind of exercise or movement is good, but regular walking and stretching can make all the difference to your workday.
Look after your eyes
Everyone knows that staring at a screen for eight hours plus a day does no good for your eyeballs – and a lot of the time there’s not much we can do about it – but there are a few things that can help. Experts say that for every 20 minutes you spend staring at a computer screen, you should look away from your screen for 20 seconds and stare at something about 20 feet away (so, out of a window if you’re in a small room). This is the 20/20/20 rule, and it was popularised by Dr. Jeff Anshell. So, when you’re working on your computer, just remember Jeff and his 20/20/20 rule.
Screen glare can be a big problem, but there are a couple of things that can help with this – you can get an anti-glare screen to put over your monitor, and if you wear glasses, you can get lenses with an anti-reflective (AR) coating. Remember to change your display settings – things like brightness and text size – so that you’re comfortable with them, and make sure you’re not straining your eyes too much from working in a dark room or not getting enough natural light.
Ergonomics is a big thing when it comes to workstations, and while I don’t want to go into too much detail here, a lot of people agree that computer screens should be in certain positions so that you’re not straining your eyes, your neck, or your head too much. Ideally, monitors should be around 50 to 60 cm away from your eyes and about 15 degrees below your eyeline – if you want to get specific. Of course, people disagree on the exact measurements, and there are hundreds of articles about this online, so if you’re interested, do a bit of research and see what feels right for you. Then there are the obvious things like making sure you have glasses if you need them, using eye drops if your eyes tend to get dry, and keeping up to date with your eye tests.
Those are the main physical things, so let’s get on to the more psychological aspects of working from home on your own.
Now, on the whole, remote working is great. You don’t have to commute, you can (more or less) get up and start work whenever you want, and you can do it in your pyjamas and slippers if you really want to. If you’re self-employed you probably don’t have to answer to a boss, and there are no office politics to get involved with. It sounds great, and it is – but as with everything, there are pros and cons to working from home, and unfortunately this kind of ongoing isolated work can have a much darker side to it.
Basically, it can be lonely. Really lonely. This depends on what it is you actually do, but for almost six years I did nothing but editing and ghostwriting, connecting with clients via email about 90% of the time. Occasionally we’d communicate via phone or video call, but because editing and writing was taking up all my time, email was just more convenient. When I had big projects on and was working long hours, sometimes several days would go by without me leaving the house or even seeing another person in the flesh. This is a real problem, with lone workers and self-employed individuals suffering from more anxiety and depression than ever before. It’s not healthy – on the body or the mind – so I started finding ways to become healthier.
Get virtual office buddies
Firstly, if you’re in the same situation as me and you can’t have real-life office buddies, get virtual ones. I had – and still do have – a ‘virtual office’ in the form of a Facebook message group that I started with a couple of friends and subcontractors who did work for Coleman Editing. Not only can we use the group to ask each other questions when we’re not sure about a grammar rule or the best word to use for a particular sentence, but it’s also somewhere to go (even if it’s just virtually) to talk to people throughout the day. You can do this with friends, people you work with, or complete strangers from Facebook Groups who are in a similar situation to yourself.
Leave the house!
Secondly, try and leave the house as much as you can. I mentioned this earlier, as a way of improving your physical health, but it’s just as important for your mental health as well. Go for a walk, go to the shop, go to the library to check out a book… just go somewhere. If you’re the type who can work with background noise, go to a nearby café for a couple of hours to get out of the house, surround yourself with people, and work in a different environment for a while. If your library has workrooms or tables, go and set yourself up there for a bit. If you have time, go to the gym for a quick workout or class – there will be other people there, you’ll get that much-needed exercise in, and the lively music they pump in could give you an energy boost.
Join a group
If this still isn’t enough human interaction for you, check out sites like Meetup to see if there are any groups in your area for self-employed people who want to meet up and work in the same space every so often (and if there isn’t, think about starting one of your own). Some groups meet up once a week at a coffee shop, to work and talk and, well, drink coffee. Some might meet up less often but stay in touch online, and sometimes, just knowing there are other people in the same boat as you can be all you need.
If you know other people who work on their own, why not organise some ‘working dates’? And, for you writers out there, have a ‘creative date’. This is where you invite people round to yours, or you go to theirs, and you spend the day working on your own projects, while having the support and enjoying the company of someone else. You might even be able to help each other with any problems you’re facing, or tasks you don’t know how to do – a skill swap can be incredibly useful too. Plus, you can go on walks together to get away from your screens, or sit in the garden on your tea break with some cake while you have a gossip. It doesn’t have to be business, business, business all the time.
Look for co-working spaces
Lastly, if you have the money, why not try going to a co-working space (if there is one in your town or city)? Or, you can hire a desk in a shared office (or you can hot desk, often for a lot less money). Most people won’t be able to justify the cost of doing this – especially if they’re newly self-employed and don’t have a lot of money to play with – but if you have the funds and you’re struggling with being at home all day, this can be a good solution.
To summarise, these are the main things we need to keep in mind when working in isolation from home: good posture, the ergonomics of your workstation, not sitting too much, perhaps introducing a standing desk, exercising and stretching regularly, keeping your eyes healthy and taking ‘eye breaks’ from the screen, getting outside in the fresh air and sunshine as much as possible, having virtual office buddies, and forcing yourself to leave the house and speak to actual, real, living, breathing human beings.
For now, stay safe, stay motivated, and stay healthy. You can find more tips and tricks about working from home/self-employment at www.writetogetheracademy.com.
Have you suffered from any of these problems? How did you overcome them? Leave us a comment below and share your wisdom. And, if you’ve found this blog post useful, please share it with a friend who might benefit from these words as well – thank you!
Disclaimer: I’m not a health professional, but I have received some of these tips from professionals such as doctors, chiropractors, and physiotherapists.