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Stuck at home? Don’t let that hurt you more than COVID-19

April 13, 2020
By Bill Howatt and Troy Winters

As a result of social-distancing measures, many Canadians have adjusted to a new routine of working from home. (Visual Generation/Adobe Stock)

During the current pandemic outbreak, many workers have found themselves working out of home offices. For some, this is business as usual — more and more Canadians have adopted flexible work plans.

For others, this is a new situation, and they find themselves in crudely-constructed workspaces without a desk or proper chair. Whether you work from home regularly or are just starting, COVID-19 has likely added other challenges such as children being home, your common out-of-house escapes being closed or just general isolation. Maintaining your regular work output may be a challenge.

COVID-19 isn’t likely going away anytime soon, so we must ensure we maintain our health while working from home.

Maintaining physical and mental health doesn’t just happen. They’re intrinsically linked — physical injuries can lead to poor mental health outcomes, and poor mental health can affect the body’s ability to rebound from physical injury.


Ergonomics at home

Many workers aren’t set up to work at home. Where possible, you need to set up home office equipment to minimize the risk of repetitive motion musculoskeletal injury.

  • Your desk or work surface should be at appropriate height, and sturdy enough to handle the weight of the equipment you need for your job (computers, printers, scanners, etc.).
  • Your workstation should be adjusted so that the keyboard is at the right height and your wrists are in a neutral position.
  • Your monitor should be neither too high nor too low, about arm’s length away, and set so the top of the screen is close to eye level, so your eyes naturally fall to the middle of the screen.
  • Lighting should be properly arranged, with no reflections on or glare from the monitor.

Take care of yourself by:

  • Not doing any one thing or performing repetitive tasks for a long time. Don’t sit or stand for a long time, and take frequent breaks.
  • Performing different and varied tasks throughout the workday.
  • Taking at least a five-minute break away from working in front of your computer every hour.
  • Noticing discomfort or pain in your shoulders, wrists, neck or back, especially when waking up in the morning. Examine your workspace to ensure your body postures are comfortable, and review your schedule to ensure you’re getting the breaks you need.

Mental health

Like repetitive strain injuries, changes in mental health can be slow, and we often don’t notice the signs from day to day. Moreover, pre-existing mental health conditions can be exacerbated by the stress caused by COVID-19.

Many aspects of COVID-19 worry people, adding to the strain being placed on their mental health. Remember that many aspects of the current situation are in your control, and your positive steps can go a long way to preventing you from catching COVID-19. It’s important to use monitoring, such as through daily tracking in a journal, and to take positive steps to maintain physical and mental health.

Consider taking a short course to develop your mental fitness plan or joining a weekly 15-minute mental fitness tip webinar.

Where possible, make sure to:

  • Physically distance but not socially distance. Maintain contact with co-workers by calling instead of emailing. Facetime or Skype with friends and loved ones. Remember, they’re stuck at home too, and would probably welcome the interaction.
  • Limit your intake of news to trusted local news sources. Don’t leave CNN on in the background all day.
  • Get out of the house if you can. Spring is coming and the weather is getting better. Go for walks (and take the kids) or just get out into the backyard and start the annual garden.
  • Develop a routine, but don’t get stuck in a rut.
  • Stick to a daily routine by maintaining consistent practices such as a similar bedtime. This will help ensure that you’re getting enough sleep.

Take care of yourself by:

  • Making time for activities you enjoy. With increased pressure of family and work being centered in your home, people need to make sure they’re taking time for themselves.
  • Reaching out for help if your tracking indicates that feelings of anxiety or depression are increasing. If your company has an employee and family assistance program, use it. One way to track anxiety is to complete the Anxiety Quick Screen. Do it weekly and print your results. If your anxiety becomes overwhelming, log on to Beacon’s free CBT program or seek professional help.
  • Avoiding self-medicating. Resist the urge to normalize having a few beers or glasses of wine in the middle of the day because you’re stressed about working from home and looking for an outlet to feel better. Addictive disorders can sneak up on people. What started out as a choice can become a habit and then a dependency.
  • Volunteering by helping folks in your neighbourhood, including picking up groceries for an elderly neighbour or doing outdoor projects that improve the neighbourhood but don’t require close contact with others.

COVID-19 will pass

It may be a while, but by maintaining your health during the COVID-19 outbreak you’ll be better positioned to keep working and ultimately return to your workplace when the crisis passes.

For additional resources, the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has made all their pandemic resources, including mental health and home ergonomics, free at: https://www.ccohs.ca/topics/hazards/health/pandemics/

Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR. Join Bill for a special free webinar on loneliness and isolation in partnership with Talent Canada on April 14. Visit https://register.gotowebinar.com/register/2217484461556415501 to register today. or more information about Howatt HR, see  https://www.howatthr.com. Troy Winters is the senior health and safety officer at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in Ottawa. For more information, visit https://cupe.ca/F

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