According to Statistics Canada, 5.4 million Canadians are now working from home. While this may be the norm a year into the pandemic, for many it hasn’t gotten any easier.
Occupational therapists, or OTs, can offer useful strategies on how take care of both your mind and body while working remotely.
They work in both physical and mental health—anywhere that work impacts health, or health impacts work. Such a broad definition make OTs like the Swiss Army Knives of the health-care world, and a great resource to turn to when trying to tackle the complexities of working remotely.
Karen Joudrey is an instructor of occupational therapy at Dalhousie University, and sits on the board of directors for the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists. Joudrey points to ergonomics as an essential part of addressing physical health while working, but also said that “ergonomics isn’t an adjective to describe expensive furniture, it’s the interaction between you and your environment.”
So how do you up your ergonomics game?
“If you’re slouched on your couch with your laptop on your lap, that’s not really optimal,” said Joudrey. “Ideally, if you’re working from a computer, you want your feet flat on the floor and your hips, knees and ankles should be at 90 degrees.”
She then said to be sure you’re sitting up straight, your mouse and keyboard are at your elbow height, and your monitor is about an arms-length away with the first line of text at eye level.
This all helps to prevent strain and repetitive injury.
Workplaces provide plenty of opportunities to take breaks unprompted, like getting up to get a drink of water or chatting with a colleague. But in the absence of that, Joudrey said that “people need to be prompting themselves to take breaks. Whether it’s using a timer on your computer, or setting things up in your home so you’re naturally taking breaks.”
Joudrey said that even with the best ergonomic set up, breaks are key. She suggests the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes get up and walk 20 feet for 20 seconds. And if you’re working on a screen, every 20 minutes look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds to reduce eye strain.
Focusing on mental health
Physical health is only half of the equation when discussing the barriers of remote work.
Maintaining good mental health is equally challenging. A July 2020 report from the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health stated that 81 per cent of working Canadians said that their mental health has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic.
Chris McWilliam is an OT working in community mental health and addictions with Nova Scotia Health, and president of the Nova Scotia Society of Occupational Therapists.
He said that “every person is unique in how they manage their mental health. So making sure you’re aware of what works for you to manage your mental health. Try to find things that bring you joy and a sense of calm and relaxation.”
Along with being aware of how you best care for your mental health, McWilliam points to the link between physical and mental health. He said that exercise, diet, drinking plenty of water and getting enough sleep are crucial when taking care of our brains. He emphasizes putting away your tech at least an hour before bed.
“Research shows that it tricks our brain into thinking it’s daylight because of the bright screens. Even if we have things on dark mode, it’s still not as effective,” he said.
These habits, combined with a good routine and doing your best to keeping your spaces clean and organized, can make mental hygiene more manageable.
McWilliam also said to do what you can to avoid being isolated. Be it calling a friend, having a family Zoom call or getting out for regular walks.
For those who are struggling with mental health, he said it is important to “be aware of if you’re in crisis and reach out for support.”
About the author
Alec (they/them) is a journalist based in Halifax, with a focus on music and arts. Their work has appeared in The Coast and they are a member...