Wellness means different things to different people. Regardless of how you define it, or how you try to achieve it, I think we can agree on one thing. We all want to be well. Whether your path to wellness consists of Bikram yoga, a gluten-free diet, or the daily crossword puzzle, you’re on a conscious or subconscious quest for wellness. But what about wellness in the workplace?
Twenty years ago, I made a huge life change that brought wellness to the front and center of my life. I stopped my daily commute into D.C. and started teleworking. (This was before home offices were really a thing. And when the Internet was just becoming a thing. Which made my move from a stable government job in D.C. to a new private sector job with a home office a bit of a risk.) Twenty years later, I can emphatically state that while having a home office isn’t without its own set of challenges, it has dramatically improved my wellness. To prove it, here are before and after pictures of me.
OK, not really.
But, a lot has changed in 20 years. Besides the obvious – three kids, two houses (not at the same time), four pets (also not at the same time) – I no longer wake up at 5 AM and come home in the evening too exhausted to move from the couch. I no longer have a wave of dread wash over me on Sunday evenings about the upcoming work week. I have energy in the evenings and on the weekends to engage in activities I enjoy with family and friends. I exercise regularly. These are all massive improvements from my days schlepping into DC. And I’m still with the same job I left the daily grind for. Coincidence? I don’t think so. (Please note - I’m not against going into an office, and it has its advantages. I enjoy the occasional client meeting in D.C. as well as business travel. I just don’t want to do it every day.)
There have been many changes in the past 20 years that support the move to a home office. Apart from the obvious technology changes – Internet speed, accessibility, videoconferencing, to name a few – there seems to be a greater emphasis today on finding a healthy work-life balance. I believe this is part of our quest for wellness. The 70-hour work week is no longer a badge of honor. What’s honorable, and actually desirable, is finding balance. Balance between saving for a rainy day and actually living the rainy day.
We’ve all heard the motto, “Work hard, play hard.” For many, this translates into giving it your all when you’re on the clock, and being present for your family and friends when you’re not. Finding time to read, take an evening walk, or meditate. Pursuing a healthy mind, body, and spirit. Wellness.
This all sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But does the home office really enhance wellness? Or maybe the better question is - how do we achieve wellness when working from a home office? Ditching a long commute is clearly a major step towards reducing stress. But what about nutrition? Physical activity? Social interaction? How do we make sure these areas don’t suffer in a home office?
Home Office Wellness Survey
To gather ideas on this, I conducted a survey (a real, online survey!) of 22 friends and coworkers who work from home at least one day per week. Some of the input from these friends is woven throughout this blog and will be addressed in more detail in future blogs.
I asked survey respondents a series of questions about wellness in six key areas:
- Medical health
- Physical activity/exercise
- Mental wellness
- Spiritual wellness
- Social wellness
My friends rated the importance of each of these wellness components and the extent to which the home office enhances wellness in each of these areas, on a scale of 1 to 5 with 5 being the most important/supportive. The results are shown below, but I’ll also sum it up for you.
Survey Results: Importance of Wellness Components
Survey Results: How Well the Home Office Contributes to Wellness
The bottom line is that while all areas are valued, mental wellness is the most highly valued component of wellness AND the one that is most supported by the home office. Medical health, physical activity/exercise, and nutrition aren’t too far behind. Spiritual wellness – the home office is nailing that one in terms of meeting the perceived need! Perhaps not surprisingly, social wellness rates an entire point higher in its level of importance than it does in how well the home office is perceived to support it. This certainly sets off bells in terms of a gap that needs to be bridged. But for now, let’s look at the overall results and some general conclusions and helpful tips we can draw from the wisdom of this group of 22.
First of all, it’s clear from this survey that a home office provides two primary benefits: opportunity and flexibility. The home office isn’t going to force you to exercise or to choose a healthy afternoon snack over a bowl of ice cream. But it provides the opportunity to exercise in the time not spent commuting or during the lunch hour. And it provides the opportunity to choose healthy munchies in your fridge over the latest 400-calorie Frappuccino that is located oh so conveniently right next to your office. You should also have more time to socialize with friends – maybe not the same socialization you would get in an office setting with coworkers, but socialization nonetheless. And it provides flexibility to schedule a lunchtime dentist appointment or to be home for a sick child and make up the work later in the evening. As with anything, it’s up to you to choose to take advantage of these opportunities to create a life and schedule that adds to, not detracts from, your – and even your family’s - wellness.
Here are some more practical suggestions on how to make the home office a partner in your wellness.
Practical Suggestions for Home Office Wellness
Move your Body
When working from a home office, there’s no walk from the car to the office and no opportunity to take the stairs. Your commute may only be 20 steps! It’s easy to see how you could stay stuck in one place – at your desk – all day. Getting up and moving is a choice! Here’s what works for me. I take a relatively long morning walk before work hours, a short mid-morning walk (think water cooler break), a medium-length lunch walk, and a brief mid-afternoon walk. Those steps add up and keep my Fitbit happy! The walks also help me avoid those sleepy slumps we all feel when we stay glued to our desks all day. Instead of sitting through long conference calls, you could walk around your office during calls (please stay on mute). You could do some stretching or floor exercises a few times a day, if that’s your thing. The point is – when the opportunity arises, get up and move.
Here’s another home office wellness tip. Get a dog. When your dog needs to go out, no matter how tempting it may be to stay at your desk for the fourth hour in a row, you will be forced to get up and move. My puppy Chloe was the driving force behind my walking schedule. And while there are many days that it’s a struggle to tear myself away from the computer, I find that I’m much more productive when I take time to get up and move. And I get to spend time with Chloe, who gets her exercise too.
Gratuitous Chloe Photo Op
Create your Mood
A home office provides a unique opportunity to create the mood that best energizes you. Here are two areas in particular:
- Lighting – Do you need a bright light to get energized? Maybe some soft lighting to help you focus? With a home office, you can set the lighting to suit your needs. No need for glaring overhead fluorescents that have long been the bane of many traditional offices! There’s probably also nothing in the employee handbook saying you can’t light some candles to help you feel more Zen while you’re working.
- Music – Most days, I need tranquil background music to set the mood for me to focus. I personally use the Mood stations on Spotify and select background piano music, spa music, or other soft music to set my mood. Occasionally, I need more upbeat music to get more energized. There are many websites and apps to choose from. One survey-taker recommended focusatwill.com, a paid service he uses to provide background music. You could even play affirmations or uplifting podcasts in the background, though that may sound hokey to some. The point is – you get to choose the music or background noise that suits you. And the best part – you don’t need to wear headphones.
Change your Scenery
In a home office, there’s no water cooler gathering place. If you’re spinning your wheels or your energy is flagging, take it upon yourself to get up and change your scenery. With WiFi available at many coffee shops and cafes, why not work at Starbucks one morning? (Just be careful to plan your calls for another time so the barista isn’t announcing your Skinny Venti Vanilla Latte at an inopportune moment.) Libraries are another great place to get work done. Or how about moving next door to your kitchen island one afternoon (if it’s clean and quiet… and the dishes aren’t begging to be done)? The point is you have the opportunity to change your setting periodically to get re-energized if needed. The change in scenery can do wonders to help spark new ideas and keep your mojo going.
I have found my daytime walks to be some of the most productive times to generate new work ideas. My thoughts are sometimes there, but just needed unraveling. There’s something about a change of scenery that clears my mind, and the ideas swirling around in my head start to take shape. And that’s a doubly productive walk!
Mind your Eating Habits
Perhaps the biggest fear, and risk, of a home office is the open access to the kitchen. Many think it’s too dangerous to be near the fridge all day. And it is dangerous. But so is that vending machine just down the hall stocked with Snickers and M&Ms, and the endless boxes of donuts lying in wait in the breakroom. The point is – it’s up to you to make healthy choices. You can keep your fridge stocked with healthy snacks. Yes, it takes some planning, as does packing a lunch to take in to the office. Instead of a coworker’s birthday cake, you may need to avoid your child’s Halloween candy basket. But you have the opportunity to have fresh, healthy meals and snacks at your disposal. (And now for a humble brag! In my 20 years of working at home, I’ve only chosen ice cream for lunch twice.)
Organize your Time and Space
Perhaps one of the greatest challenges of a home office is the lack of built-in structure. There’s no time card to punch, no race out the door to beat traffic and head home to pick up kids. You already are home. And it’s all too easy to let work and home blend together into one – both in terms of time (i.e., having trouble closing the office door to transition into family life) and space (mixing personal and work items). I’ve found that it is vitally important to create separate work and home zones. For me, work hours are 8:30 – 5:00. Although exceptions will occur (this flexibility is part of the beauty of the home office), carving out those designated work hours will help you keep work separate from your home life.
Similarly, it’s important to have an entirely separate space for your work, if possible. If this isn't possible, at least find a way to keep work documents separate from home documents – otherwise you'll find yourself overwhelmed trying to keep your two worlds separate.
Home Office Wellness? It’s Up to You!
So what about that social wellness disconnect highlighted by the survey? I’ll address that in a future blog. But for now I’ll just say this. The more structured you are with your day, the more time you'll have to connect with others during the work day or after hours. You have the opportunity to make this happen. It just requires more conscious effort. Think about it this way – just like a move from a crowded neighborhood to a peaceful country farmhouse requires a new kind of effort to stay connected to friends, a move to a home office requires a new kind of effort. But you get to choose your friends. And believe me, the lack of office gossip and drama may be a welcome change to your social scene.
When people find out I work from home, they sometimes say “I don’t know how you do it. You must be SO disciplined!” Yes and no. As I said, I’ve been doing this for 20 years. That’s a long time. I mean, Bill Clinton was halfway through his presidency 20 years ago. Gas was $1.22/gallon. The Lion King debuted on Broadway. In other words - I’ve had a lot of practice.
It hasn’t always been easy. I’ve had to develop routines and habits that work for me. At times, wearing multiple hats has been far from easy. Such as when the FedEx delivery guy, barking dog, child returning home from school, and client call all hit at the same time. But it has been well worth the challenges and the sacrifices. I have the opportunity to create the life I want to live. I have control over my own schedule and routines. I’m able to choose wellness each day while still working hard, contributing to my company, and earning a paycheck.
I hope these suggestions help you think of some ways to make the most of your home office experiences and add a little more wellness into your day. So, go ahead and do that downward facing dog. Unless you accidentally left your video camera on, no one is watching.