Working from home comes with a lot of perks: no commute, your own fridge a few feet away, flexibility to run a mid-day errand, no noisy co-workers. But with great power comes great responsibility, and without the right mindset and tools in place, some find that working from home without structure leads to low productivity, poor posture or burning the midnight oil every night due to the mixing of home and work. With permanent work-from-home employees set to double by the end of 2021 according to the World Economic Forum, finding balance between work and home is key.
To ensure your home workspace and work style work for you, start by avoiding these seven common mistakes many remote workers make when setting up shop at home. Plus, advice from therapists, ergonomics experts and nutritionists will help to ensure your “new normal” is a healthy one.
Mistake 1: You wake up and start working right away.
According to one survey, almost a quarter of millennials check their work email before getting out of bed and one-third of remote workers are at their desks within 20 minutes of waking up. While your boss might love your virtual punctuality, your mental health may suffer by going from bed to blue lights.
“There’s a big difference between getting up, getting ready and walking out the door versus getting up, getting ready and going to the room next door,” says Supriya Blair, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in New York. Not giving yourself some transition time between sleep and work can blur all the lines between your work and home life—which can shortchange your enjoyment of both, Blair says. Setting boundaries between the two is key.
“It’s important to know exactly what comprises your work hours and create a healthy structure for yourself that reflects your time and availability, your attention span, and intentional breaks,” she says.
The solution: Create an at-home "commute" that separates your home life—waking up—from starting your work day. This could be a short stretching routine, finishing your coffee before sitting at your desk or a short walk. “Similar to the way we put on professional clothes to dress for the occasion, creating a ritual to start your work day could help prime you to get into work-mode," Blair explains. "Rituals are important in building healthy habits, including “getting to work on time” and starting the day productively.”
Mistake 2: Your computer is too low, and your keyboard’s too close.
At the office, you had your ergonomic chair and standing desk, but at home? For many, your "desk" could be anywhere from the kitchen table to the living room couch. This set-up can put your neck and back in danger of injury.
“[Most people have their computer] too low and too close,” says Alex Aksanov, D.P.T., a physical therapist at Stay Active PT in New York. “This can cause a forward head posture, which can lead to fatigue, ligament sprains, muscle imbalances, and shoulder and neck pain.”
When your computer is situated too low, you must bend your body over or your neck down a little to see. “[In this position,] your neck and shoulders are a lot more forward than they should be,” says Brittany Ferri, Ph.D., founder of Simplicity of Health. This, she says can lead not just to pain, but potentially serious injury, like a slipped disc. “Your vertebra are pushed forward, which can lead the discs in your back to pop out in the other side.”
The solution: Change the position of your monitor and keyboard. Your keyboard, Aksanov says, should be in a position where your elbows can be bent 90 to 120 degrees. Your monitor should be in a position where your head and neck are in a neutral position, with your chin parallel to the ground and your eyes straight ahead.
Mistake 3: You’re using a dining chair as a desk chair.
Dining chairs “are made for an hour of use per day,” not all-day sitting like you’re doing while you’re working, Ferri says. The issue? “There’s almost no back support." The result? A slumped-over upper body, poor posture and, for many, pain.
Your ideal sitting position is all 90-degree angles, Aksanov says. Your hips, knees and ankles should all be at 90 degrees, with your feet flat on the floor. Which also means barstools are out for all-day sitting, Ferri says—unless you can support your feet. If you want to sit in a chair like this, “put a couple of books or boxes under your feet” so they are not dangling and can be flat with 90-degree angles across all those joints.
The solution: You don’t have to break the bank for a top-of-the-line, $1,000 chair, Ferri says. “Even a bad office chair is going to be better than a dining room chair or couch,” she explains. Start by trying to find a cheap or free office chair on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace. If that’s just not possible, she says, make sure your chair has some lumbar support by rolling up a bath towel or sweatshirt and placing it behind you at the small of your back.
Mistake 4: You treat the kitchen as your only break space.
“It is easy and convenient to walk into the kitchen when you are working remotely,” Blair says. “It is important that food is not used to quell stress or anxiety that we might feel during the workday, though. The kitchen should be used intentionally for eating and snacking, and shouldn’t be the only break space.”
Frequent visits to the kitchen often add up to more snacking. According to one study, snacking habits more than doubled during COVID-19 lockdowns, which could be why one in three at-home workers gained 10 pounds or more in 2020.
The solution: Schedule your daily eating and create new break spaces. “If you are not already on a consistent eating schedule, you should be. Otherwise you are in close to proximity to the kitchen and vulnerable to eating ‘without borders’ with no one to witness or judge the amount of times you trek back and forth,” Valeria Goldstein, a registered dietitian and owner of Eating to Fuel Health, warns. If you know you need snacks, meal prep healthy options with protein and healthy fats that will keep you energized and satiated between meals.
And instead of wandering to the kitchen when boredom strikes, take your breaks elsewhere. “Instead of grabbing a snack in between job-related tasks or meetings, can you go for a walk instead?” Blair asks. “Consider walking outside of your remote workspace ‘building’, handling email correspondence outside or meeting up with a friend for lunch.”
Mistake 5: You sit for hours without taking a break at all.
For many the peace and quiet at home is at the top of the perks list. But the lack of distraction can translate to a lack of movement—hour-after-hour of Zoom meetings, emails and work while glued to your chair. Not only is sitting too much linked to a whole host of health issues, but it can also wreak havoc on your posture, leading to pain down the line.
The solution: To save your back—and your sanity—take frequent breaks. Set an alarm every hour as a reminder to get up and move. Take bathroom breaks, stand up for meetings, walk to grab the mail, work through two or three neck or back stretches, take the dog out for a quick game of fetch—anything you can do to break up the long hours in a seated position will be appreciated later by your body.
Getting up may also make you more creative: A 2014 study from Stanford found that when given a test of creativity, subjects who were allowed to walk for a few minutes were twice as likely to come up with a novel idea than those who were glued to their chairs
Mistake 6: You don’t have a “commute” home.
Just like getting up and immediately hopping on work emails can blur your work and home lives, not having a transition time between the end of work and the start of life can do the same. With a traditional commute, you have time to decompress, mentally recover from the day, and mentally prepare for family and personal time. When you work from home, though, it can be tempting to open your laptop at all hours of the night or even on weekend "just in case" something comes up. Without a defined line between the office and home, many people struggle to establish boundaries that are necessary for a healthy work-life balance.
The solution: Work to create a ritual that signifies the end of the remote work day and the start of personal time. Creating a transition doesn't have to be complicated; transitioning can be as simple as a physical change, says Alexa Doman, a certified career and life coach in Madrid. "[Designate] work clothes and change out of them at the end of the day,” she says. “Even if these work clothes are your gym clothes, by physically removing them at the end of the work day, you are supporting the mindset that work is now over.”
If you have trouble shifting out of work-mode at the end of the day, Doman also suggests making the next day’s to-do list as you close out today’s work. “I spend the last 10 minutes of my working day looking at the tasks that need to be completed the next day,” she explains. “This not only helps me tie a metaphorical bow around the day, [but] it also sets me up for tomorrow.”
Mistake 7: You don’t cut yourself any slack!
Working from home means you can do it all, right? Many remote workers put pressure on themselves, not just to do their work, but to clean, do laundry, meal prep, run errands and more during their 9-to-5. And when we don’t live up to our own superhuman standards? “People are feeling guilty about unplugging or feel like they can’t turn off their work brain,” says Nicole Griffin, a behavioral health coach at Calm and a yoga teacher.
The solution: Give yourself a break! You’re doing your job and living your life during an unprecedented time—Griffin suggests showing yourself some compassion.“Taking a few deep breaths with a hand over the heart is also a great, go-to self-compassion practice” she says. Try pairing this with some nurturing words of affirmation: “‘It’s OK,’ or ‘I’m OK,’’ or ‘this feels hard,’ or ‘may I give myself the compassion that I need."