Keeping well at work from the comfort of your home

Grad Week: Support for staff is key as uncertainty and stress can take a toll on mental health

Taking a few minutes each day to exercise or practise yoga can help relieve stress. Photograph: iStock

Taking a few minutes each day to exercise or practise yoga can help relieve stress. Photograph: iStock

 

For those entering the world of work for the first time this year, logging on remotely from the bedroom, taking Zoom meetings at the kitchen table or assembling stand-up desks from old encyclopedias will just be par for the course as a large cohort of graduates begin their working lives in the midst of a pandemic.

As the world turned on its head earlier this year, keeping well at work took more of a centre stage in many businesses as employees tried to juggle their job with worries about the health of family and friends, lack of social interaction and hobbies, and home-schooling children as classrooms locked their doors for the foreseeable future.

While the pandemic has transformed how we live and work, it’s also a time of chronic stress and burnout for many, says specialist in occupational medicine and Irish Times columnist Dr Muiris Houston.

“We know that young people’s anxiety levels are much higher than before Covid-19. So consciously starting a structured wellness programme is hugely helpful for a young person’s mental as well as physical health.”

For graduates, establishing healthy habits at the outset of starting a career can pay dividends.

“Once you leave college, you lose a certain amount of autonomy. In addition, work is more regimented - you have to be ‘at work’ at certain times. You can’t decide on the spur of the moment to skip a lecture and go the gym instead. So, healthy habits have to be scheduled around your working day. And while scheduling exercise, the gym and preparing regular, balanced meals can seem a pain after the freedom of college, without planning it’s very easy to become a couch potato once you’ve started the routine of work,” says Dr Houston.

Nick Lawlor, one of the directors of The Wellness Crew, a company that promotes wellness in the workplace, says today’s graduates will look for a company that is the right fit for them in terms of culture, ethos and career progression and workplace wellness will play an important part of that.

“Graduates will look to see how an organisation might match their ambitions and more and more when organisations are looking to hire the cream of the crop from a graduate perspective, they will be losing out if they don’t have wellness initiatives – if they don’t have benefits, if they don’t have running clubs, lunch and learns, social events, pension contributions, flexible hours,” says Lawlor. “The tables have turned somewhat and graduates are absolutely looking at companies to see that it’s the right fit for them as opposed to one-way traffic.”

While offering lunchtime yoga, gym membership, free healthy snacks and stand-up desks are all facets that can help create a healthy office environment, good communication is one of the most important aspects in fostering wellness, be the workplace in your livingroom or an office in the middle of a busy city.

“What we would consider to be a healthy workplace is one where communication is put to the centre of the agenda,” says Lawlor. A key part of this is enabling the new entrant to feel comfortable enough to communicate with all levels around them, from junior staff to senior management.

While having peer-to-peer communication is hugely important, so too is being assigned a mentor who is not the employee’s direct manager, says Lawlor. This is a person who the employee can seek advice on how certain things work in the organisation and essentially get the lie of the land from.

Another key factor is having a type of career counsellor within the company. “This would be a manager from a different department who would be tasked with trying to give direction in terms of how their career can progress and how they can work their way up from the micro to macro.”

The level of training offered to graduates when they begin and providing them with a clear path to career progression are key to creating a healthy work environment and a happy and productive workforce as employees are not left in the dark about opportunities in the future and the steps needed to achieve their own career goals.

Integration into an organisation is a key part of settling into the job, feeling comfortable in the workplace and not having a sense of dread as you approach each working day.

However, getting to grips with an organisation’s culture and ethos can be made more difficult when people aren’t physically present in the building as the case is now for many. Lawlor encourages prospective employees to express their concerns about how an organisation can bridge that gap and what the plans are to integrate them into the company.

“A graduate will get a strong sense straight away if there is quite a robust on-boarding process. Then they will know how well organised an organisation is to welcome and support them in the early years of their career,” he says.

Stress The spread of the coronavirus and the nature of its transmission has resulted in additional workplace stress. For many the pressure has gone from getting on a packed train and rushing to make it in on time and how you might be perceived in the workplace, to worries about job security, finances and concerns around family health and wellbeing.

To deal with this new stress, Lawlor says organisations need a well thought out programme covering what he calls “the four pillars of wellbeing – mind, money, fit and food”.

“So those four pillars really encompass and cater for all stresses whether it be mental health, physical, nutrition, financial, and [for employers] to accept that what stresses one or worries one employee could be very different to what stresses another.”

Interventions can range from taking an hour out for physical exercise, be it yoga or different types of training sessions, or running workshops on mindfulness, nutrition, or financial wellbeing.

Ultimately, the type of conditions senior management want their employees to work under will drive how healthy a workplace is. Lawlor says there has in general been a huge amount of employer support for their employees during what has been and is likely to continue to be, a difficult time. The more progressive companies are insisting that employees take a break and fit physical exercise in during the working day by promoting a walk or a run at lunchtime, in order to get people out into the fresh air.

“Those organisations are really kind of looking and saying okay, ‘well we really want to encourage, educate but also facilitate employees to be their best selves’. Naturally this is a very difficult time in terms of employers extending that trust to say, ‘we can’t see you anymore, we don’t know if you are at your desk at nine or 10 or whatever’, and there is an extension of trust there and the organisations that have got it right are the ones that have pivoted to a goal-based or output-based model where they say; ‘The is job done. I understand you have a life, you have kids that will be screaming, but let’s try and support you in terms of educating you on work-life balance and on financial wellbeing and fitness’.

“I think it engenders employees to say, ‘you know what, fair play to my employer – they are great. They supported me through everything while still recognising the job needs to get done’.

Eat regularly throughout the day as this can help to support energy and combat stress. Photograph: iStock
Eat regularly throughout the day as this can help to support energy and combat stress. Photograph: iStock

Top tips for staying healthy while working from home

  •  If possible, where you work should be be a designated space, even if it can’t be in a separate room. You need to feel that when you are at this station you can be in work mode, but when you step away from it, you are back in your home.
  •  Chair height and desk height are important and your own home furniture may not be suitable. Working on a laptop long term increases risk for wrist, neck and back pain. If you can avail of a workstation including a keyboard, mouse and full screen, you can improve your posture and reduce risk of injury. Talk to your employer about what supports they can give you.
  • Eat regularly throughout the day as this can help to support energy and combat stress. Once you are in your “feeding window” you should be eating about every four hours, which for most of us will be three meals and one healthy snack
  • Drink water throughout the day. A good target for most people is 1.5 - 2 litres. Have a bottle or a jug of water on your table, or drink herbal tea if you don’t like water.
  • Limit coffee to two cups per day. Caffeine is a stimulant and too much is not going to help manage stress levels.
  • Take breaks to breathe and exercise. Breathing exercises can bring down stress levels, even in two minutes, and there’s plenty to follow online. Build some exercise into your day at home, following an online class or getting outside for fresh air can help manage stress and allow for a better night’s sleep.
  • Prioritise sleep. It’s one of the most important steps in supporting stress and immune health and most of us need 7½ - eight hours each night. Limiting caffeine and alcohol and getting some exercise will help. So will restricting exposure to blue light from any electronic devices for at least an hour before bed, especially if looking at news items. Instead, aim to get to bed a bit earlier and establish a relaxing bed-time routine - stretching/shower or bath, cup of herbal tea, reading etc. Source: The Wellness Crew