Editor's note: Dr. Avi Varma is an Atlanta based, family medicine practitioner and friend of Sahoja. She was recently recognized for her contributions during the COVID-19 pandemic receiving a Together Women Rise award from actress Priyanka Chopra.
For many of us, how we do our jobs looks very different than it did just a few months ago. We’re working from home, creating “offices” in our bedrooms, holding virtual meetings from the kitchen table, or spending hours on the couch, laptop open and Slack notifications on.
Even as the country, and the world, re-opens, millions of us may not be going back to business as usual. After Twitter and Facebook announced their employees will largely work remotely going forward, analysts predict that other companies will follow suit, reshaping our ideas of the office forever.
And depending on your circumstances, this might come as a mixed blessing.
“It’s been an adjustment for everyone,” says Avi Varma, MD, a family medicine practitioner in Atlanta whose popular Instagram account offers no-nonsense health and wellness education for this unprecedented time. “I'm seeing more people trying to figure out how to create their ‘new normal’ at home.”
Despite some perks of not commuting to an office every day—it’s way easier to stay on top of the laundry, for example, and our dogs couldn’t be happier—there are downsides. Loneliness is a noted problem, especially for people who live by themselves. “You lose your day-to-day connections,” Varma says. From chatting with colleagues to the brief but friendly exchanges with the baristas at the coffee shop, the people we interact with over the course of a normal workday help form the social fabric of our lives.
There are other changes as well. For example, you might find that even though you theoretically have more time, you might be less motivated than ever, lethargic or feel a hint of depression creeping in.
All of this is totally normal, Varma says. she says. “People are losing that sense of structure and routine, and it’s starting to affect their mental health.”
Her advice? Maintain a schedule that provides some normalcy to your days. Here she shares ideas to do just that.
1. Wake Up at the Same Time On Weekdays
“When you know you’re going to work, you have this structure: you wake up at 6, take a shower, eat or have your coffee, drive to work, etc.,” Varma says. Now maybe you don’t need to wake up so early. But turning off the alarm altogether and treating every day like a Saturday will only make your days feel weirder than they already do. During the week, get up at a time that allows you to be fully awake, dressed (see #2), fed, and ready to begin actually working at the same time you normally would, and stick to it. Starting your day this way provides a foundation that will help support everything else.
2. Get Dressed As if You Were Going to Work
We know, we know: Yoga pants are really comfortable. But honestly, unless you’re planning to actually do a few vinyasas for your mid-morning break (see #4), they’re basically just expensive pajama bottoms. You don’t need to dress up but at least aim for office casual. (Compromise: You can skip the shoes.) As a result, you’ll feel much more professional and productive. And your colleagues in the squares? They’ll notice.
3. Create a Work Space Outside of Your Bedroom
“I’m hearing a lot about low-back pain from patients. When I ask them, What are you doing? They tell me, ‘I’m working on my computer in bed.’ Have a separate office space where you work,” Varma says.
Simply put: Creating a home office makes the transition to remote work easier. Of course this isn’t as easy to accomplish if you live in a small space. But even just designating a spot at the table or counter to keep your computer, day planner, and any other items necessary for your work, will suffice. The point is to use that space only for work, as much as possible.
And set up the area ergonomically, with your computer screen at eye level, Varma recommends, or use boxes to create a standing desk. In addition to an increase in back pain, she’s hearing from more people with neck pain caused by staring down at their laptops.
4. Eat Normally Scheduled Meals
You’re not alone if your clothes feel a bit snug. The disruption to our daily routines has also disrupted our diets—not to mention the stress-eating many of us do when we’re anxious. “With what we’re going through and facing, how do we cope with it?” Varma asks. “I think some people are eating more, comfort eating, as a coping mechanism.”
Planning normal meal times helps establish a routine and sense of balance, Varma says. And instead of grazing mindlessly, or just going with frozen meals, establishing regular meal routines can also help make you more conscious of what you eat.
And make sure to factor in changes to your exercise plan, she says: If you used to get in two miles of walking with your daily work commute plus walking around the office, you may not be burning as many calories now. Adjust your diet accordingly with healthful foods, like fruits and vegetables, and drink plenty of water to stay hydrated.
5. Give Yourself Short Breaks During the Day
Staying at home staring at your computer for hours (and days) on end is a sure path to mental, emotional, and physical burnout.
The typical work day has natural pauses: stopping by a colleague’s desk for a chat about weekend plans, a mid-morning coffee, running errands at lunch. Even just moving from your desk to the conference room helps you to shift gears. “Now people are just sitting on their laptops, in one position, and you can lose track of time,” Varma says. “It’s just not good for your health.”
Make sure to take regular breaks throughout your day, setting alarms to notify you when it’s time to step away from the keyboard. Then do something different: take short walks outside (with face covering and proper social distancing), do a non-work related activity around the house, or put those yoga pants to good use.
6. Plan Before- and After-Work Activities
Maybe you used to hit the gym before going into the office, or enjoyed Thursday Happy Hour with colleagues. You may not be able to socialize or participate in activities the same way right now, but it’s important to keep bookends to our work days. Otherwise life can start to feel like one big wake-to-computer-to-bed blur.
Plan social hours on Zoom or Facetime with friends and family, and schedule in regular before- or after-work exercise, either outside or by doing online classes, Varma recommends. The exercise piece is especially important for keeping spirits up. (She loves BollyX!) “It really does boost your serotonin levels, and makes you feel better generally,” she says.
7. Sleep at the Same Time Every Night
Not only is going to bed at a regular time essential for maintaining a schedule, it’s the best way to ensure you’re getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep a night, Varma says. And the importance of sleep can’t be understated: “People are saying to me, ‘I've been sleeping later and later, because at night I stay up watching Netflix.’ It sets a poor tone for the rest of the day … then that plays into the vicious cycle: I’m tired and am feeling lazy, so I’m not going to exercise, I’ll just heat up something to eat, etc.”
Sleep, and particularly REM sleep, are essential for health— from digestion and muscle repair to memory storage and the removal of toxins from the brain. And poor sleep, Varma warns, is correlated with things like high blood pressure, as well as obesity and depression.
No one knows what things will look like on the other side of this pandemic. But one thing is for sure, Varma says: “There’s no going back to normal. It’s going to be a new normal, at least, for a while.”
In the meantime, you can keep yourself healthy and sane with common sense strategies—eat a healthy, balanced diet; stay hydrated; get good sleep; exercise; and stay social, even if it’s done online. And underscoring it all? Maintain a schedule. “It really makes you feel more human,” Varma says.