Desk workers are stressed out and burned out. According to a 2020 study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, nearly 72% of workers (42% of essential, 30% nonessential) have experienced symptoms of anxiety or depressive disorder since June 2020.
Working from home also comes with its own unique remote work pitfalls. Working remotely–perhaps without as much person-to-person interaction outside of the home, and with more limited breaks and work-life balance challenges–can also lead to stress, mental and physical.
Many of the causes of workplace stress are beyond our control, whether it’s pandemic-related pressures or difficult co-workers. But there are still ways that individuals can deal with stress at work.
I connected with three fitness professionals for recommendations on how to ease those physical pressures. Here are five easy tips that show how activity and movement can help you get through another workweek.
1. Get up at least once around the clock
Just as our exercise trackers remind us to do, it is imperative to get up and moving at least once every hour.
Anthony Wall, Director of International Business Development for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), cited a British Medical Journal study that goes even further: standing up once every 30 minutes.
“We’re hearing a lot more about sitting being the new smoking,” he said.
Wall additionally mentioned a study from FitBit, where the company found a severe decline in steps around the globe during the first few weeks of COVID-19 shutdowns. In the United States, major metropolitan cities–with San Francisco and New York City leading the decline–saw an average decline of 12% last March.
“We’re not necessarily in the same mindset of being active when we’re at home on a daily basis,” he said. “We do need to be conscious of how much we’re moving and standing and sitting, which is a little bit different than how people did at the office.”
2. Make sure your workplace supports good posture
When nonessential workers were sent home last March, many employees did not have the same set-up available to them as they had at work. Gone were the standing desks, the double-monitors, and other ergonomic benefits of a work environment.
Tia Lillie, Associate Director of Health and Human Performance at Stanford University, said that one of the main points she makes to her classes is to focus on proper posture, both in standing and sitting positions.
“Whether you’re at home or in the workplace, you’re likely in a seated position, so we want to establish good posture,” she said. At Stanford and other workplaces, health and safety committees can visit your office to confirm the ergonomic benefits of the space–not so at home.
For those without company support or additional funding for these WFH modifications, Lillie recommended using what you already have in the home–stacking up books on a table or counter to create a standing desk, or adjusting pillows on your desk chair to provide support for the lower back.
“I think it’s just being creative, and looking around for what you can find in your house to help you,” she said.
According to fitness instructor Ying Mitchell, “Not everyone’s needs are going to be the same–from there, you could be more creative.”
“You don’t need a lot of funding to get an office that works for you,” Mitchell said.
3. Schedule time to be active (this doesn’t have to mean working out)
Without a daily commute, many Americans have gotten back a significant chunk of time–53.2 minutes on average, according to TitleMax. With nearly an hour back that would have previously been spent sitting on a bus, train or in a car, there’s now more time and reason to be active.
All three experts agree–there needs to be a focus on prioritizing and setting boundaries in relation to work versus life, and communicating those needs with your supervisor and your team.
“People are getting Zoom fatigue, so a lot of times we’re having walking meetings,” Lillie said. “You’re both walking and talking, and you’re still getting things done.”
Mitchell also recommends a schedule, a practice she utilized prior to the pandemic as well.
“Setting the schedule brings sort of a normalcy–I mean, the schedule’s different, but that doesn’t mean you get to spend that time working more,” Mitchell said.
Even setting up a calendar to better lay out when specific tasks need to be complete is invaluable for relieving the pressure of staying “on” whenever you’re near your desk.
“You’re going to work 9 to 5, and then at 5 o’clock, it’s okay to do a workout or whatever is needed in your schedule,” she said. “Unless it’s a matter of life or death, do you need to do this right now?”
Additionally, it’s important to understand the importance of both physical activity (walking, standing) versus exercise (more structured), and having both in a work day.
4. Small movements matter
Even if you’re not able to work an hour of exercise into your schedule, there are small but mighty movements which can alleviate stress on the spine, the lower back, and the lower body.
Mitchell recommends focusing on joint and posture alignment, extending arms as you stand from your seated position, even if only for 10 seconds every 30 minutes.
Lillie additionally recommends rolling the shoulders up and down to best understand the correct posture.
Further, as Wall mentioned, the difference between getting up once or twice per hour versus not getting up at all can add up over time–like sitting for four hours versus sitting for eight hours.
“Those types of recommendations begin to create more of a habit around being more active,” he said. “Many of these things require changing behavior–we want people to understand that it’s a process.”
One of the most important things is to make sure that you get a good blood flow prior to stretching, whether that means getting up to do some marching or completing a few squats.
“We want to make sure that the exercises are helping the person and not putting more stress on the body,” Lillie said.
And the bottom line is that some activity–even small movements and short stretches–is much better than just sitting.
It may sound silly, but one of the major ways to alleviate stress is one of the simplest: inhaling and exhaling.
“When you’re breathing, you’re increasing oxygen flow as well, which helps with focus and limiting fatigue,” Lillie said. “Take some time to breathe, and maybe do some relaxation techniques.”
How to deal with stress at work, wherever you work
In many ways, remote work can relieve some of the stressors of on-site work. According to a 2020 survey published in The Harvard Business Review, knowledge workers felt that lockdown helped them take more responsibility for their own schedules.
But work is still work, and it can be stressful whether we’re working in an office or from our homes in virtual offices. Following these tips can help all workers–remote or otherwise–manage their stress and stress-related physical issues.
“At the end of the day, to come out on the other side, we need to assess how we change our behavior,” Wall said.
“These are habits for life, not just habits for COVID-19,” Lillie said. “You’re healthy when you have (focus on your) mind and body–there’s no disconnect.”