Move at work

There’s time for work and there’s time for taking care of your health. For many screen-based workers and their employers, this is how work and wellness are viewed — as two distinct and separate entities. But as work increasingly seeps into every waking moment thanks to our hand-held offices, we need to rethink this approach.

Mobile working is often heralded as the means to a more flexible schedule, offering increased opportunity for work/life balance. But rather than reaping the benefits of practicing self-care when it’s convenient, we’re experiencing increased mental and physical depletion from our work as it comes with us wherever we go.

Physical and mental health have a huge impact on productivity. The burgeoning research proving this point is motivating many companies to offer handy health benefits such as flu shots, lunchtime yoga, and bring your pet to work day. While these and other efforts are worthwhile, they provide only brief interludes of health rather than the shift in thinking and behavior that’s needed.

Instead of simply dipping our toes into workplace wellness, we need to dive in, so that just as our work — via our phones — has become a normal part of our non-work time, so too should health and self-care become integrated into our work time.

We need to make employee health and self-care a consistent and normal part of every workday. Here’s three effective ways to do this.

Prevent pain and injury from mobile working

Mobile working and creative workplace design have given workers choice when it comes to where and how they work. While the option to move away from a traditional desk set up has its advantages, without appropriate training about how to use different spaces and mobile devices within those spaces, workers commonly experience aches, pains and injury over the long term.

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) from poor positioning and overuse, such as what happens when someone works by leaning over a laptop over the course of many years, are becoming an epidemic. According to the US Department of Labor, “…employers spend as much as $20 billion a year on direct costs for MSD-related workers’ compensation, and up to five times that much for indirect costs, such as those associated with hiring and training replacement workers.”

Even Apple is recognizing the effects its devices are having on our bodies by including warnings about overuse and repetitive activities in its latest iPhone User Guide.

While physical therapy, massage, acupuncture and other healthcare options and treatments can help ease symptoms from these issues, only proper ergonomic training will prevent them. With training, employees can learn the best way to set up and use each of their mobile devices in every kind of working environment. Once an employee knows how to set up well, they can take that info with them and apply it as best they can in whatever space they choose to work.

Recognize the value of downtime by making time for breaks

So important is downtime to our physical and mental health that it should be as much a part of the workday as mobile devices are. Yet it’s the thing that gets most quickly jettisoned when schedules are tight, and deadlines are looming.

Downtime is necessary both at and away from work, yet we are getting increasingly less of it. Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow demonstrated the extent of this problem in research for her book, Sleeping With Your Smartphone. She found that in addition to their 50 to 60 plus hour workweek, the professionals she surveyed spent an additional 20 to 25 hours a week “monitoring their work while not actually working”.

Relentlessly picking up our phones to check work or anything else is diminishing our ability to focus, according to Cal Newport, computer science professor at Georgetown University. Newport writes about this phenomenon in his new book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. He suggests that we are sacrificing our ability to perform well in the analog world by constantly indulging in the digital world.

For this reason and many others, it’s important to carve out downtime throughout your day, including while you’re working. Not only will it help train your brain to focus, it also helps spark creativity and draw your attention back to what’s going on with you — mind and body. Cultivating this practice allows you to reduce stress and minimize burnout.

Downtime during the workday is not only important for your mental health; it’s necessary for your physical health too. Relentlessly staring down at our screens — as so many of us do — creates extreme stress for the body. Breaks provide much-needed reprieves from the constant physical strain that screen-based working can inflict.

Downtime doesn’t have to be long to be effective, just a few minutes can help. But every break must contain two elements for it to provide maximum benefit. First, it should include time away from screens of any kind. Taking a break from one screen to look at another is not a break for your brain or your body. Second, every break should include some movement, even if it’s only a gentle lap around the office.

Integrate regular, consistent movement into the workday

According to the American Heart Association, the time we spend not moving at all is a serious health concern. So, even if you use your company’s on-site gym every day during your lunch hour, it won’t offset the harmful effects of sitting for the rest of your day.

Consistent movement throughout the workday is one of the best and easiest ways to promote physical and mental health. The movement doesn’t have to be strenuous for it to be beneficial. A gentle walk or climbing a flight of stairs can help boost circulation which nourishes the cells in the body and the brain, enabling them to perform better. It also repairs muscles, protects joints, and eases aches and pains.

While efforts such as lunchtime yoga and walking meetings are to be applauded, regular, consistent movement for the sole purpose of reaping the benefits of that movement needs to be the ultimate goal. This doesn’t mean that everyone must move at the same time; enforced calisthenics or learning the Shuffle Dance aren’t necessary. Rather, employers should encourage consistent movement by communicating to employees that it’s ok to move whenever they can and by modelling the behavior.

Every organization must experiment to find what will work best in their work environment. One example is healthcare IT company Raisoft. To get its employees moving regularly, they developed a software called Smart Break that shows easy-to-follow movement videos at regular intervals throughout the workday. Employees take a few minutes to follow along with the videos, either on their own or with their team. It’s helping them stay motivated and, by moving together, it removes the embarrassment people can feel moving on their own.

The ideal worker for the 21st century

“An ideal worker in the 21st century is someone who does great work, is well-rested and healthy, and has a great life outside of work — not someone who’s trapped in the busy tunnel, chasing their tail, thinking small and on the road to burn out,” says ideas42, a nonprofit that uses behavioral science to solve real world problems.

Preventing pain and injury from mobile working, valuing downtime, and normalizing regular movement throughout the workday are three effective ways to make health a consistent part of the workday. Rather than waiting until that elusive ‘non-work time’ to take care of your health, these three practices will help you nurture it all day long, even while you’re working.