By David Brown
Millions of people need a home office for the first time. Some have perched at kitchen tables or made do with a laptop on the sofa for months.
But even if a vaccine comes soon, many people may never go back to the office full time. And the early signs of how the pandemic has affected the UK’s mental health are not good.
So what can we do to keep us happier at home?
Let in the light
“People vary quite a lot in terms of personality type,” says consultant psychiatrist Dr TBS Balamurali. “But the guiding principles are very clear. Sunlight – alongside fresh air and access to nature – is fundamentally good for your mental health.”
Sunlight triggers the brain to release the hormone serotonin. It helps people to feel calm and focussed, boosts their mood and reduces anxiety.
Architect Ben Channon, head of wellbeing at Assael Architecture, says “the benefits of daylight are huge”.
“Sunlight is the starting block because it has such a big impact on the way we feel about a space – and on regulating sleep. Dealing with Covid has been exhausting for everyone, so that’s particularly important right now.”
The good news, says Ben, is that “people often have more control over light than they might think”.
He says, if you can, to put your desk near a window. Make sure you can draw the curtains back fully and clean the windows – inside and out. Dirt on windows can significantly reduce the amount of sunlight passing through them.
Also, use mirrors to bounce light around the room, and paint the room either white or a light colour also to reflect the light. And choose an upstairs room if you can – they almost always capture more sunlight, as do rooms with a higher ceiling.
Shut out the noise
Dr Rebecca Dewey from the University of Nottingham, an expert in how the brain interprets sound, says different parts of your brain are constantly trying to recognise different noises and changes in sounds. “That can be hugely distracting from trying to work,” she says.
“Sharp noises are more of a problem than a low level babble.” And as some parts of your brain scan for changes: “You might only get distracted when the noise stops.”
Fellow neuroscientist Professor Adrian Rees of the University of Newcastle explains: “Noise is tapping into your ‘fight or flight’ response.”
A stressful sound induces an area of the brain called the amygdala to send out distress signals. They’re picked up by another area of the brain, the hypothalamus, which in turn prompts the adrenal glands to pump adrenaline into the blood. Your blood pressure goes up.
“It’s partly about what the noise means to you,” says Professor Rees. So, for example, your own child crying will be much harder to ignore than traffic noise of the same volume.
Earplugs might be a solution for some, but if you want to go further, soft furnishings, thicker carpets and heavier curtains to absorb the sound are some of the things architects suggest.
If that doesn’t do the trick, under-carpet boards, replacement ceilings, additional layers of plaster board on walls, and window shutters – without shutting out too much sunlight – can help.
Studies have found that clutter can raise your level of cortisol, a stress hormone. That may be because clutter delivers conflicting stimuli to the brain, which then has to work harder to filter out unhelpful signals.
Environmental psychologist Dr Eleanor Ratcliffe, from Surrey University says: “The problem with clutter is over-stimulation.”
Normal levels of cortisol with occasional spikes are perfectly healthy, but chronically high levels of cortisol are associated with anxiety, depression, headaches and sleep disruption.
“You need to think about your need state”, Dr Ratcliffe says. While a certain amount of clutter in a relaxing home, may not be a problem, if it’s now a workplace, “you’re in a different need state, you need to cut down on distraction”.
So have a proper clear out, get organised, and get some proper storage if you can.
If you’re not going to work, you may not be walking to the bus stop or the train station, or up and down long corridors to meetings and so on.
If your commute is now from the bedroom to the box room or the kitchen table, you’re probably missing out on physical activity that can help keep you mentally as well as physically fit.
Multiple studies have found that exercise is a natural anti-anxiety treatment, relieving stress, boosting physical and mental energy, and enhancing well-being through the release of endorphins.
“Lack of exercise can have a real impact”, says Dr Ratcliffe. “If people are missing out on exercise, they need to think about how their day is structured – and start making an explicit effort.”
One option is to get a standing desk if you can – and use it properly. Stand some of the day, sit some of the day. But you can also take breaks and go for a walk.
“The commute was also a kind of decompression time for many people,” says Professor Gail Kinman, a fellow of the British Psychological Society.
“It enabled people to put a clear boundary between their work and home life. When you’re working at home the boundaries become permeable.” Getting out for regular exercise can give many home workers the decompression they need, she says.
Many claims are made for the mental benefits of contact with the natural world: reducing blood pressure, anxiety, stress and rumination (endlessly going over the same thoughts) while improving attention, memory and sleep.
Bringing plants and other natural objects and images into your home work space can have a significant impact.
Dr Ratcliffe explains the theory of “attention restoration”.
“Looking at natural objects can give your brain a break – or a series of ‘micro-breaks’ from focusing. They take up your attention, but not in a demanding or over-stimulating way. That’s helpful.
“We also associate nature with recreation and relaxation, so again that can help enhance our mood,” she adds.
Social contact…and not just online
Dr Balamurali says people who find themselves unhappy working at home need to think hard about what it is they miss about going to the office and try to compensate for whatever they’ve lost.
Top of the list, for many people, is social contact. More of us than we might expect get the majority – maybe 80 or 90% – of our social contact from being at work, he says.
Whether that’s chatting with colleagues in the office or the lunch queue, in the lift or on the stairs, it matters to a huge number of people.
“When the lockdown came – all of that disappeared quite suddenly,” says Dr Balamurali. “It does depend what kind of personality you are, but many people need to get more real social contact in other ways.
“So get out at lunchtime and in the evenings – connect with friends, family and neighbours – people you feel connected to.”
Meeting others is obviously much harder in lockdown, but he suggests meeting another person to exercise with, or to walk with.
“Humans are social animals,” he adds. “Staring into a screen on Zoom is not enough.”
Illustrations by Prina Shah.