When a friend recently changed careers and started working in an office for the first time, she asked me if I had any tips on staying healthy at work. For most of my adult life, I’ve worked at a desk in an office and the experiences have taught me a lot, including ways to stay healthy—and sane. Here are several habits I’ve developed to help maintain my health in the workplace.
Get up and move.
If you’re working in an office, you’re probably planted on your butt for most of the day. Studies point to the health hazards of sitting for long periods, so it’s up to us to get up and move more.
Start with simple from-here-to-there stretches. Every time you get up to use the restroom or cross the office to attend a meeting, take the opportunity to stretch. Reach up, reach out, reach back, reach down for your toes. If you spend a lot of time typing, you will also benefit from stretches designed to help prevent carpal tunnel syndrome.
To cut down on your sitting time, consider getting a standing desk, or creating your own by elevating a laptop on a pile of books. I like to alternate between standing and sitting on a yoga ball instead of a chair—it keeps me from slouching and also feels good to bounce a little while working.
Finally, rally your coworkers into scheduling time for daily movement. At a few different offices, I’ve led or participated in five-minute movement breaks with other coworkers. We’ve done everything from standing yoga poses to basic calisthenics. Also fun, if your office isn’t too conservative: occasional dance breaks.
Staring at your computer all day can cause eye strain. Years ago, an eye doctor advised me to get up and walk to a window every hour, to look out into the distance and give my eyes a break from staring so closely at a computer screen. When you’re not able to get up, you can still take eye breaks by looking around and adjusting your focus.
There are numerous benefits of staying hydrated, from keeping your mind clear to maintaining gut health. Throughout the day, drink water and other good-for-you beverages such as herbal teas. In offices that are too cool from the air conditioner, I will make a cup of green tea and continually refill it with hot water to stay warm and also hydrated. Drinking a lot also necessitates trips to the bathroom, so you’ll get up and move more.
Keep your hands clean.
I accepted looking like a crazy germaphobe at work after witnessing too many people leave the bathroom without washing their hands. Nasty, I know. And then there are the ones who wipe their runny noses with their hands when they’re sick. So go ahead, use a paper towel to open the bathroom door on the way out. If your office has a hand dryer instead of paper towels, use a square of toilet paper. Also, if you’re going to use a hand sanitizer at work, choose non-toxic ones made with essential oils. I like EO and Clean Well products.
Keep your workspace and possessions clean.
Do you bring your smartphone with you to meetings or—gasp!—the bathroom? Do you throw your bag down on the floor? Don’t. Find room on your desk or a file cabinet for your bag. If you need the phone with you for meetings, be sure to clean its surface often.
You should also make an effort to keep your desk clean of dust and germs. Instead of chemical-laden cleaning products, fill a spray bottle with equal parts distilled water and vinegar (optional: add drops of lavender or tea tree oil) to maintain clean surfaces.
Take a proper lunch break.
Don’t think lunch, think lunch break. That means eating while you’re seated at your desk doesn’t count. Step away from the desk—and no one one will get hurt. (You know the emails will be there when you get back.) Getting away from your desk for a midday break can be energizing and replenishing, which is good for you and can also benefit your work. If you’re not able to take a full hour, at least make sure you eat away from your computer.
Think twice about using the fridge.
I have yet to encounter an office refrigerator that didn’t have at least one moldy container lurking in the back. I’ll bet that lunch you packed from home can safely remain bagged and unrefrigerated for the two or three hours until lunchtime. If you choose to use the fridge, be sure to wash your hands before and after you eat. (And don’t be the one who leaves that container in the back to get moldy.)
Eat a sugary snack and you’ll inevitably face the dreaded sugar crash. Keep fresh fruit and raw nuts at your desk and you’ll keep up your energy between meals. I also like to keep a stash of dark chocolate bars on hand for an afternoon treat—and to share with grateful coworkers. (Note: while healthy snacks are best for every day, going back for a second cupcake at a birthday party isn’t going to kill you…)
Get outside the office.
If you don’t go outside for lunch, plan for a short afternoon outing. Right at that point during the afternoon when you feel your energy dip and check the time to see there are two or three more hours until you get to go home—that’s the perfect time to get up and get out. Walk around the block, look up at the sky, breathe the open air.
Breathe through the stress.
The meeting that won’t end. The co-worker complaining about how the barista messed up her latte order. The manager who asks you at 5:30 p.m. to deliver a spreadsheet before the next day’s 9 a.m. team meeting. Arrggh! When you feel yourself getting frustrated, angry, or annoyed, pull back and breathe. Easier said than done? Not when you’re calculated about it—by actually counting. When stressed, you can calm yourself by inhaling slowly to the count of ten, then exhaling at the same slow pace. Repeat as needed. Is there a quiet office or conference room you can use for five minutes? Consider taking a meditation break. (You don’t have to wait for stress to get to you, either. If you find yourself with downtime, give yourself the gift of breathing time.)
Tune it out.
Are coworkers having a lively discussion about a reality show at the cubicle to your right while a conference call is on speaker phone at the cubicle to your left? There are frequent distractions and disruptions in any office and you might find yourself unable to focus. Google “online sound machine” and you’ll find sites that offer white noise options for you to plug in your earphones and tune it out. Sounds of the ocean usually works for me.
Decorate your desk area.
It may sound insignificant, but surrounding yourself with photos, art, and amusing tchotchkes is good for your state of mind. You may be spending more waking hours in your office than in your home, so it’s in your best interest to make your workspace feel welcoming and it’s easy to do by surrounding yourself with images that give you a boost. (A photo of your last vacation will be the perfect visual for when you’re having a bad moment.) Is there a quote that moves you? Print it and tape it to your computer monitor or another place you can easily glance at for inspiration.
Give yourself a break.
We can all use time to pull back from work for a few minutes. When that time comes, visit your favorite escapist blog, check your social media accounts, read the long-form article that has nothing to do with work, watch the latest viral video, listen to music, call a friend, or play an online game. Remember: all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.