How Your WFH Setup Impacts Your Mental Health

home office mood wellness

For many people, working from home is the new normal. And while there are definitely perks to being able to write emails and take calls from your bed, couch, or a kitchen table, the fact that not everyone has a dedicated home office space can be problematic. That’s because our environment has a tremendous impact on our mental health, wellbeing, and productivity, according to Sarah Greenberg, a licensed psychotherapist and executive coach.

“The vibes you get from your work-from-home environment can have a significant impact on your productivity, focus, and overall happiness,” agrees Veronica Sanders, an interior designer.  “A workspace that is not built for success can cause distractions, as well as mental and physical fatigue.”

“Generally speaking, humans work best in an environment that is free of clutter, is well-lit, includes glimpses of nature (or access to nature for breaks), and has limited distractions,” Greenberg says.

Considering you might be jockeying for real estate in the same space as roommates, partners, kids who are learning from home, and/or other family members, it might be a tall order to check all of those boxes.

But there’s good news: “What really matters is our internal environment,” Greenberg says. In other words, our external environment mostly matters because it impacts our internal environment. “But the way it does this varies across individuals,” Greenberg explains. That means with a little experimentation, you can figure out what works for you — no matter how non-ideal your WFH situation may be.

Here, 10 strategies to try from mental health experts, interior designers, workplace wellness consultants, and more.

1. If you can’t have a dedicated workspace, get creative.

Experts agree having a separate workspace is ideal. But for many, this just isn’t realistic. First, see if you can find some hidden square footage, recommends interior designer Stevie McFadden of Flourish Spaces. “Closets can be cleverly repurposed as ‘cloffices’ by removing bars and shelves and inserting small tables or desks,” McFadden says. “Dead space in large hallways can be carved into cozy, cloistered nooks with the right furniture.”

Speaking of, you might consider furniture that does double duty: “A console table that can double as a desk, or an armoire or bar cabinet that can be used as a workstation can do the trick to give a ‘sense of place’ within a space for dedicated work activity.”

When that’s not possible, try creating a designated storage spot for your work supplies and equipment. “Try a dresser drawer where a laptop and files can be deposited at the end of the day, a tray where work debris can be gathered and stashed out of sight, or even a basket for materials that can be tucked away are all functional and affordable ways to contain and separate work chaos for non-working hours,” McFadden says.

2. Set your intention to create mental separation between your work and home lives.

This can make a big difference if you’re struggling to relax in the same environment where you work. “Practice consciously starting work with a consistent action each time you arrive and leave,” advises Tarin Calmeyer, founder of Remote Team Wellness. This helps your brain create separation.

Some of Calmeyer’s suggested conscious actions include:

  • Putting on your glasses when you start work and taking them off when you finish
  • Taking three deep breaths before you start work and three deeps breaths when you finish
  • Declaring out loud "I am starting work"/"I am done with work for the day."

3. Keep goal-setting implements handy.

Finding motivation can be a real struggle when working from home, which is why Greenberg suggests keeping some tools handy keeping goals and inspiration top-of-mind. “Everyone’s list will be different, and I strongly encourage personalization,” she says. Greenberg’s personal essentials include a whiteboard for outlining (“I need visual reminders of my priorities to keep me on track”) and a quote that reminds her of her greater purpose. “Purpose is psychological rocket fuel for productivity and resilience,” she says.

4. Go green.

“A great way to create a happier and healthier mood is to have plants in your workspace,” Sanders says. “Natural elements like flowers and plants create calming effects and help to relieve stress. Plus, they naturally improve air quality.” And if you don’t have a green thumb or natural light, fake plants work too. “Seeing plants (even fake ones) tricks your mind into thinking you are one with nature and is great for creating those good vibes in your workspace.”

5. If it’s in your budget, splurge on a comfy work chair.

“You can be frugal when it comes to some other office furniture and supplies, but I recommend investing in a high-quality office chair to provide you with top comfort,” says Jim Kabel, president of Next Stage Design + Build. “You’re going to be sitting for a large portion of the day, so it’s wise to invest in an adjustable chair that will support your back and not cause strain.”

6. Work with color theory.

If it’s an option for you, a fresh coat of paint in your workspace may be an easy mood booster. “Blues and greens help you stay calm and focused as well as encourage positive wellbeing,” Sanders says. “Yellow is great for artists and creatives because it’s a color that brings about optimism.” In a pinch, a fun accent wall created with temporary wallpaper could work, too.

7. Consider noise levels.

“A great environment takes multi-sensory elements into consideration, including noise,” McFadden says. “Having the right level of ambient noise (approx. 80 decibels) can help reduce distraction by drowning out noise and encourage mental focus. A Bluetooth speaker can stream white noise or music from a computer or phone.” McFadden also likes the app Coffitvity, which can mimic the ambient sounds of a coffee shop (remember when that was a place you could go to do work?!) and lets you layer in your own playlist.

8. Practice essentialism.

Decluttering can make a big difference. “Often the first thing we must do to create a healthier home office is to focus on what we can remove,” says Kelly Robinson, interior designer and author of Where Spirit Meets Space. “As you move through your space, pick up each object and ask yourself whether you have physically touched it in the last month. If not, perhaps it’s time to part ways. When you clear away the things that you don’t truly need or love, you’ll immediately feel much more clear and free.”

9. Make sure your workspace is well-lit.

Proper lighting is super important, especially if your workspace doesn’t have enough natural light. “I would advise adding a portable table lamp or desk lamp to your work area, something that provides soft, ambient light, that doesn’t cast shadows or fatigue the eyes,” says Kevin Dumais, an interior designer. “If it's dimmable even better,” he adds. That way, you can adjust it as needed throughout the day (and night) for tired eyes. For smaller spaces, Dumais recommends a wall or floor mounted lamp or clamping one to a nearby bookshelf.

10. Use scent to set the mood.

Calmeyer suggests incorporating something that smells good into your space, whether it's a deliciously scented fall candle or a diffuser with some uplifting essential oils.“Keeping the environment smelling good can shift your mood and awaken your senses through scent and sight,” she explains.

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