A personal perspective on home-working during the pandemic from Assistant Research Administrator at the Peninsula Medical School (Faculty of Health), Hannah Hobbs.
I started working from home on March 18th 2020 to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and like many, I’m yet to return to the office. What we thought would be a precautionary few months has turned into fourteen and counting, requiring adaptability and resilience to cope with a new way of life. Coupled with the anxieties of a global pandemic, it’s little wonder that Public Health England has been increasingly concerned for our mental, as well as physical, health.
Despite part time work hours, and understanding and flexible employers who care for my well-being, working from home has been difficult as my two worlds collided. Frustration featured heavily in the early months as I took on the roles of home-worker, truancy officer, canteen lady and referee (amongst a plethora of others) whilst the number of waking hours didn’t change. And – who could have imagined it? – I actually missed my commute. Without realising, that daily 40 minutes in the car singing and laughing along to the radio had been my relaxation and time for ‘me’, not spent as an employee, a housekeeper or even a Mum. I needed to find a way to get that time back to stay healthy mentally; to develop a coping strategy.
I chose nature. We dug a small section of our garden and planted vegetables and sunflowers; hard work, but so enjoyable. Admittedly, the initial motivation came from fear about food supplies diminishing, but it quickly became a welcome and rewarding distraction. Even being outside for 10 minutes to do some weeding allowed time to focus on the small but amazing and beautiful things happening around me, helping me to switch off from work. You can’t help but feel positivity in the presence of all that life and growth, especially when you’ve helped to nurture it.
I also added a daily walk into my routine, usually through the trees and open spaces of my local park. It’s intriguing how birdsong seems to speak straight to the synapses in your brain to decode stress, how light and colour hit your eyes to grab your attention, and how it all works together to make you feel happy and at peace.
The unquantifiable benefits of connecting with nature to an individual’s wellbeing makes it an easy, and potentially limitless, way of balancing out the obstacles to good health. It’s free and largely accessible – even in a top floor flat you can grow plants on your windowsill – and there’s mounting evidence to support the health claims. The World Health Organisation’s report titled, ‘Nature, Biodiversity and Health’ (released 20th May 2021) says, “increased exposure to high-quality green and blue space is associated with various indicators of good physical and mental health,” and that “health benefits are thought to arise through… opportunities and safe spaces for physical activity, for restoration and relaxation, and for socializing.”
It can be no coincidence, then, that access to nature and a move to social prescribing (where individuals with non-clinical needs are linked to social interventions which have the potential to improve health and wellbeing) is part of the NHS’s long term plan to manage public health, with various interventions including gardening programmes, food-growing projects and local walking for health.
The University of Plymouth’s Community and Primary Care Research Group is involved in evaluating this aspect of healthcare, and the group (together with collaborating partners) have just secured a major funding award from DEFRA to evaluate how best to deliver green social prescribing. The research consortium will deliver an in depth evaluation across seven test and learn sites targeting communities in England hardest hit by COVID-19 to increase understanding of how, and in what ways, their activities can successfully connect people with nature to improve mental health and wellbeing. The team will also look at green social prescribing in other areas, helping to boost understanding of how green social prescribing could be scaled up and embedded into healthcare practice effectively.
So, whilst home-working was initially a challenge, one advantage has been rediscovering my connection with nature, at a time when I most needed it. Now, with the prospect of returning to the office, I’m having to adjust my mind-set again. Do I really want to leave my new found comfort zone of elasticated waistbands, lunchbreaks, and a 5 minute walk to the school if I’m needed? And if I go back to a commute in the car, will I again be trying to find a 25th hour of the day to make sure I get my walk in the park? One thing’s for certain – now I’m connected with nature, I don’t want to disconnect.