5 effortless, science-backed changes to your isolation workspace that will improve productivity and mental health

A clean work space, plants, and putting on the right pants all make working from home easier, according to science.

concept of clean work space woman working at a clean desk with coffee and plant

Is your workspace set up to benefit you?

Photo by Leszek Czerwonka on Shutterstock
  • Maintaining a proper morning routine (which involves getting dressed in work clothes) and structuring your work-from-home day as you would any other in-office workday can help boost productivity.
  • Organizing your work station (the height of your desk, the use of a proper chair, the cleanliness of your work area) can also impact your mood and productivity levels.
  • Adding a sense of joy and fun to your in-home work environment helps improve your mental state and work ethic, according to designer Ingrid Fetell Lee.

    Dress for success (even at home).

    image of clean dress shirts on white background concept of dressing for success

    "Enclothed cognition" is the term to describe how clothes impact our mood and behaviors.

    Photo by Bogdan Florea on Shutterstock

    While it's very tempting to roll out of bed and into the workday still dressed in your most comfortable pajamas, this could be one of the biggest reasons you're finding it hard to concentrate during your work from home days.

    "Enclothed cognition" was a term coined by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology to describe the way that clothes can impact our mood and behaviors. In one particular 2012 study, participants who donned a white lab coat increased selective attention compared to those participants who were not wearing lab coats.

    According to Hajo Adam and Adam D. Galinsky (the lead researchers on the project), clothes systematically influence your psychological processes - dress for work and you will be much more productive.

    Structure your days of the week to be similar to one another.

    Routine and structure might feel non-existent in these difficult and uncertain COVID-19 times, but research shows that keeping up with a day-time routine is really important to both your mental health and your effectiveness on the job, especially when you're working remotely.

    One of the biggest mistakes people are making during periods where they are working remotely is sleeping in. Hitting the snooze button a few more times than normal may seem fine (because you don't actually have to leave your house to start work) - but oversleeping can actually dampen your cognitive function just as much as not sleeping enough can.

    According to a 2018 study conducted by Western University, oversleeping can impact your ability to store and recall information from memory and decrease your problem-solving skills.

    While you don't have to stick to the typical 9-5 hours you would if you were in the office working, seek out a pattern in your work-from-home routine - unless you are stuck to particular deadlines, you should aim to do the most important work when you're feeling most energized (whether that be eight in the morning or three in the afternoon).

    Organize your work station for maximum comfort and productivity.

    concept of clean and organized desk laptop and clean desk on white table and background

    Keep your workstation as clean and clutter-free as possible.

    Photo by Pepsco Studio on Shutterstock

    While it's common sense to work in a somewhat organized work station that provides the space you need to work, there are plenty of things at your desk right now that could be impairing your functionality throughout the day.

    While you may be sitting at your Ikea desk not giving much thought to this - the height of your desk really can impact how productive you are throughout the day.

    A desk that allows you to sit with proper posture:

    • Your feet should be flat on the floor
    • Your legs should fit comfortably under the desk
    • Your arms should be resting parallel to the floor

    You can use the Ergotron Workspace Planner to find the proper settings for your desk and chair based on your height

    The height of your chair isn't the only thing that can impact how productive and healthy you are during these work from home days.

    The depth of your chair also matters - chairs that fit your body properly should:

    • Provide proper lumbar support.
    • Allow you to sit with your lower back against the lumbar support curve
    • Leave a 1-2 inch gap between the back of your knees and the end of your seat.

    If you find that your chair isn't meeting these requirements - maybe invest in a new office chair. After all, we may all be telecommuting for a while due to social distancing rules.

    When it comes to your monitor or screen, many people don't understand how this could connect with things such as bad posture, shoulder problems or eye strain.

    However, according to these monitor placement guidelines from the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), your computer screen or monitor should be:

    • Between 20 and 40 inches in front of you
    • The top line of the screen or monitor should be at (or below) your eye level
    • Your screen shouldn't be tilted more than 10-20 degrees.

    Organize your desk to improve your mental health.

    It's not just ergonomics that should play into how you organize your desk, but the things you have near you and how you arrange your workspace at home can impact your mental health throughout the day as well.

    The power of a desk plant:

    Turns out plants can help make you more productive. While this may sound strange, there is quite a bit of research to back this claim.

    Indoor plants prevent fatigue during what can be attention-demanding work hours and placing your desk next to a window that has a view of greenery can keep us focused, according to a 2011 study.

    In fact, psychologists at Exeter University claim a desk plant can boost your productivity by up to 15%.

    A cluttered space means a cluttered mind. Distractions could be ongoing depending on your current situation (children home from school, a spouse or partner that's also working from home, pets that require our attention) - so having your desk be a designated place for work (and work only) is important.

    At the end of each day, take a few minutes to clear your desk of clutter:

    • Put all pens back in a holder, stack papers neatly proper piles.
    • Clean away any dishes (coffee mugs, etc) and wipe down your desk.

    Returning the next day to a clean and clear work station will put you in a more productive mood and get you off to a better start.

    Make working from home a joyful experience.

    Ingrid Fetell Lee, a designer and author of "Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness" explains that creating a joyful working from home experience is key to being more productive.

    If your space feels comfortable and settled, your life is likely feeling that way as well. If your environment is feeling frazzled, cluttered and tired - you may start to struggle with those difficult emotions in your personal life.

    The idea that your environment can impact your mood is part feng shui and part logic. When your desk is piled full of papers and bills, it's likely safe to say you're maybe not as "on top of" your finances as you'd like to be.

    "How we care for our homes often indicates how we're caring for ourselves," Lee explains, "If the kitchen is a mess, my diet is usually a mess too. A clogged fridge and pantry kills my motivation for cooking. We start ordering more takeout and end up feeling bloated with low-energy and it becomes hard to break the downward spiral."

    The same goes for your working space - if your workspace (especially your home office) is feeling cluttered and chaotic, you will be less productive.

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    Credit: Getty Images
    Surprising Science
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    COVID and "gain of function" research: should we create monsters to prevent them?

    Gain-of-function mutation research may help predict the next pandemic — or, critics argue, cause one.

    Credit: Guillermo Legaria via Getty Images
    Coronavirus

    This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

    "I was intrigued," says Ron Fouchier, in his rich, Dutch-accented English, "in how little things could kill large animals and humans."

    It's late evening in Rotterdam as darkness slowly drapes our Skype conversation.

    This fascination led the silver-haired virologist to venture into controversial gain-of-function mutation research — work by scientists that adds abilities to pathogens, including experiments that focus on SARS and MERS, the coronavirus cousins of the COVID-19 agent.

    If we are to avoid another influenza pandemic, we will need to understand the kinds of flu viruses that could cause it. Gain-of-function mutation research can help us with that, says Fouchier, by telling us what kind of mutations might allow a virus to jump across species or evolve into more virulent strains. It could help us prepare and, in doing so, save lives.

    Many of his scientific peers, however, disagree; they say his experiments are not worth the risks they pose to society.

    A virus and a firestorm

    The Dutch virologist, based at Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam, caused a firestorm of controversy about a decade ago, when he and Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced that they had successfully mutated H5N1, a strain of bird flu, to pass through the air between ferrets, in two separate experiments. Ferrets are considered the best flu models because their respiratory systems react to the flu much like humans.

    The mutations that gave the virus its ability to be airborne transmissible are gain-of-function (GOF) mutations. GOF research is when scientists purposefully cause mutations that give viruses new abilities in an attempt to better understand the pathogen. In Fouchier's experiments, they wanted to see if it could be made airborne transmissible so that they could catch potentially dangerous strains early and develop new treatments and vaccines ahead of time.

    The problem is: their mutated H5N1 could also cause a pandemic if it ever left the lab. In Science magazine, Fouchier himself called it "probably one of the most dangerous viruses you can make."

    Just three special traits

    Recreated 1918 influenza virionsCredit: Cynthia Goldsmith / CDC / Dr. Terrence Tumpey / Public domain via Wikipedia

    For H5N1, Fouchier identified five mutations that could cause three special traits needed to trigger an avian flu to become airborne in mammals. Those traits are (1) the ability to attach to cells of the throat and nose, (2) the ability to survive the colder temperatures found in those places, and (3) the ability to survive in adverse environments.

    A minimum of three mutations may be all that's needed for a virus in the wild to make the leap through the air in mammals. If it does, it could spread. Fast.

    Fouchier calculates the odds of this happening to be fairly low, for any given virus. Each mutation has the potential to cripple the virus on its own. They need to be perfectly aligned for the flu to jump. But these mutations can — and do — happen.

    "In 2013, a new virus popped up in China," says Fouchier. "H7N9."

    H7N9 is another kind of avian flu, like H5N1. The CDC considers it the most likely flu strain to cause a pandemic. In the human outbreaks that occurred between 2013 and 2015, it killed a staggering 39% of known cases; if H7N9 were to have all five of the gain-of-function mutations Fouchier had identified in his work with H5N1, it could make COVID-19 look like a kitten in comparison.

    H7N9 had three of those mutations in 2013.

    Gain-of-function mutation: creating our fears to (possibly) prevent them

    Flu viruses are basically eight pieces of RNA wrapped up in a ball. To create the gain-of-function mutations, the research used a DNA template for each piece, called a plasmid. Making a single mutation in the plasmid is easy, Fouchier says, and it's commonly done in genetics labs.

    If you insert all eight plasmids into a mammalian cell, they hijack the cell's machinery to create flu virus RNA.

    "Now you can start to assemble a new virus particle in that cell," Fouchier says.

    One infected cell is enough to grow many new virus particles — from one to a thousand to a million; viruses are replication machines. And because they mutate so readily during their replication, the new viruses have to be checked to make sure it only has the mutations the lab caused.

    The virus then goes into the ferrets, passing through them to generate new viruses until, on the 10th generation, it infected ferrets through the air. By analyzing the virus's genes in each generation, they can figure out what exact five mutations lead to H5N1 bird flu being airborne between ferrets.

    And, potentially, people.

    "This work should never have been done"

    The potential for the modified H5N1 strain to cause a human pandemic if it ever slipped out of containment has sparked sharp criticism and no shortage of controversy. Rutgers molecular biologist Richard Ebright summed up the far end of the opposition when he told Science that the research "should never have been done."

    "When I first heard about the experiments that make highly pathogenic avian influenza transmissible," says Philip Dormitzer, vice president and chief scientific officer of viral vaccines at Pfizer, "I was interested in the science but concerned about the risks of both the viruses themselves and of the consequences of the reaction to the experiments."

    In 2014, in response to researchers' fears and some lab incidents, the federal government imposed a moratorium on all GOF research, freezing the work.

    Some scientists believe gain-of-function mutation experiments could be extremely valuable in understanding the potential risks we face from wild influenza strains, but only if they are done right. Dormitzer says that a careful and thoughtful examination of the issue could lead to processes that make gain-of-function mutation research with viruses safer.

    But in the meantime, the moratorium stifled some research into influenzas — and coronaviruses.

    The National Academy of Science whipped up some new guidelines, and in December of 2017, the call went out: GOF studies could apply to be funded again. A panel formed by Health and Human Services (HHS) would review applications and make the decision of which studies to fund.

    As of right now, only Kawaoka and Fouchier's studies have been approved, getting the green light last winter. They are resuming where they left off.

    Pandora's locks: how to contain gain-of-function flu

    Here's the thing: the work is indeed potentially dangerous. But there are layers upon layers of safety measures at both Fouchier's and Kawaoka's labs.

    "You really need to think about it like an onion," says Rebecca Moritz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Moritz is the select agent responsible for Kawaoka's lab. Her job is to ensure that all safety standards are met and that protocols are created and drilled; basically, she's there to prevent viruses from escaping. And this virus has some extra-special considerations.

    The specific H5N1 strain Kawaoka's lab uses is on a list called the Federal Select Agent Program. Pathogens on this list need to meet special safety considerations. The GOF experiments have even more stringent guidelines because the research is deemed "dual-use research of concern."

    There was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    "Dual-use research of concern is legitimate research that could potentially be used for nefarious purposes," Moritz says. At one time, there was debate over whether Fouchier and Kawaoka's work should even be published.

    While the insights they found would help scientists, they could also be used to create bioweapons. The papers had to pass through a review by the U.S. National Science Board for Biosecurity, but they were eventually published.

    Intentional biowarfare and terrorism aside, the gain-of-function mutation flu must be contained even from accidents. At Wisconsin, that begins with the building itself. The labs are specially designed to be able to contain pathogens (BSL-3 agricultural, for you Inside Baseball types).

    They are essentially an airtight cement bunker, negatively pressurized so that air will only flow into the lab in case of any breach — keeping the viruses pushed in. And all air in and out of the lap passes through multiple HEPA filters.

    Inside the lab, researchers wear special protective equipment, including respirators. Anyone coming or going into the lab must go through an intricate dance involving stripping and putting on various articles of clothing and passing through showers and decontamination.

    And the most dangerous parts of the experiment are performed inside primary containment. For example, a biocontainment cabinet, which acts like an extra high-security box, inside the already highly-secure lab (kind of like the radiation glove box Homer Simpson is working in during the opening credits).

    "Many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely." — REBECCA MORITZ

    The Federal Select Agent program can come and inspect you at any time with no warning, Moritz says. At the bare minimum, the whole thing gets shaken down every three years.

    There are numerous potential dangers — a vial of virus gets dropped; a needle prick; a ferret bite — but Moritz is confident that the safety measures and guidelines will prevent any catastrophe.

    "The institution and many people behind the institution are working to make sure this research can be done safely and securely," Moritz says.

    No human harm has come of the work yet, but the potential for it is real.

    "Nature will continue to do this"

    They were dead on the beaches.

    In the spring of 2014, another type of bird flu, H10N7, swept through the harbor seal population of northern Europe. Starting in Sweden, the virus moved south and west, across Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is estimated that 10% of the entire seal population was killed.

    The virus's evolution could be tracked through time and space, Fouchier says, as it progressed down the coast. Natural selection pushed through gain-of-function mutations in the seals, similarly to how H5N1 evolved to better jump between ferrets in his lab — his lab which, at the time, was shuttered.

    "We did our work in the lab," Fouchier says, with a high level of safety and security. "But the same thing was happening on the beach here in the Netherlands. And so you can tell me to stop doing this research, but nature will continue to do this day in, day out."

    Critics argue that the knowledge gained from the experiments is either non-existent or not worth the risk; Fouchier argues that GOF experiments are the only way to learn crucial information on what makes a flu virus a pandemic candidate.

    "If these three traits could be caused by hundreds of combinations of five mutations, then that increases the risk of these things happening in nature immensely," Fouchier says.

    "With something as crucial as flu, we need to investigate everything that we can," Fouchier says, hoping to find "a new Achilles' heel of the flu that we can use to stop the impact of it."

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