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Ask the MD: Working from Home with Parkinson’s… During a Global Pandemic

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The disruption caused by coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has impacted every aspect of our lives. We are now working, schooling our children, and exercising from our homes. We’re redefining work-life balance as we go, building “daily routines” that are still too new to qualify as routines, and managing high levels of stress and anxiety.

Working from home (especially during a global pandemic!) poses unique challenges for many of us. We are figuring out how to be productive, communicate and stay connected at work, all while getting comfortable with new technologies. And for people with Parkinson’s disease (PD), there may be additional concerns. If the disease affects facial expression or speech, it may be harder to communicate through video and phone meetings. Slowness or difficulty with fine motor movements may make the increased typing, emailing and instant messaging of this time tougher. And anxiety, sleep changes or fatigue — common non-movement symptoms in PD that may be increased — can temporarily worsen other Parkinson’s symptoms, such as tremor, stiffness or dyskinesia (involuntary movement).  

I spoke with career coach and professional development consultant Marti Fischer, who shared six tips to make the most of working from home during this time.  

Tip #1: Connect with Colleagues

Running into co-workers in the hallway or meeting for lunch or coffee are some of the ways we build personal relationships. With remote work, we have to be intentional about connecting. At the start of each call, check in by asking, "How is everyone feeling today?" Hearing personal stories and how others are "showing up" sets the tone for the call. It also allows you to signal how you are feeling. For example, "I'm a little tired today. I may be more quiet than usual." Or, "I feel great and I’m excited to get this project started." Also, schedule social connects with colleagues. Even though you can’t meet in person, you still can catch up virtually over lunch or coffee.

Tip #2: Take Breaks

When relying on screens for connectivity, we typically sit more. (Sitting for long periods has been linked to health concerns such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.) We also blink less, something people with Parkinson’s do even when they aren’t staring at screens. Less blinking can cause dry eyes and temporary blurred vision. Set alarms and schedule breaks for your eyes and your body. Consider the “20-20-20” rule: Every 20 minutes, look at an object 20 feet (or more) away for at least 20 seconds. And every 60 or 90 minutes, stand up and stretch or take a five- to 10-minute walk around your house, apartment or block, if possible.

Tip #3: Mix it Up

If you have a laptop or other mobile device (as well as the space), alternate your workspace every so often. Changing your environment can boost energy and creativity. And, if the movement feels right, stand or walk during long conference calls. (You even can suggest this for your whole team. A standing meeting keeps everyone more efficient as people rarely want to stand for more than 30 minutes.) And if your fingers feel slow or tired, alternate typing and dictation for emails, chats and texts to give your hands a break.

Tip #4: Use the Right Tool

Technology offers a variety of ways to communicate, including video conference, instant messaging, email and many others. For some, symptoms such as dyskinesia (involuntary movement) or less facial expression may make video feel less comfortable. For others, changes in speech may make audio-only or telephone meetings tougher. Decide which works best for you and adapt if necessary, depending on how you feel that day. Also use the chat function to ask questions or make points during video calls, or offer a conversation by email or text. 

Tip #5: Check in with Yourself

Many of us are working longer days than normal, full of back-to-back meetings, in spaces we’re not used to working from. All while living through a worldwide pandemic and managing anxiety and stress — some of which likely was there before and now is, understandably, increased. We’re juggling a lot, and we can’t forget ourselves. Just as you schedule meetings, schedule time to check in with yourself and recharge. Maybe it’s 30 minutes before the workday begins or 10 minutes in the afternoon when your energy typically wanes. During that time, step away from your email, turn your phone on silent, and focus on how you are feeling.

Tip #6: Set Boundaries

With home as your office, it can be hard to know when the workday starts and ends. Create structure and signals to let your body and mind know when and where work happens so that it’s a natural habit. Try to begin and stop around the same time each day. If helpful, end your day by writing your to-do list for the next day, physically closing your laptop and saying aloud, “I’m done for the day” or something similar. Then leave your workspace and resist the urge to check or answer emails throughout the evening.

For more tips from Marti Fischer, check out MJFF’s guides on sharing your diagnosis and talking about Parkinson’s at work or visit her website.

For more on Parkinson’s and COVID-19, visit MJFF’s resource hub.

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