First published in the July 15 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
You remember the “new normal,” what life is supposed to be like “post-pandemic”?
I’m still waiting for post-pandemic to arrive, so I thought I’d pass along advice from someone who might bring us a few steps closer to sanity.
Meet Ashley Halle, a 10-year resident of South Pasadena, and an associate professor of clinical occupational therapy and coordinator of primary care residency at the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy.
Halle, who earned her bachelor’s degree, master’s and doctorate from USC, likes to explain occupational therapy as looking at how people occupy their time. They often work with people with chronic illnesses, but their goal is to help people participate in their desired occupations with the therapeutic use of everyday activities.
“It’s our job to make sure people can do all the things they want and need to do, and do them in ways that are safe, healthy and at the level of independence they want,” Halle told me in an interview last week.
Halle, who has done home and virtual evaluations for seven years, said that she and her associates often work with people who have a wide variety of conditions, including weight-related problems, diabetes, so-called “long COVID” and mental health issues. I have used Keck Medicine of USC’s Occupational Therapy Program to look at ways I can more efficiently cope with my rheumatoid arthritis. And, on a recent visit, I asked Halle to help me help you answer questions about dealing with everyday pandemic problems.
The pandemic has brought more patients with mental health concerns, Halle said, especially dealing with issues such as depression and isolation.
“I hear from some clients, especially my older clients, about how they are missing engagement,” she said. “I think the pandemic has disrupted many peoples’ cherished activities, habits, roles and routines. We gain a sense of identity and purpose through our occupations — through the things that we do. And when the pandemic disrupted our way of doing things and being in the world, it disrupted our identity, purpose and sense of belonging.”
Some people discovered that the time working at home gave them a chance to reflect on whether they were stuck in a career rut, while other workers, Halle said, found themselves overworked and burned out.
“Some people have taken time to consider what they want to do with the rest of their lives,” said Halle. “They might say, ‘Have I allowed myself to continue along a path and do I need, perhaps, to correct course?’”
The Occupational Therapy Program and the psychologists in the USC Pain Center often talk to patients — mainly with chronic pain — who either might want to work at an even higher rate of efficiency, look at ways to improve their lives or to find new challenges.
“It’s sometimes a question of what matters most in their lives,” Halle said.
Sometimes, managing the career and lives we have can be a challenge. Consider the pandemic: people stayed or are staying home, and are looking at how they are going to spend more time in one place. Now, there are hybrid schedules, where you go back to the office for a few days and then are home for another few days.
Halle, who is a Certified Aging in Place Specialist through the National Association of Home Builders, gave me lots of ideas:
- First, always, is safety. Do we need to move cords out of the way? Are telephones easily within reach in case of emergency? Is there a concern for domestic violence and abuse in the home?
“Modifying things to improve safety is imperative,” she said.
- Consider things like accessibility and comfort. Make sure to consider the purpose and functionality of the space. Move the things you use regularly to a more accessible location. Do you have an ergonomic setup for your home computer? Pay attention to the height of your table. Raise the height of your laptop screen or monitor to eye level. I had all of this checked when I asked Halle and her associate to come out and make suggestions. And speaking of laptops, Halle suggests not using laptops in bed. It disrupts sleep cycles — a common complaint.
- When you are at the computer, be sure to take breaks and try to stay on schedule. Don’t keep staring at that pile of paper in the other room.
- What makes this space a place for you? Are there pictures of cherished family members and friends around you? Do you have mementos from trips or special events? Halle said that many people she has talked to like the idea of a hybrid schedule, where they can come in and see colleagues and friends. They are becoming more comfortable with the situation. “The offices where this is most successful is where the workplace culture is supported by both managers and employees,” she said. Hybrids mean more driving some days and much less on other days. Some people in L.A. like to use the time they spend on the road to plan their day.
- Having little time on the road might mean finding other ways to build in a quiet time during the day. That might mean going for a walk or listening to music or doing some yoga — anything that focuses on calm and restoration.
- Some people have moved farther away during the pandemic and they now have longer commutes to work. Halle recommended that you check the ergonomics of your car seat and to do a better job of holding the steering wheel. Doing gentle neck stretches help, too.
Even experts like Halle have been challenged by the pandemic. She spends more time in her apartment, which she shares with her husband and 3-year-old daughter, who has her own room. They now have a play table, kitchen and art area in the main living space so she can connect more with family.
That meant that mom initially moved her office from the living room to the kitchen table. That brought Halle her own ergonomic issues, and it wasn’t as appetizing to have to eat meals with mom’s office work piled up in front of them.
“Plus, my toddler couldn’t understand that part of the kitchen table could be used for play and eating, while part of it was off-limits because it was mom’s workstation,” she said. “It’s no fun cleaning stray peanut butter toast off your keyboard.”
So, the family downsized its living room couch and brought an old desk out of storage for mom to use. Her husband, Matt, is a film writer and director who also has a podcast, and he usually works at the home of his business partner.
The family has cut down on what Halle calls “visual clutter” since both parents work at home and it was easy for things to pile up and get lost, increasing stress. They now place increased importance on cleaning and organization.
“My spouse and I found ways to increase meaning in our home by adding a family photo album,” Halle said. “While one of our favorite occupations is spending time with our daughter, we also found ways to engage in more solo occupations. That brought us joy and calm while at home.
“My husband enjoys painting miniatures, and he has a small corner dedicated to his paintings,” she added. “For me, I expanded my love of gardening. We have numerous houseplants, as well as a few plants in our apartment’s communal area that have been a wonderful source of healing and growth for me.”
So, if you are still feeling isolated, or still wondering why your work area looks like a disaster area, you are not alone.
There are people like Ashley Halle who feel your pain and who are eager to help you look for solutions.
Columnist’s note: You can contact the Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy by going to OTFP@med.usc.edu or by calling (323) 442-3340.