COVID-19 and Occupational Therapy

Mother and daughter doing aerobics at a living room.

Best Practices as Developed by Pitt OT Students and Faculty

In recent months, students and faculty from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Occupational Therapy have developed several resources and suggested best practices pertaining to how to stay safe amidst COVID-19 while engaging in daily occupations.

By compiling a combination of materials and videos to share with the University of Pittsburgh community and occupational therapists across the country, Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences Department of Occupational Therapy hopes to help individuals adjust to the new normal while living life to the fullest.

Setting Up an Ergonomic Workstation

For millions of Americans, the shift to working remotely has meant a sea change in daily routines and a serious makeover to what our ‘workplace’ looks and feels like. Switching from a traditional office to one at home can entail unconventional or abnormal working conditions and transforming various living quarters to space dedicated to professional endeavors. And while there can be an added convenience and comfort that accompanies working from home, there are also a slew of literal aches and pains that can come with it.

If you or someone you know finds themselves stiff, cramped or sore at the end of an at-home workday, adjustments may be needed to your remote workstation. Most people spend one-third of their workday in front of a computer. To avoid exacerbating aches and pains, it’s important to make your workstation as comfortable as possible. To do so, you can start by using Pitt OT’s checklist to assess whether or not your workstation is properly set up to avoid physical strain. The easy-to-follow best practice video about assessing your posture, the fit and style of your chair and other nuances and specs of your unique workstation is a great tool to use in taking strides toward crafting a work environment that’s kinder to your body.

In addition to changing your desk chair or investing in a specially designed ergonomic option, a variety of adjustments and tweaks can be made to one’s keyboard and input device (mouse vs. touchpad vs. trackball). For individuals who wear bifocals, additional considerations can be made to improve one’s workspace. Other alterations can be made by those who use a laptop, computer monitor and desk to further ensure their workspace is not taking an unnecessary toll on their body. Finally, switching the type and style of one’s workspace can be another way to improve work health at home; people with chronic back problems have found success with standing desks and other unconventional desk configurations.

Isolation Tips

As the country takes steps to once again flatten the curve and curb further spread of COVID-19, social isolation and various forms of distancing will (and must) be implemented. While the potential efficacy of isolation as means of controlling and, ultimately, eradicating COVID-19 is undisputed, so are the challenges that accompany sheltering in place and putting physical space between us and many of our beloved human connections.

To assist with better and more reliable isolation practices, students and faculty at Pitt Occupational Therapy highlighted OT focus areas that can be especially helpful when learning how to cope with a more isolated existence.

Giving extra consideration and attention to routine activities, ranging from self care to meal preparation, as well as health and home management, is even more important during a pandemic when our standard levels of interactions with others are severely decreased.

For many, isolation and the routine disruption that comes with it means increased responsibilities. Wearing more hats than usual, especially for individuals caring for children or elderly relatives, can be exhausting. Whether you are a parent or child, caring for family old or young, taking care of yourself by getting enough rest and implementing healthy sleep practices can prove vital. Sleep and rest can also lead to better performance at work, especially if your workspace has shifted to your home and you find yourself on the job during times when you had historically been off the clock.

Other occupations, like play, leisure and social participation -- facets of life that can easily get overlooked or overshadowed during pandemic-related isolation practices -- must be tended to by individuals of all ages, especially during a pandemic. While play and leisure can be introduced into one’s routine relatively easily, assuming there is time for breaks carved out in one’s schedule, the “social” component can be especially difficult to implement.

According to a meta-analysis co-authored by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, “lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder” (Novotney, 2019). Research has also found that “loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity” (HoltLunstad, Smith, Baker, Harris & Stephenson, 2015). To combat the adverse effects of social isolation, students and faculty from the University of Pittsburgh Department of Occupational Therapy have compiled a list of suggested activities to offset loneliness and reestablish interpersonal connections. Suggestions include:

  • Setting up a Facetime date so you and a loved one can eat dinner together
  • Setting aside time to play board games or cards with the members of your household
  • Allowing your children to have a virtual playdate with their friends
  • Hosting a virtual happy hour with your friends using Zoom or Skype
  • Gathering the family and completing an at-home workout together
  • Reaching outside your typical friendship circle or trying to connect with an old friend
  • Making a conscious effort to check in regularly with those who live alone -- make a phone call, send a text, send a card, etc.

Children and Families

Pandemic living and the change it demands of people and their routines are disruptive and disorienting for everyone, children most of all. A decrease in peer interaction, an uptick in remote schooling and widespread adoption of more secluded ways of living are just a few of the adjustments that children have been forced to make in recent months as a response to COVID-19. As a result, families and parents have found themselves playing an even more significant role in their children’s care and development, adding another urgent item on an already growing to-do list.

To assist families, occupational therapists and OT students at the University of Pittsburgh have created a variety of resources for parents and other caregivers to use when engaging with children to restore a sense of normalcy during an otherwise unpredictable time.

This original handout serves as a guidebook for navigating best practices when it comes to supporting your child(ren) during a pandemic. It features tips about topics ranging from how to talk to your child about COVID to establishing new routines and age-appropriate chores. These handouts also offer several suggested quarantine activities, ranging from activities designed to aid in sensory play and motor skills to calming activities and indoor family fun. The comprehensive resource also provides a range of educational support tools and vetted websites and apps that offer guidance for families.

Caregivers

COVID-19 has created additional burdens for caregivers of children and adults with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities (IDD). From widespread changes in professional and personal routines to an increased demand for their time and services, caregivers have grown more essential than ever in recent months.

For parents and guardians of many families, the ability to work and parent relies on the assistance of caregivers. But caregivers need care as well. Pitt OT students and faculty developed checklists and suggestions for ways to recharge as a caregiver. A list of additional websites and apps designed for caregivers has also been compiled to provide more guidance and support for the individuals who help so many of us during our most trying times.

These materials provide a wide range of tools and resources specific to the needs of caregivers of children or adults with IDD during times of disaster, including pandemics, natural disasters and violent situations. Difficult times like these are often unpredictable, but these resources can help you and your loved ones navigate challenges that may arise.

The Online Doctor of Clinical Science (CScD) in Occupational Therapy program from the University of Pittsburgh is designed to empower you with tools to advance your career and make an impact. If you think this program could be the right fit for you, don’t wait. Apply here today.

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