- 64% of people working from home experienced a new physical health issue.
- Use your work breaks as an opportunity to be active.
- Take regular breaks to check in with your body and adjust your work set-up.
- Don’t work from bed.
- Make your mental health a priority.
If you’ve found it hard to keep up with your usual wellness routines while working from your home office (or couch or bed), don’t worry; you’re in good company.
For anyone who has worked a non-essential job or had to care for children in the past year, or is simply an independent contractor, the home environment has likely done a one-eighty. The role of the home is no longer to provide respite from work but to facilitate meetings. It is no longer a place for socialization but isolation. Instead of leaving the office, we shut our laptops to signal the end of the workday.
This has had profound effects on the general population’s health. As we move around less, physical health is often the first thing to decline. A study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine by the University of Southern California researchers found that over half of remote workers experienced at least one new physical symptom at the hands of the pandemic.
The root of the issue is different for everyone. For some, the difficulty is maintaining a work schedule with regular breaks; workers who forget to take breaks or shift their schedules to accommodate other remote workers find themselves putting in more hours than they usually would, which may contribute to burnout. For others, there’s the temptation to reach for the fridge when work becomes stressful or boring.
But physical health is so much more than we often make it out to be; it’s not just diet and exercise. It’s also about getting the right amount of sleep, paying attention to our body’s signals, and nourishing our cognitive and emotional states.
Here we’ll break down the most common physical consequences of working from home (WFH) as well as provide advice for rebooting your physical wellness.
Some industries allowed for WFH even before the pandemic. Information technology, customer service, computer science, and marketing, for instance, are all well-suited to long-term remote work.
But even in these fields, remote work is clearly not for everyone. A survey conducted in 2019 by Digital Ocean found that 66% of remote workers in tech felt burnt out, compared to 64% of office tech workers. Many remote employees report feeling overworked due to a lack of boundaries between their work and personal life. For someone not used to working from home, the burnout work-life blur is even worse. Add to that that many people were unprepared to work from home-some didn’t even have a dedicated workspace. So, it’s understandable that employees used to an office setting have more difficulty adjusting.
A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found that people who made the switch to remote work due to COVID-19 got the brunt of side effects to their physical health. They identified the three most common physical ailments as decreased exercise (46%), new aches and pains (39%), and worse sleep (37%).
1. Decreased Exercise
We’ve all heard it a million times, but it’s true: the average adult needs at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week (about 20 minutes per day.) Hitting the recommended 10,000 steps per day is hard enough when you work an office job. It’s even harder when you’re working from your couch. Over the course of the workday, an office worker might walk from their car to the building, climb stairs, and walk to the kitchen and restroom. It may not seem like much, but it adds up. At home, you have everything you need within a few thousand square feet or less.
- Consider downloading a step counter app that will tell you how many steps you’ve taken in a given day. This will help you make sure you’re hitting your daily goal.
- Use your breaks wisely. Every once in a while, get up from where you’re working and go on a short walk. Or, do a few light exercises at your desk. There are plenty of free workout videos on sites like YouTube.
- Don’t crowd your workspace. Instead, be strategic about where you place items so that you need to get up and move around to get a drink of water or print something. Once you start being mindful about how much exercise you’re getting in the workday, you’ll find opportunities to be active everywhere.
2. New Aches and Pains
It’s no secret that sitting all day is not good for you, especially when you’re sitting at your makeshift workstation on the dining room table. Prolonged sitting can lead to musculoskeletal problems throughout your entire body.
- Unless you’re equipped with a standing desk, sitting will probably be inevitable.
If you must sit, be sure to take regular breaks, periodically moving around to get the blood flowing and give your eyes a rest from the screen. Check in with your body. If you’re feeling sore, do some gentle stretches. Don’t forget to check your posture as well.
- If you can outfit your home office with the comforts of your corporate office, you should. Ergonomic furniture and equipment like chairs, keyboards, and mousepads can all help keep you comfortable during the workday. To avoid straining your eyes, place your computer screen an arm’s length away and utilize settings on your devices that minimize blue light.
3. Worse Sleep
Stress and poor physical health due to working from home can even affect our unconscious state and sleep quality. When’s the last time you woke up refreshed and ready for the day or sprung out of bed without some caffeinated help? For many of us, it just doesn’t happen. Many employees report feeling sleep-deprived at work regularly. When working remotely, it’s just as important to get your daily seven to nine hours in.
There’s no obvious reason why people who transitioned from in-office to at-home work have experienced worsened sleep; it could be attributed to several factors.
- If you’re counted among the 73% of COVID-induced remote workers whose home office is a mattress and a pile of pillows, it may be that your brain has stopped associating with just sleep. The solution, then, is to only use your bed for sleep. Try to keep anything that may be a stressor or distraction outside of your bedroom.
- If anxiety is to blame for disrupted sleep, you can try meditation and progressive muscle relaxation techniques before bed.
Sleep is the centerpiece of the physical health puzzle. Even if you piece the rest of the puzzle together without good sleep, you won’t get the complete picture. Luckily, there is a wealth of information about how to improve your sleep when working from home.
We’ve talked a lot about issues related to physical health, but there’s another component of overall wellness that hasn’t been addressed yet, and that is mental health. If you look closely, it’s a common thread that runs through all of the above ailments.
Despite a well-documented connection between physical and mental health, we tend to conceptualize the brain as a separate entity from the rest of the body. Mental health is commonly discussed in abstractions, but the truth is that it is inextricably linked to everything the body experiences–including physical ailments. Your brain is an organ just like any other, after all.
Poor mental health can actually lead to poor physical health, and vice versa. The two are closely associated with one another. For example, depression often manifests itself in the body as physical pain. Along with schizophrenia, depression is also associated with a higher risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Therefore, regulating your psychological wellbeing is essential to a healthy body. If you want to improve your COVID-induced physical issues, you can’t neglect your mental and emotional health.
If you find that you just can’t shake off your back pains or get a good night’s rest no matter what you try, you may want to check in with yourself about how healthy your psychological state is. Just as with physical health, everyone has differing mental health needs. For some people, mindfulness techniques like meditation, journaling, or exercising creativity are all it takes to put them at ease. Others may need more intensive treatment. Whatever your situation, it’s important to take your needs seriously and take steps to address them. It’s safe to say that over the past year, we’ve all faltered mentally. Accepting and destigmatizing those moments is the first step to growth and resilience.
Mike is the Editorial Director at Lendza. He enjoys helping entrepreneurs and startups succeed through smart, innovative strategies. He’s partnered with CEOs and executives to grow businesses from the ground up. Before his work at Lendza, Mike was a stock market analyst. When he’s not traveling for work, he enjoys reading adventure and science fiction novels.