Working From Home Brings Its Own Health Perils: Survey

THURSDAY, Dec. 10, 2020 (HealthDay News) -- Working from home may take its toll on mental and physical health, but making some tweaks to your workspace and your headspace may help maximize the potential benefits and minimize any downsides, a new survey suggests.

Nearly 65% of people who were working from home due to COVID-19 restrictions reported new physical woes including "tech neck" and lower back pain, and about 74% said they had one new mental health issue, such as anxiety or depression. These risks were heightened among women and parents of toddlers and infants, who were juggling work and life responsibilities.

The findings were published online recently in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Overall, telecommuters felt that more was expected of them and that the distractions were far greater at home.

"The shift to work from home was abrupt when COVID-19 first hit, and no one was truly prepared," said study author Burcin Becerik-Gerber, co-director of the Center for Intelligent Environments at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles. "It is super stressful and the demands and work expectations didn't go down, plus many of us also have to be a teacher and a parent," said Becerik-Gerber, who is also a mother of three who now works from home.

Work from home does have it perks, namely more flexibility, no commute and more family time. And it is likely here to stay even after the pandemic ends now that many companies have systems in place, she said.

In the study, Becerik-Gerber and her colleagues asked close to 1,000 people who transitioned to work from home due to COVID-19 how the new arrangement affected their physical and mental well-being. They asked about overall mental and physical health, and took a deeper dive into specific symptoms and conditions.

The survey spanned many occupations and took place during the early days of the pandemic.

On average, workers spent about 1.5 hours more per day at their work station when they worked from home. Telecommuters also reported getting less physical activity and eating more than they did before the shift.

"Improperly fitted desks and chairs, and extended periods of sitting and sedentary behavior can increase risks for physical problems," Becerik-Gerber said.

An ergonomically correct work station -- one where your feet are planted firmly on the floor, your computer monitor is slightly below your eye level, among other adjustments -- can help stave off neck, shoulder and lower back pain, she said.

"Employers should train workers on the best ergonomic conditions," she suggested, and it's also important to stand or move around every 30 minutes.

Workers who had their own dedicated area at home had fewer mental or physical issues compared with their counterparts who shared a space, the study showed. "If possible, having a dedicated workspace really matters, and signals to others that you are busy, which minimizes distractions," Becerik-Gerber said.

In the study, just one-third of respondents had a dedicated area for their work, while close to 50% shared their workspace with others. Those who scheduled their work around others were more likely to report new physical or mental health issues, the survey found.

Other factors that can increase productivity and boost physical and mental health while working from home include adequate natural lighting, which helps regulate your sleep-wake cycle, Becerik-Gerber said. "Having access to nature is extremely important, and setting your work station up where you can see trees may help offset mental health problems," she explained.

In the pre-COVID days, co-workers provided social support, and telecommuters are feeling this loss, she noted. "All of those interactions with co-workers or even seeing people on the way to a meeting are the things that take your mind off of work and are very important to mental health," Becerik-Gerber added.

Social distancing doesn't have to mean isolation, said Cortland Dahl, a research scientist at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Dahl also heads Healthy Minds Innovations, a nonprofit affiliated with the center.

"You can still feel socially connected on a Zoom call by bringing your focus to what you admire or appreciate about the people who you work with," Dahl suggested.

Focusing on your breath or things that you can control will also have spillover benefits on mental and physical health when working from home, he said.

"Our knee-jerk reaction in difficult times is to focus on the things we can't control. We feel powerless and it becomes a downward spiral. Choose where to put your attention by being aware of your breath in the moment," Dahl said. This helps you remain focused and keeps distraction at bay.

Balancing work and home responsibilities is tough, especially when you are working from home, he noted.

"The last thing you want to do is slog through a chore after a day filled with Zoom meetings, but if you don't do it, your partner will have to," Dahl said. "Change your mindset, and focus on doing the chore to lessen the burden on your partner."

More information

The U.S. National Institutes of Health has tips for properly setting up your home workstation.

SOURCES: Cortland Dahl, PhD, research scientist, The Center for Healthy Minds, University of Wisconsin, Madison; Burcin Becerik-Gerber, Dean's Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, Dec. 3, 2020, online

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