November 18, 2022
Flexibility is a hot commodity these days. During the COVID-19 pandemic's isolation phase, workers worldwide, with the right kind of jobs, got a taste of work from home, or WFH. Initially, it was about adapting to isolation while balancing personal and job responsibilities, but, eventually, COVID prompted a new perspective on work, opening the eyes of employees and employers to the opportunities and drawbacks of what rapidly became the new normal.
As an advocate for healthy behavior, remote working poses an interesting question: Is it good for your health? In short, it depends.
The dialogue on remote work has centered on worker productivity, empty office buildings and the human value of the socialization that comes with on-site working. Still, researchers have examined the mental and physical implications of WFH, and the potential to improve one's health behaviors.
While not without a downside, the evidence seems to lean toward increased opportunity, however, such possibilities require a level of discipline and diligence required to maintain healthy habits in any context. Nevertheless, with the accelerated use of remote working, and the flexibility it brings, it is clearly worth examining any opportunity to promote healthy behavior.
As a health care executive, particularly one who continues to have COVID-related responsibilities, my own bout with the virus represented the extent of my telecommuting sample size. Otherwise, I was in the office and around our health system throughout the peak of the pandemic. The overwhelming majority of my WebEx and Zoom calls were from my office desk.
That said, I witnessed first-hand the phenomenal efforts of health care, food service and environmental service workers every day. Through that experience I gained an appreciation for the unbelievable work they do, along with the folks that staff our restaurants and supermarkets. While telecommuting may not fit their occupations, it is important that we recognize those that serve us no matter where or how we work. Hats off to them.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of remote workers tripled between 2019 and 2021, surging from 5.7% to 17.9%, or almost 28 million people. Zippia reports that the number of Americans working remotely will grow to 36.2 million by 2025, and remote jobs represent 15% of positions in the U.S.
McKinsey & Company characterized telecommuting as "an enduring feature of the modern working world," and "a tectonic shift on where, when and how Americans want to work and are working." The consensus is clear. Telecommuting, whether full- or part-time, is imbedded in our corporate culture.
Working at home is not without any physical risks. Dr. Kavita Trivedi, of The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, says that a major downside of telecommuting is new or worsening back, neck, leg and shoulder pain likely due to makeshift home offices with insufficient ergonomics. Adding to this, the World Health Organization cautions that "teleworking can lead to feelings of isolation, burnout, depression, eye strain, increased alcohol consumption and unhealthy weight gain."
The University of California, Santa Cruz, indicates that despite the ability to video conference, professional and social relationships can decline as a result of full-time remote working. The Brookings Institution reported that the isolation associated with telecommuting can have a negative impact on worker well-being. And, nonprofit publication The Conversation reports that remote working relationships where employees are expected to be constantly accessible via technology can blur work and non-work boundaries, triggering stress, depression and anxiety. The American Psychological Association calls this workplace telepressure.
Balancing these risks are a host of experts that see the opportunity for improved health in WFH. Even before COVID, studies published in the American Journal of Health Promotion showed that there may be benefits associated with working remotely depending on the number of hours worked through telecommuting.
Writing for the Association of Psychological Science, psychologists Lynne N. Kennette and Phoebe S. Lin provide an extensive inventory of health benefits based on their own experiences with telecommuting. These include: the potential to get additional sleep, rest and recovery, reduced stress, increased autonomy, and the associated psychological benefits, and engaging in healthier habits like walking, spending more time outdoors, exercising or maintaining a healthier diet.
The Singapore Ministry of Health promotes a number of self-care regimes that can be accommodated in the WFH setting, including exercise, regular workouts with family members, and eating nutrient-packed foods that can boost energy levels.
So, how can you maximize the opportunity to live healthy in your work from home environment? Plenty. To make the most from eliminating your daily commute, and those extended watercooler conversations at the office, try these tips from the experts.
Ulster University in the UK recommends finding a suitable place to work, scheduling regular breaks, and establishing clear boundaries with your employer and co-workers. This last point is particularly important to avoid "work intensification" and the "blurred boundaries" noted earlier.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security advises its employees working remotely to ensure a safe telework environment by performing a home office safety and ergonomic audit, standing-up and pacing the room during phone calls, and preparing healthy snacks. The agency also promotes the substitution of brisk walks, running and yoga for commuting time.
So, if you are a telecommuter, the opportunity is there to leverage your newfound flexibility to live healthy. To do so, you will need to mitigate the health risks, and create new routines. No, it is not a panacea. Success still requires the discipline to set work boundaries, and the commitment to stick with your exercise and dietary programs. But, if you can manage these behaviors, working from home offers a great portal into a healthy lifestyle that can change your life. And that is not a bad way to define your own new normal.
Louis Bezich, senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper University Health Care, is author of "Crack The Code: 10 Proven Secrets that Motivate Healthy Behavior and Inspire Fulfillment in Men Over 50." Read more from Louis on his website.