If you are isolated or working from home, you may be experiencing a whole world of new healthcare challenges. After the battering that we all took during the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, some extra problems are coming around because the old pattern of leaving home each workday is being increasingly remodeled, and collaborative work is an option rather than the norm.
At first glance, the whole issue seems strange. Why would doing away with annoying and irritating daily routines like commuting in traffic or on crowded public transport, dressing “properly”, and being cooped up in crowded offices be anything that leads to health problems? Anyone proposing this before the pandemic hit would have had a hard time coming up with enough data to support such an argument, but COVID-19 was a perfect incubator for the necessary environment. Numerous studies have been conducted in this “laboratory.” They have highlighted that working from home can have many negative consequences. Just as we have had to take steps to combat the direct consequences of the pandemic, we should be taking the required steps to deal with the other side effects, which are likely to be just as persistent.
What are the main healthcare issues arising from the new work-at-home world?
According to a 2021 survey by the University of Southern California, approximately two-thirds of respondents reported new physical health issues. Nearly three-quarters reported new mental health issues arising directly from the unique situation that they now had to adjust to.
“Although it was apparent that the pandemic disrupted our lives in a way that was stressful, we were a bit shocked by the high incidence of new health issues among the home-based workforce so early on in the pandemic.”
The most common and persistent problems that have arisen are listed and explained in this table:
|Stress||Across all age groups, high emotional demands lead to stress and physical exhaustion. But this is even more prominent in older workers who have leadership roles since they may not be experienced in managing their people as ‘virtual leaders.’|
|Fatigue||Virtual meetings are the primary communication channel. They replace both structured meetings and informal discussions. In addition to being longer, these meetings can trigger fatigue and leave participants feeling – contrary to expectations – disconnected. The issue is more acute for speakers in meetings with numerous active participants. They cannot see individual reactions and facial expressions, forcing more guesswork and repetition.|
|Anxiety||People feel more alone because they lack the usual support they get from colleagues. Physical connection creates a strong support network which is crucial for good mental health.|
|Depression||The boundaries between work and personal life are blurred when routines are disrupted, and social contact is lost.
Emotional exhaustion is more likely in women due to increased work-life conflict. Studies show that female workers with one or more dependents have significantly higher levels of depressive symptoms than before the introduction of remote working.
People reported that they were suddenly competing with other family members for resources, including workspace, quiet time and other simple aspects of daily life. This is especially the case for working mothers who had the additional burden of coping with remote schooling.
Even though most people working from home are able to bring the required essential equipment, few have an ideal set-up like ergonomic chairs, desks, the extensions of a more “fluid” office.”
This all amounts to heightened stress and anxiety levels, which is terrible for long-term employee well-being and company productivity. So, how can employees overcome it?
What are the simple steps that can address the new problems?
By making a few adjustments to the environment and routines, many of the trigger points that are leading to stress, anxiety, depression and fatigue can be avoided or at least minimized. Here are a few suggestions:
Create a schedule that takes into account your own specific needs
A flexible schedule can be a positive result of working remotely. By no longer having the limitations imposed by commuting, office hours and the other external factors, you are now free to build a schedule that matches your own requirements. BUT … you must now treat the program with a level of commitment. Only when you organize the tasks and outline the goals will you be mentally prepared for what to expect each day. Then it is easier to progress towards achieving work objectives without overturning your personal life.
It is essential to schedule breaks to allow for escape and much-needed rest. All work and no play adds levels of stress, so allow for anything else that makes you relax for a fair slice of each day.
Get the physical environment right
If you can’t dedicate a specific workspace, like a room with a door that you can close to separate your work and home activities, then try to allocate a space which can be set apart from the rest of domestic life at least for the hours you have allocated in your schedule as dedicated to work.
Outfit the space with the right furniture. It’s essential to recognize that long work hours require a supportive chair and the suitable desk space for your physical well-being. If you are sharing the area with the rest of the family, try to create a sound barrier with comfortable (preferably wireless or BlueTooth) headphones so that your video meetings and calls remain isolated and you can also enjoy some music – something that wouldn’t be possible in the office, so it’s a bonus.
Get out and about
Remember to take frequent breaks and do some physical exercise. Suppose you were used to walking around the office to chat casually with co-workers, grab a cup of coffee or go out for a lunch break. In that case, you should have a similar routine, but make sure they are listed in the schedule to act as a prompt against the urge to stay sedentary. Where possible, allocate between half an hour to a full hour each day to some physical activity, and you will significantly lower anxiety levels.
Share your life with others
Reach out to other people – friends, family and co-workers, who are similarly engaged in work-from-home. Peer support is an effective form of behavior therapy, combating the negative aspects of the new environment. Allocate some time each week to reach out to your core group of friends and co-workers to simply talk about life in general and lift your spirits.
Keep within limits
Recognize that there are now limitations and boundaries, and base your schedule and workload on the new reality. Above all, don’t extend yourself before you know how the “new you” will be coping.
What research has been done into work-from-home health issues?
A survey conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information reported that decreased overall physical and mental well-being were associated with physical exercise, food intake, communication with co-workers, children at home, distractions while working and adjusted work hours. The three most commonly reported issues are loneliness & isolation, anxiety, stress & pressure, and depression.
A survey published in BMC Public Health, a peer-reviewed journal that publishes articles on the understanding of all aspects of public health, detailed the impact on employee well-being of home-working under lockdown.
A survey published by Emerald Insight focused on the effects of the shift to work-from-home on women. It reports that the change has resulted in increased stress on working women. They face time management issues in dealing with daily work tasks, and coping with children and other dependents in their homes. The respondents reportedly experience symptoms of stress. Women from nuclear double-earner families face higher time management issues and incidents of stress. Higher incidents of sleeplessness, headache and tiredness were common attributes identified in their behavior.