Is working from home good for our wellbeing?
A year ago the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly changed our lives and fundamentally shifted where and how we work. Against a backdrop of government imposed stay-at-home restrictions, many of us had little option but to try and create an effective workspace at home. But how does working from home impact our wellbeing?
As the weeks stretched into months, we settled into our new remote working routines. However, research shows that the realities of ‘always on’ digital working, combined with physical isolation from colleagues, means that work-related stress is on the up.
According to a recent survey by the insurer AXA, 64% of workers across the UK and Europe confirm their work-related stress levels are higher compared with pre-pandemic levels. All of which is having a negative impact on their physical and mental health and affecting their ability to perform.
Remote working: The top challenges
A recent survey by Microsoft and the CIPD reveals how working from home equates to insurmountable workloads and longer working hours for many UK workers. Many employees say they are being stretched further than before, with one-in-three (30%) reporting working longer hours and more than half (53%) saying they felt they had to be available at all times.
Workers also report becoming increasingly aware that their mental health had deteriorated, thanks to heightened anxiety levels, disrupted sleep patterns, and the challenges of working in isolation in a personal setting. Many found it difficult to create a degree of separation between work time and personal time, stating it felt impossible to switch off or take breaks.
Finally, 65% of workers said that what they missed about working remotely was the loss of human connection – in other words, not being able to socialise in person with workplace colleagues.
The anatomy of stress: How your mind and body are linked
Everyone experiences stress: it’s part of being human. Stress responses, like fight-or-flight reactions, are designed to protect us from potential threats or predictors. Once the danger has passed, the body quickly returns to normal. With chronic low-level stress, however, it’s a very different story.
When people feel constantly anxious, stress hormone levels become elevated. This can result in irritability, sadness, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches and insomnia. It can also exacerbate underlying health conditions such as hypertension and diabetes or lead to unhealthy behaviours such as overeating or not eating enough, excessive alcohol consumption or drug abuse.
Rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms and goosebumps on the skin are just some of the warning signs that can indicate stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are bombarding your body.
Alarmingly, chronic stress also changes how our brains work. Impairing prefrontal activity, where we do our logical higher-level thinking, exposure to long-term stress can make it difficult to think clearly or make rational decisions.
Physical and mental wellbeing: Why movement matters
In addition to chronic stress symptoms, today’s remote workers are also at risk of another well-documented health issue: inactivity.
In recent years, studies have found that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. According to Dr Michael Mosely, we all need to move more. Even if that is just taking time out to stand up for 30 minutes a day.
Working from home for the past 12 months has put an end to early morning brisk walks to the train station or visits to the gym at the end of the day. Plus, we’re no longer engaged in spontaneous physical activity like walking from the desk to the conference room or the water cooler a couple of times a day. Yet research shows that incorporating frequent movement into our daily lives can have a powerful mood-boosting effect and goes a long way to combat the negative impacts of chronic stress on our bodies.
According to scientists at Johns Hopkins University, by increasing our physical activity we can reduce feelings of anxiety, increase our energy levels and improve our sleep patterns. It’s also a great way to ensure your spine and other joints benefit from the mobility that keeps them functioning in tip-top condition.
Ways to keep moving when working from home
Since movement is the key to mental and physical wellbeing, getting into the habit of consciously moving every hour is going to benefit you in a multitude of ways. All you need to do is get up to frequently to refill your water, stretch or take a few laps walking around your home. Alternatively, why not stand during meetings or conference calls, taking advantage of this time to get on your feet and be mobile.
At lunchtime, or at the close of the day, take advantage of an online stretching class and deploy these exercise tips to relieve tension throughout the day. There are plenty of stretches that you can do right at your desk.
Taking 30 minutes to go outside and stand in the garden or walk around the block will help give you a valuable break from screen time and allow you to re-engage with the world that is beyond your home’s four walls. Perhaps you could use this time to call a friend you haven’t talked to recently or catch up on a favourite podcast.
Finally, if you have a height-adjustable standing desk then switching between sitting and standing when working from home is a great way to boost your activity levels and optimise both your productivity and wellbeing.
Preparing for the future
Many companies are already talking about either offering employees the opportunity to work from home forever or to split their time between home and the office. This means remote working, in some form or another, is set to become a long-term reality for many of us in the future
If remote working is going to be a permanent feature of your life, then talk to your employer about what help is available to create a comfortable and ergonomic home workspace. With the right seating, desk, and workstation components, you’ll be able to ensure your body is appropriately supported and that screens are at the right height so that you can stay injury-free.
By Richard Guy, Country Sales Manager UK & Ireland at Ergotron