This week, job discovery platform Directly Apply circulated a terrifying, visual projection of a remote worker named “Susan.” Susan is designed to illustrate the cumulative health consequences of 25 years of working from home.
Susan has bloodshot eyes due to long hours looking at screens, pale skin and hair loss from lack of vitamin D, obesity from low levels of activity, and poor posture from hunching over her laptop.
While Susan may be a dramatized harbinger of a potential future, working remotely doesn't have to sabotage your mental or physical health.
I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.
This week, Inverse asked David Rogerson, a sports nutritionist and strength conditioning expert at Sheffield Hallam University, to weigh in on WFH’s potential side effects.
Remote work offers benefits and tradeoffs, depending on how you do it, Rogerson tells Inverse.
“In many ways Susan is a caricature of what could be possible if we spend so long working from home with poor habits,” Rogerson says. “But that said, her depiction could serve as a warning sign of what could be possible if we are not cognisant of the effects of poor working practices on our bodies.”
Remote work isn’t a one-way route to poor health. To avoid Susan’s fate, Rogerson suggests moving intentionally throughout the day, taking breaks from technology, and staying connected.
“Sedentary behavior in many ways is a silent killer, and public health messages are unequivocal in promoting regular exercise and daily physical activity,” Rogerson explains. “If your remote working practices are leading to reduced physical activity, prolonged sitting, and increased screen time, then you have a trifecta of risk factors for poor health.”
Before Covid-19, an estimated 29 percent of American college graduates worked from home at least some of the time. Now, that number has jumped to nearly two out of three American workers.
Even as some offices are reopening, many employees may continue to work from home indefinitely. To stay healthy with this new working pattern, pay attention to four factors: prolonged sitting, screen time, level of activity, and social interaction.
Prolonged sitting (which remote working without taking breaks could promote) is linked to a wide range of health complications: poor posture, back and neck pain, stiff and weak muscles, poor cardiovascular health and increased risk diabetes, and other chronic diseases – even poor digestion, Rogerson explains.
Meanwhile, too much screen time can lead to eyestrain, headaches, and poor sleep. If your work hours have started blending into time off, it’s worth carving out time to shut down the computer or turn off email notifications.
When you work from home, you also run the risk of gaining weight. Staying hydrated and eating a nutrient-rich diet can help compensate for any activity imbalances.
“Moving more and eating well are two things that are almost universally agreed upon as being important for health regardless of context, but are perhaps even more important if you are working from home, moving less, and have the refrigerator close by.
Working remotely can also lead to social disconnection and loneliness, which can contribute to anxiety and depression.
“Social contact is perhaps just as important as physical activity, particularly for mental health,” Rogerson advises.
Susan shows these side effects taken to the extreme. Luckily, the solutions are relatively simple: redesign your work space, move more, eat well, and stay connected.
“We need to be mindful of how our working environments and practices impact our posture and activity patterns,” Rogerson stresses.
He says that workstations should be set up to enable good alignment: no slouching, feet flat on the floor, back supported, forearms parallel to the desk and with arms relaxed. The head should also be in balance and not leaning forward too much to reduce the strain on the neck.
“Standing desks, or at least standing up regularly while you work, can also be of benefit to reduce the effects of prolonged sitting on our posture,” Rogerson says.
Movement is vital to counteract the health costs of prolonged sitting. Some research indicates that we need to move every hour or two.
“Taking regular and consistent breaks throughout the day to get up and move, even for just a few minutes, will help to reduce the impact of being sat for too long on our health,” Rogerson says. This can be as simple as setting your office up in your attic, or in an upstairs room, and coming downstairs to get a drink or go on a walk. You can also set up a timer to move on your computer, phone, or watch. This will break up the long stretches of sitting.
One of the most important strategies centers on mental, not physical, wellness. If you can, take a socially distanced walk around the block with a friend, partner, or neighbor. Reach out to colleagues and ask how they are doing. Organize a Zoom chat or pick up the phone and say hello, Rogerson suggests.
“As well as moving more and eating well, maintaining social connectedness is something that we should also try to do actively,” Rogerson says.
Ultimately, about 3 in 5 remote workers prefer working from home and hope it continues after the pandemic is over. Taking a proactive approach to implement these tips day to day will help people avoid WFH from jeopardizing their health.