The longevity of the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that many of us have now spent a year away from the office. But what has a year of working from home done for our physical health?
The appeal of the working from home (WFH) lifestyle can be clear to workers across the UK. It means a life without long commutes, more time for ourselves, and less chance of a co-worker eating your food in the communal fridge.
(image PMO Partners)
As we can see from the recent survey above, more employees are looking to offer some form of flexible working for their employees after the COVID-19 pandemic. However, as more companies are beginning to adapt to embrace a future of remote work, there are increasing concerns about the physical health of employees working away from office conditions.
With reports of some remote workers suffering from back, neck, leg and visual pains associated with their home office lifestyles, let’s take a look at the physical impact of a year spent working at home:
Hazardous Home Offices
One of the key causes of physical health problems in the age of WFH stems from makeshift home offices that aren’t fully fit for purpose. Because of the pace at which the pandemic changed our working lives, many of our home working environments were improvised and never appropriately adapted to enable healthy work.
While many offices attempt to incorporate ergonomically suitable tools and guides towards posture in their health and safety protocols, we haven’t had such benefits while working remotely. Not all homes have the benefit of suitable desks and chairs that offer sufficient lumbar support for long working days.
Improvised offices and quick workarounds can result in poor ergonomics. With insufficient spinal support, your home offices may be leaving you with back and neck pain, while the lack of exercise stemming from multiple lockdowns and a lack of a commute may also have led to further dietary problems.
Chronic back pain is a serious matter. Without sufficient care, around 20% of people suffering from acute low back pain will develop persistent symptoms within a year – meaning that it’s essential to find comfort in your WFH environments as soon as possible.
According to Kavita Trivedi, Associate Professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, her organisation has “definitely seen a surge in telecommuters scheduling appointments for back pain, either via virtual care appointments or in-person at our UT Southwestern Spine Center offices in Dallas, Frisco, Las Colinas, and Richardson/Plano.”
Mental Health Conditions Physically Manifesting
The time of the pandemic has been a testing one for many of us, and it’s led to experts in the field of physiotherapy warning of the links between depression and physical pain.
With nearly three times the number of 16 to 39-year-olds showing signs of depression in 2020 compared to 2019, it’s important to spend more time listening to our bodies to see if our mental burdens are physically manifesting themselves also.
“Depression can cause pain and vice versa,” Steve Briggs, lead clinician at SB Sports Injury and Physiotherapy Clinic in Shifnal, UK, explained. “With people having to self-isolate, withdraw from social activity and undertake home working in less-than-ideal workspaces and positions, we have seen a steep rise in physical and mental health linked symptoms.”
“We must now educate people in understanding the connection and promote body and movement awareness,” Briggs warned.
As the pandemic begins to give way to the era of the ‘new normal’, it will be key for workers to continue monitoring their wellness for signs of physical and mental discomfort manifesting themselves. While there are certainly perks to a life spent working from home, it can potentially be a lonely existence too, so more employers will need to act on encouraging team building and general socialising activities in a bid to keep their workers mentally and physically healthy.
Another key physical consideration when it comes to long-term remote work is limiting exposure to blue light. Overexposure to bright LED screens and video conferencing can lead to eye strain and disruptions to your biological clock.
Excessive blue light can suppress melatonin production in the body, making it more difficult to fall asleep following days spent in front of your computer screen.
It’s possible to buy blue light blocking glasses to lower your exposure to this hazardous light that can offer a quick fix to overexposure. However, it’s also important to ensure that you get fresh air when working from home to take a break from artificial light and clear your mind from your working environment.
With many businesses planning on allowing their employees to work remotely after the pandemic, we may need to see more employers work on adapting their health and safety protocols to ensure that workers remain healthy and safe in WFH environments.
We may find that NHS services and health insurance companies could begin to prepare for complications associated with workers who are based outside of offices and their various muscular and skeletal complaints as they continue to transition towards life at home.
However, with a road map for recovery emerging, the light at the end of the tunnel is that we’re likely to see an end to social distancing and more opportunities to become more physically active – meaning that our health is likely to generally improve as we head to the era of the ‘new normal’.