Extroverts forced into prolonged work from home arrangements aren’t exaggerating when they claim that the solitude of a people-free workplace is draining their spirits. Medical and psychological professionals, and consumer polls, confirm that the prolonged telework experiment resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic poses risks to mental and physical health.
Many Americans are nearing their second year of working from home due to the pandemic. While this allows for more convenience and fewer commutes, teleworking has impacted the mental and physical health of many people, experts say.
According to a 2021 poll by the American Psychiatric Association, a majority of the 1,000 people surveyed said they experienced mental health impacts from working from home, including isolation and loneliness.
With many workers directing all their attention to a computer screen for many hours each day, they may feel drained emotionally and cognitively, said Dr. Shacunda Rodgers, a clinical psychologist in Sacramento, California.
“When we were working in the office, there was a big boundary between work life and home life,” said Rodgers. “And now that people are working from home and have been working from home for, you know, nearly two years, there’s a loss of boundaries really between work life and home life.”
Rodgers, who is a member of the California Board of Psychology, said she’s worked with clients who are “checked out” and on “autopilot.”
The stressors of working from home, as well as from the pandemic, have also caused feelings of burnout, disengagement, depression, fatigue and anxiety, she said.
Physical health complications
Dr. Eric Tepper, a family medicine physician in Sacramento, said he’s seen some clients have physical health issues due to working at home. Patients are having problems with sleep, exercise, orthopedics and eating — along with depression and anxiety.
And from family practice to rehabilitation, doctors are problem-solving the complications.
The manager of outpatient rehabilitation for Mercy General Hospital in East Sacramento, Dr. Benjamin Braxley, said the effects compound over time.
“I would say the number one thing that we see is a change in strength,” said Braxley, who is also the chair of the Northeast District of the California Physical Therapy Association.
He said with stay-at-home orders, people walk less and shorten the distance walked. Over time, this causes a decline in the ability to walk long distances or handle stairs.
Blood clots, such as deep vein thrombosis, are also known to occur among people who sit for many hours at a time without moving.
But Braxley said he has yet to see severe physical complications from remote working, such as soft tissue, muscle or bone injuries.
What are the risk factors?
Pre-existing conditions appear to be risk factors for health complications from working from home, according to medical professionals.
“Based on my experience with clients that I have seen, people who were already depressed and people who were already anxious — the pandemic has definitely made that worse for a lot of folks because they don’t have access to the same type of supports and resources,” said Shacunda, the clinical psychologist in Sacramento.
In terms of physical health, Braxley of Mercy Hospital said that patients are coming in due to chronic conditions that have worsened.
“They come to see us, not because they’re working from home, but because of deconditioning lead to, you know, a worsening of an unrelated orthopedic problem,” he said.
Tips for better health
As the world continues to navigate the pandemic and access to vaccines, many Americans will remain working from home. According to a Gallup poll, 45% of full-time employees in the U.S. worked partly or fully remote in September.
Since more homes are becoming permanent work offices, health experts shared tips on how to manage one’s well being while working from home.
Structure your days. Tepper, the Sacramento-area family doctor, advises living by a schedule. “If my work starts at 8 o’clock, that means I’m actually doing my work at 8 o’clock,” he said. “But that also means at 5 o’clock, I’m done.” He added that you should take breaks and do something healthy for yourself, such as a quick work-out.
Pay attention to home office ergonomics. Ergonomics refer to comfort, safety and efficiency in a work environment — your position while working. Braxley recommends that people arrange work equipment, such as computers, close to their body. Screens, for example, should be directly in front of a worker so they avoid sustained twisting or reaching, which can lead to strain and discomfort over time.
Tend to body and mind. Rodgers said practicing mindfulness is important for your overall health. This means paying attention to the present moment and being aware of when you feel anxiety, depression, burnout, aches and pains, she said. She said you should ask yourself: What am I dealing with? How well am I attending to it? Where do I need extra help? By answering these questions, you can get more clarity on your situation and what types of support you need.
Go outside. Tepper said people need to make a conscious effort to have a social life. Social interactions and building relationships, whether with friends, family members or a spouse, are known to help peoples’ mental and physical health. Simply going outside to feel the breeze on your face, look at nature and listen to the sounds around you are also helpful, Rodgers said, because it breaks up the day’s monotony.