The surprising health effects of working from home

By Alistair Gardiner
Published August 24, 2021

Key Takeaways

When COVID-19 first took hold, the new remote working models adopted by many industries, including medicine, were novel and even exciting to some employees. For many white-collar workers, homes became offices. But now that lockdowns are easing up across the world, many organizations are grappling with the question of whether to bring workers back to the office or stick with partial or full-time work-from-home (WFH) policies.

That makes this a good time to ask: How does working from home affect our health? Studies suggest that it’s a mixed bag. While some people benefit from greater flexibility, more opportunity to spend time with family, less fatigue, and improved productivity, others may experience the deleterious mental health impacts that result from extended hours, increasingly unclear delineations between work and home life, and limited support from employers.

Here’s a rundown of how this workplace change is affecting patient health and behaviors, according to health experts and studies.

How do workers feel about remote work?

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic made remote work a necessity, most employees liked the idea, according to a 2019 State of Remote Work report published by Buffer, the developer of a social media management platform for businesses. Buffer surveyed 2,500 individuals and found that roughly 99% said “they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers.” Flexibility is the biggest benefit of WFH, according to 40% of survey respondents, who pointed to things like “walking the dogs instead of commuting” and “the freedom to catch up with friends and not having to schedule time off for appointments.”

However, after much of the population was forced into remote work, many have found that it’s not all sunshine and roses. A vast majority (80%) of workers would consider quitting their current position for a job that focused more on employees’ mental health, according to a Forbes article last October, citing a survey of 1,000 Americans published by Telus International.  

The survey found that four out of five remote workers struggle to “shut off” in the evenings, essentially rendering them unable to leave the office. Over half of respondents reported having taken a “mental health day” since they started working from home. Roughly half said the pandemic had interrupted their sleep patterns, and 45% said they feel less mentally healthy as a result of working from home.

Interestingly, the survey pointed to the fact that allowing flexibility in a schedule could solve some of these issues, with 9 out of 10 respondents saying it would positively impact their mental health.

How remote work is changing our health

Among the concerning impacts of mandated remote work is a higher percentage of employees reporting feelings of burnout. According to a recent study published by the technology career website, 66% of those who WFH worldwide feel burned out, compared with 64% who go to the office every day. The disparity becomes even more alarming if you focus on the United States, where 82% of remote workers report feelings of burnout. The survey found that over half of remote workers tend to work longer hours than they would in an office, while 40% feel they’re “expected to contribute more.”

A study published in the Journal of Clinical and Translational Science corroborates those findings. Researchers analyzed the experiences of 322 remote workers (three-quarters of whom were female; the mean age was 42) at the Colorado Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute. While some reported they “truly enjoy working from home,” the authors found that many participants reported feelings of isolation and loneliness, with some saying they worked “50-hour weeks” and did “40–50 hours of childcare/schooling each week.” The big problem? Participants said life felt like a “never-ending workday.” 

More mixed findings emerged in a review published last fall in BMC Public Health, which examined the results of 23 studies conducted on the health impacts of remote work. Authors of the review concluded that both the physical and mental health impacts of WFH “vary considerably,” based on factors like childcare and the demands of home, level of support from employers, and extent of social connections outside of work.

For example, one study cited in the review looked at the effect of WFH on government employees. Researchers found that on average the impact was positive, with employees reporting “feeling at ease, grateful, enthusiastic, happy, and proud.” Other studies also found that more WFH hours were associated with a greater sense of well-being and reduced stress.

In comparison, a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine this past March found that WFH was associated with “decreased overall physical and mental well-being,” as a result of workers getting less physical exercise, eating a poorer diet, communicating less with coworkers, and having to work with children at home and other distractions. While WFH saves daily commuting time and offers flexibility for workers, it also brings fewer chances for exercise, a loss of opportunity for socialization, more screen exposure (which results in fatigue, tiredness, headaches, and eye-related symptoms), and other negative features.

How to make working from home healthier

Although recent studies suggest that WFH can have negative health impacts, employers can take steps to help.

The Holloway Guide to Remote Work, written by Katie Wilde and Juan Pablo Buritica and published in June of this year, outlines some paths forward.

The authors note that managers can do things like “modeling,” meaning they discuss the activities they perform to protect their own mental health, in the hope that employees will follow suit. “Sharing strategies” encourages talks about methods for managing anxiety or depression. Managers should accept and support employees who take “mental health leave days” while fostering trust by avoiding negative terms like “crazy” (even as a joke) and providing opt-in peer groups that support healthy habits.

The bottom line? Remote work is likely here to stay in some fashion, and the research makes clear that there are healthy ways to WFH—as long as physical and mental health remain top of mind.

To learn how this WFH trend affects physicians, read Is Physician Work/Life Balance Dead? on our PhysicianSense blog. 

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