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Preventing Health Risks When You Work from Home

It’s well documented that telecommuters work longer hours than their onsite counterparts, creating work-related health concerns. Prevention is key.

Remote worker at desk
Photo: Anne Splatt

Remote work is a work style that continues to grow at an alarming rate. It’s widely appealing to professionals and employers alike. And yet, as with any popular phenomenon, there are downsides. For example, in exchange for a five-second-commute, many remote workers are unintentionally trading in their health.

It’s well documented that teleworkers work longer hours than their on-site counterparts. Whether it’s the inability to shut down at a reasonable time, a desire to impress the boss, or a combination of other factors, there are unhealthy behaviors remote workers should be aware of and learn to replace.

Constant sitting    

Excessive sitting “seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.” say James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., answering questions for www.mayoclinic.org. While the obvious remedy to extensive sitting might be to head to the gym for an hour each morning, Dr. Levine says that this won’t help much. Instead, frequent movement breaks, such as walking around or even standing during work times, is healthier. The point is to avoid long periods of sitting altogether.

Posture   

Having nice posture looks attractive. But good posture is more important than looking poised. According to the Kansas Chiropractic Foundation, “the long-term effects of poor posture can affect bodily systems (such as digestion, elimination, breathing, muscles, joints and ligaments).” Remote workers usually have desk jobs, so besides constant sitting, long hours can make them tired causing their postures to suffer. Taking several breaks throughout the day to perform posture stretches will do wonders.

Lack of exercise 

It’s no secret that exercising is physically beneficial, whether to aid in weight loss, or to increase heart rate. What isn’t always recognized are the psychological benefits of exercise. This is particularly important because even the most independent and well-adjusted teleworker risks suffering from the effects of isolation and lack of stimuli. And this can bring on depression.

“Doing exercise reduced the risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder… even when controlling for socioeconomic factors and physical illnesses.”

According to journalist Cathy Johnson, producer of ABC Health Online, citing a 2011 Dutch study on mood and exercise, “doing exercise reduced the risk of developing a mood or anxiety disorder… even when controlling for socioeconomic factors and physical illnesses.” That’s impressive evidence to encourage remote workers to start walking or bike riding several times a week.

Poor eating habits

On-site workers often have poor eating habits, rushing to snack stands or fast food joints during their short lunch breaks. However, remote workers don’t fare any better despite the control they have over what they eat at home. In fact, having an entire kitchen at one’s disposal often makes eating habits worse.

Furthermore, teleworkers try to multitask, so they blend their in lunches with work. Eating while working not only denies them necessary breaks, but it creates mindless eating. Although there are many psychological concerns involved with mindless eating, the risk for remote workers who eat at their desks include poor digestion, poor food choices, and not getting mental breaks. 

Health experts recommend eating away from the desk. This allows you to unwind, revamp and get some fresh air, and also prevents you from eating mindlessly.

Not only that, but eating over a keyboard is most unsanitary. A study by the University of Arizona found that the average office keyboard harbors over 400 times more bacteria than the average toilet seat! 

Sleep habits

While it’s fun to picture remote workers asleep until noon since they don’t have to fight with traffic, such is rarely the case. In fact, because of the blur between work and home it’s more realistic to see teleworkers waking up earlier to start on their day, yet work later to recoup any lost time because of family obligations or other interruptions. And, since remote workers are perpetually wired to their companies, all the easier to ignore their bodies’ signals for sleep and keep plugging away at work.

The inability of remote workers to shut down has caused researchers to coin them  “remote over-workers.” 

The inability of remote workers to shut down has caused researchers to coin them  “remote over-workers.”  In one study, Dr. Axtell found that “more than a quarter of respondents said they worked 15 to 20 hours extra a week,” which contributed to impaired work-life balance and well-being. Matthew Wall, reporting for BBC News, points out that “Dr Axtell’s work suggests productivity actually levels off among those working the longest hours, and even drops over time, as tiredness and stress eventually impair performance.” Clearly a danger sign for remote workers!

Social Deprivation

Humans are social creatures. Remote workers are human. So, it stands to reason that teleworkers are also social creatures. But how can remote workers meet their primal needs when the very nature of telecommuting suggests working away from people?  Fortunately, more and more companies realize that socialization for teleworkers must go beyond conference calls, Skype-ing, and yearly meet-ups. 

Eye Strain

Most work performed by remote workers is technical or intellectual, requiring a constant use of computers. This means non-stop squinting at computer screens. This can cause Computer Vision Syndrome (CVS), a condition resulting from focusing the eyes on a computer or other display device for protracted, uninterrupted periods of time. Combine the constant staring at computer screens along with poor indoor lighting, topped off with working late into the night, and teleworkers risk serious eye damage.

According to the American Optometric Association, preventing or reducing CVS “involves taking steps to control lighting and glare on the computer screen, establishing proper working distances and posture for computer viewing, and assuring that even minor vision problems are properly corrected.”

Takeaway

The biggest motivation to individuals working remotely is having work-life balance and, ultimately, living a happier life. No one wants this to result in damaged health. Fortunately, these risks can be minimized with a few changes in the way work is done. Proper lighting, enough breaks for stretching and eating, and an ergonomic home office are just a few simple changes that can prevent risks and improve overall happiness at work.

Your Turn: What unhealthy behaviors have you noticed in yourself that need to be addressed?

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