working from home

by Loralyn Mears, PhD

Almost a year and a half into the pandemic, much of the world has come to terms with working from home (WFH). Most employers and employees embraced WFH as an interim COVID-related phenomenon for the masses. The majority accepted that the work style was temporarily no longer limited to a certain cohort of the workforce. With the meteoric rise of zoom, everyone was suddenly part of the WFH insiders’ club who knew that sporting a shirt and tie over a pair of pyjama pants was the standard practice. However, what the world wasn’t ready for was how WFH would shift into a permanent option broadly available to everyone. With that shift comes new expectations, policies, discord, and yes – adverse health. That means that there is a wrong way, and a right way to WFH.

WFH is pinching a nerve

Reports of strains and sprains are up – way up, actually, according to a study in Injury Epidemiology published late last year. Preliminary WFH arrangements, which were, by design, makeshift and temporary, have been put to daily use for more than a year in many cases. As a result of suboptimal ergonomic designs, people are now reporting symptoms like pinched nerves, cramping, odd tingling in their backs, and a general malaise. The latter is more difficult to tease out as its symptoms of languishing, burnout, emotional exhaustion, anxiety and aloneliness (where people don’t have an adequate opportunity to get away from everyone), are conflated with the ripple effects of COVID restricting our lives.

On the other hand, pinched nerves and weight gain can readily be attributed to our new sedentary lifestyle. This has been fostered by the combination of sitting at a makeshift desk all day shifting only a few feet away to lay on the couch all night to binge-watch Netflix. We’re no longer commuting, walking around the office or around the block to our favorite cafés. If you think that the burden of adverse health outweighs the benefits of WFH, you’d be wrong.

Few workers want to return to the office

By overwhelming demand, employees have spoken: they are more productive, happier, more engaged, and more fulfilled WFH than they were when they were commuting daily into the office. In fact, the desire to stay home is so prevalent in our society that Thrive Global has curated a series of articles dedicated to Work-Life Integration. In so doing, the word, “integration,” almost serves as a public acknowledgement that the once temporary phenomenon is here to stay.

By WFH, the average employee in the USA is no longer spending 200 hours per year commuting. Now that everyone has had a taste of staying in their loungewear all day (at least for their lower torso) and is no longer battling the intensity of rush hour, people want remote work as a permanent benefit. This has left employers scrambling; many are debating if they should renew office leases or sell their corporate buildings.

Some employers have faced swift backlash with their demands that employees return to the office or risk losing healthcare insurance and other benefits. Others have demanded that employees get vaccinated before they return to work. A new model of “hybrid work” where employees choose which day, or days, they work in the office versus WFH is emerging as a new corporate standard. But the debates around psychological and physical safety, civil rights, and the freedom of choice are far from over. It’s unclear what the office will look like a few months from now, but one thing is crystal clear – people will continue to WFH – and, with that, comes the risk of adverse health.

The right way to WFH

But fret not! There is a “right” way to WFH. First, let me offer a public apology to Daniel Hall, master freelancer, founder of Working Den, and author of the best-selling book, The Million Dollar Freelancer. His earnings and stellar reputation on UpWork are legendary.

Daniel Hall

Months ago, I promised to write a follow-up to our interview, published here, but somehow never got around to it, until today. Not only did I have a personal obligation to Hall as someone who prides herself on doing as she says, but Hall took his personal time to generously help me with some of the freelancer struggles that I was facing at that time. In short, I owe Hall both a public apology and a thank you. So here we go …

Daniel Hall founded the Working Den, a free resource dedicated to helping people better manage their physical and mental health while WFH. An upcoming extension of his team’s efforts is Remote Retention, which will be launching soon with tools to increase productivity, reduce loneliness, and prioritize self-care. Below, excerpts of our interview truncated for brevity and fit.

LORALYN MEARS: Do you think the WFH toll has been accurately documented? Do you think there is some stigma associated with acknowledging the toll?

DANIEL HALL: You see the odd article about the WFH toll, but I’ve seen very few people actually come out and document their story. As the world returns to normal, I think a lot more people will come out with their stories and any stigma around not coping with home working will lessen when it is seen as a normal thing that people are going through. A lot of the issues are slow burners like loss of eyesight, fitness, aches, et cetera, develop over time.

LM: 2019 was a dark year for you. To whatever extent you are comfortable sharing, can you tell our audience how you’re doing now and how your shift to helping others has changed your life?

DH: Yeah, it was. Basically, the experiment was to give myself a year to find solutions to the issues in my life, no matter what was thrown at me and to not take action on the dark thoughts in my head. If within a year I couldn’t find solutions, then you know the rest … thankfully I found solutions. I’m doing great now only because I made changes.

LM: Back in Autumn 2020, you made several predictions about how WFH would change the fabric of our lives. Several of those have come true. Share them with our readers.

DH: If people can do a job anywhere in the country or anywhere in the world, then there is no reason for people to live in big cities anymore. Nor is there any reason for companies to employ people from first world countries if they can get the same quality work remotely, at a lower cost, from people anywhere in the world. This means money will begin to get distributed away from big cities and instead it will reach smaller towns and villages. Demand will increase in rural, beautiful parts of the country and it is here where property prices will begin to increase the most. TRUE. Innovations over the coming years, just like the ones that Working Den offer, will help people conquer the negative aspects of remote working and leave us with just the positive aspects. Until we get to this stage, there will first be an increase in depression and unhappiness. TRUE. The planet will be saved: billions of needless journeys to work will no longer take place and there will be less need for international business trips, [hence] this will reverse the effects of the Industrial Revolution. TBD – carbon emissions were down 7% in 2020 but it’s unclear if that will continue as the era of hybrid working begins.

LM: Working Den offers a ton of advice from experts on everything from resting your eyes away from the screen to chair height, natural light and so on. But, if I asked you to crystalize your advice into a nutshell, what’s the one big takeaway for WFH folks to absorb?

DH: Just because you are getting by with how you currently work from home, don’t assume you are doing it right. Research “how you should be working from home” and you’ll probably find a lot of solutions to problems you didn’t even know you were experiencing.

Here are seven tips to work from home the right way. Working Den suggests that you regularly do the following when WFH:

  1. Create an ergonomically balanced workstation to enable good health using these tips
  2. Neck flexion and extension stretches with spine twists
  3. Take this quiz to assess if you are experiencing burnout
  4. 20/20 vision rule – every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds to rest your eyes
  5. Set a Pomodoro timer where you work in 45-minute sprints with breaks in between each
  6. When you’re feeling stressed, take a few moments to do these breathing exercises
  7. Keep a Gratitude Diary daily to remind you of how many little things are good in your life

Whether you return to the office – or not – the beauty of these seven tips is that they apply to all of us who work at a desk. And the tips are equally applicable for our workstations at home or in the office. COVID has reminded all of us that life and interactions with others are precious so do whatever you need to to stay mentally and physically healthy. Working from home the right way is a step in that direction.