You’ve dreamt of this for years: The ability to work from home. No more long commute, office politics, endless meetings or burnt industrial-strength coffee. But there are tradeoffs, and the nature of remote work can come with issues and irritations of its own. In fact, if you don’t work smart, you could end up jeopardizing your health. Here’s what the experts told us are the most common unexpected health problems that happen when you’re working from home, and how you can avoid them.
“Although it sounds laid back, working from home can actually become quite stressful if precautions aren’t taken,” says Hong Yin, MD, a psychiatrist and clinical director with New Frontiers Psychiatric & TMS.
The Rx: “Many people who work from home find it helpful to set strict times they will dedicate to work as if they are physically in the office and when they ‘clock out,'” says Yin. “This will allow us time to recharge and take respite, which is necessary. Otherwise, it can be tempting to continue to work outside your usual hours, which can lead to stress and burnout.”
“People working from home can suffer from stress as a result of factors such as financial concerns, having to remote school their children and working near their spouse,” says personal trainer Robert Herbst. “This stress can cause them to crave calorie-dense food such as junk and carbs. They can also be less active than normal, losing the exercise that was baked into their normal workday.”
The Rx: “Eat a healthful diet of protein, carbohydrates, and good fats,” says Herbst. “They should also do exercise which elevates their metabolism such as high-intensity intervals (HIIT) or Tabata. They should also try to walk, if only at the end of the day to clear their head. The walking and exercise will help them cope with the stress so they will also crave fewer empty calories.”
“With online conference calls, video calls, and webinars now a mainstay of many of our work environments, it is important to make sure we are adapting to this new work style safely and hearing clearly,” says Dr. Eric Branda, AuD, Ph.D., an audiologist with Signia Hearing. “If headphones or earbuds are being used, it is necessary to make sure the volume is at a safe level. Loud sounds directed to the eardrum can lead to noise-induced hearing loss.”
The Rx: “If someone near you can hear your webinar, music or virtual colleague’s conversation while you are wearing headphones, you likely have your volume up too loud,” says Branda.
“Other sounds in the environment, such as television or radio, may not only be distracting, but may overpower speech from the webinar or call information,” says Branda. “This can lead to misunderstandings and increased difficulty absorbing the new information. Whether using speakers or headphones, turning up the volume may not be the best approach as it can again make even the important speech too loud for safe listening.”
The Rx: “Reducing or removing the competing background noise will help with clarity of the speech signal and let you focus on what you hear rather than effortful listening,” says Branda.
“My clients find they work more when working from home—there’s no getting ready, commute, coffee breaks, small talk, and it’s easy to skip lunch and to answer emails in the evening,” says Catherine Petit Wu, a certified transformational health coach in New York City. “It can lead to mental fatigue and being emotionally overwhelmed.”
The Rx: “The healthy behavior I recommend instead is to think you’re going to the office, even if it’s a corner of your kitchen table,” says Wu. “Change from your PJs to regular clothes, apply make-up as usual, have as many video calls as you can rather than just phone calls, take breaks every 60 or 90 minutes, and a lunch break away from your desk. Set up a ritual to close shop at the end of the day. Close your computer, put it away if it’s on the dining table and change outfits.”
When working at home, “It’s important to make sure you’re making healthy dietary choices to prevent unwanted weight gain,” says Claudia Hleap, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia. “Set nutrition and health-related goals to commit to while you’re stuck at home.”
The Rx: “A few examples of goals are to eat a vegetable every day with dinner, to eat a fruit as an afternoon snack every day, or to switch to whole wheat options for pasta, bread, and crackers,” she says.
“As human beings, we are social creatures, and we really do thrive when we have a degree of direct and personal socialization each day,” says Hong Yin, MD, a psychiatrist and clinical director with New Frontiers Psychiatric & TMS. “Social isolation can contribute to feelings of depression and sadness, so it is important to be proactive to ensure socialization is occurring regularly.”
The Rx: “While COVID-19 is among us, that might exclude you from in-person socialization, but be certain to engage with your colleagues and friends through various tools while you’re working at home, like Zoom, Slack, text and FaceTime,” says Yin. “Make a point to reach out and engage with those you normally would to keep everyone’s spirits high and healthy.”
One of the most important parts of setting up a home office is setting up proper ergonomics,” says Rand McClain, DO, chief medical officer of LCR Health in Santa Monica, California. “Being positioned in an imbalanced or asymmetric position that can lead to overly used and tight muscles of the neck, shoulders and arms and pain.”
The Rx: “Arms should be placed at one’s side and elbows at roughly 90 degrees ideally when setting up the chair level with table/computer level,” says McClain. “One should be able to sit up relatively straight in this way with legs roughly parallel to the floor and feet under the chair with ankles crossed —the ideal typing position.” He also advises standing up and moving around once an hour to avoid stiffness, and to drink plenty of water during the day to keep muscles hydrated.
As we tilt our heads to look at our cell phones, the effective weight of the human head increases—from about 12lbs upright to 60lbs at a 60-degree angle. That’s the equivalent of four bowling balls! It can lead to strains and pain that doctors have dubbed “text neck.”
The Rx: Hold your phone at eye level, and move your body often when you’re reading a long article or watching movies or TV.
If both you and your partner are both working from home, you’re spending a lot more time together than if one or both of you were in an office. That proximity can be stressful, leading to conflict.
The Rx: Take a small, set amount of time each day to address any stress or tension in your relationship. Then work to avoid any conflict for the rest of the day.
“Being home also often leads to more access to social media and the news,” says Lisa Saff Koche, MD, founder and director of Spectra Wellness Solutions. “At this time everyone seems glued to their devices. Although being informed is important, it also can suppress your immunity to be constantly surrounded by negative and fear-based information.”
The Rx: “Set a timer for mid-morning and mid-afternoon and go outside,” says Koche. “For 15 minutes, listen to a guided meditation on YouTube and just clear your head. Your productivity will skyrocket, and you will feel so much better.”
“When working from home, it’s easy to sit with bad posture and wind up with muscle aches. It’s tempting to work from your bed or couch, and even your dining room chair won’t provide you with the same support as an office chair,” says health and wellness expert Linda Morgan.
The Rx: “As you work, be aware of your body’s positioning. Remind yourself to sit with a straight back, and also make sure to get up at least once an hour to stretch and take a short walk.”
Staring at screens all day can have you staring at your bedroom ceiling in the wee hours, unable to sleep.
The Rx: It’s important to turn off your cell phone, tablet and laptop about two hours before bed, to help your body transition into sleep mode.
“Easy access to your entire fridge and selection of food leads to binge eating or excessive eating, and often of unhealthy or fattening foods,” says Jamie Bacharach, head of practice at Acupuncture Jerusalem.
The Rx: “To avoid this problem, make a meal plan and stick to it,” she says. “Avoid snacking throughout the day and diet exactly as you would if you were at the office, with the same breakfast and lunch plan you would normally adhere to. It’s easier said than done, but it is critical to avoid weight gain.”
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome
“Working from home means working from behind a computer for the entirety of the work day. Unfortunately, this can lead to wrist and hand strain, as well as carpal tunnel syndrome,” says Bacharach.
The Rx: “To avoid wrist and hand pain and associated problems, be sure to use an ergonomic mouse and to take plenty of breaks to rest and flex your wrist and hands throughout the day.”
Neck and Shoulder Strain
“Working from home may lead to awkward work postures. Muscle strain in your neck, shoulders and back can result,” says Dr. Nicole Lombardo, PT, DPT, CSCS, a physical therapist and CrossFit Level 1 Coach.
The Rx: Lombardo suggests raising your screen to eye level by stacking your monitor on books or small boxes; keeping your keyboard at elbow height with your elbows bent at 90 degrees; keeping your shoulders relaxed; and if necessary, raising your seat higher by stacking books or pillows underneath you.
“Eye strain is real,” says Koche. “We are meant to have daily exposure to a broad range of light and color frequencies. When we are inside and on devices the light spectrum is in the blue range and the lighting is often fluorescent.”
The Rx: Wearing blue light blocking glasses can improve eye strain, fatigue and headaches. “Additionally, if you can get outside every couple of hours to get exposure to natural light and the sun (especially the warm tones more present first thing in the morning) you will perform and feel even better,” adds Koche.
“It is much easier to graze all day when the kitchen is a few steps away,” says Koche.
The Rx: “Use this time as a gift to organize and prep,” she says. “When you find yourself wandering into the pantry, get a full liter of water with lemon and hydrate—most ‘hunger’ is actually boredom or dehydration.”
Remote working can be tremendously freeing. It can also lead to feeling disconnected from your bosses, co-workers and projects. That can lead to anxiety about your performance and job security.
The Rx: Check in at a set time each day or several times a week with your supervisor and co-workers via phone or video conferencing. Err on the side of overcommunicating.
We know that social media can encourage us to compare ourselves to other people’s posted lives, which can lead to self-esteem issues and depression. That can be especially acute when you’re working from home, and everyone else seems much more social.
The Rx: Don’t scroll through your Facebook or Instagram all workday long; limit yourself to 30 minutes in the evening.
And to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don’t miss these 50 Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.