Many in Malaysia’s workforce have had to contend with working from home in light of the present escalation in Covid-19 cases.
With the movement control order (MCO) in force until June 7, everybody is hunkering down at home, making the best of a worrying situation.
While working from home has many benefits like zero commute, and flexibility in regard to time and location, this ‘new normal’ also comes with certain health risks.
1. Sense of isolation
Not everyone has easy access to family and friends. Video conferencing and instant messaging can’t replicate the positive emotions that come with spontaneous office small talk.
It’s even worse for remote teams when members are from different countries. In such cases, work ethics, cultural barriers, and time differences often become hurdles to creating a sense of community.
Considering these factors, it’s no wonder that in a 2020 survey conducted by Hinge Health, 37% of respondents chose social isolation and loneliness as among the top issues of remote working.
Loneliness can lead to depression, insomnia, substance abuse, stroke and heart attack, and an increased mortality risk, making it just as bad as smoking, obesity, and alcoholism when it comes to death and disease.
2. Poor ergonomics
Poor ergonomics is a big health risk of working from home that’s often neglected. There are several reasons for this.
First, the switch to remote work almost happened overnight and people were left unprepared. Remote workers who live in small apartments or shared living spaces are working in makeshift offices.
In fact, in the same Hinge Health survey, only a third of respondents said they had a home office in a separate room. The rest were working at a desk, the dining table, or on the couch.
What’s more, not everyone is aware of what an ergonomic setup should look like. Those who are aware often don’t have the budget to buy what they need for a setup that’s supportive and suitable for long hours of work.
71% of remote workers reported developing or having their existing back and joint pain worsen ever since working from home. In another study, 23.5% of at-home workers reported having neck pain.
Carpal tunnel syndrome, one of the most common musculoskeletal disorders that plague office workers, already had an estimated prevalence of 7% to 19% pre-pandemic. With remote workers making do, it’s likely these numbers will rise.
3. Sedentary lifestyle
Lack of movement was already a critical pre-pandemic issue. In a work from home setup, there’s even less movement.
With the old office life, employees have small bits of activity spread out throughout the day.
Quick walks and standing are part of the commute. Going down to the cafeteria, stepping out to grab a snack, walking across the parking lot, and darting in different rooms in the office all require getting up and moving.
In Hinge Health’s report, 35% cited being sedentary as the second top challenge for remote workers.
This sitting disease, as Mayo Clinic’s Dr James Levine dubbed it, can increase mortality rate by 71%, cardiovascular disease risk by up to 147%, diabetes by 112%, and certain types of cancer up to 66%.
It can even affect mental health and lead to a higher risk of depression, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease.
4. Blurred work-home boundaries
Aside from being a form of physical activity, commuting also serves as a valuable transition between work mode and personal life.
This is one of the reasons why at-home workers often find themselves working more than they did pre-pandemic.
Even the time supposedly gained from the flexibility of remote working is sometimes eaten away by work.
Longer work hours are linked to more stress, compromised quality of sleep, depression and anxiety, diabetes, and heart disease.
5. Increased stress and fatigue
73% of at-home workers said they developed or had their stress, anxiety, or depression worsen since they started with this new setup. Meanwhile, 69% were already experiencing burnout symptoms but 59% were still working more than they did pre-pandemic.
Distractions, difficulty with time management, and even the monotony of working from home can affect mental health.
Some workers also overcommit to their work to improve their performance as much as possible and avoid getting laid off during this pandemic.
Living in constant survival mode can actually change the anatomy of the brain and how the mind works.
This impairs one’s ability to think and focus, ultimately affecting productivity which further worsens the state of mind of remote workers.
Physical conditions are affected as well since burnout can lead to cardiovascular diseases and high blood pressure, obesity, a weakened immune system, acid reflux symptoms, and diabetes.
Even worse, heavy stress can shorten life expectancy by 2.8 years.
Awareness is key
With all the benefits of working from home, it’s easy for both employers and employees to overlook the downsides. Awareness is key so that the biggest health risks of working from home can be tackled head on.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. You can connect with him on Twitter @dennisr_howell