health risks of working from home
Isolation and loneliness are major risks for those who work from home.

by Chuck Chapman, Content Strategy Coordinator

When you think industrial accidents or work-related illnesses, we usually think about miners in coal mines or mishaps on a construction site. But working from home is not without its hazards. We need to be aware of how we work and take care of ourselves. 

You’d think it would be less stressful than going to the office all the time. The concept of the “rat race” is something we commonly accept because it’s the world we’ve always known. But the stressors, strains and other associated health risks of the traditional 40-hour work week is a relatively new phenomenon. It’s a product of both industrialization and “urban sprawl.” Over the past 100 years, work sites have become more centrally located (i.e. offices, factories, etc.) while our homes have moved further away, requiring a commute.

Many benefits came with this change (more jobs, greater stability and prosperity), but we’re well aware of the costs, too. Increases in heart attacks, addictions, car accidents getting to-and-from work, and other stress-related diseases are prevalent. Less Black Lung Disease, more high blood pressure.

With COVID-19 moving practically the entire world to remote work, many are predicting that we’re now entering a similar “revolution” of work culture. As 20th century workers migrated from the farms and shops to factories and offices, so we are seeing 21st century workers move to a new work site: home.

So, if we’re going to be quitting the “rat race,” wouldn’t that signal a decline in work-related health risks? No more traffic jams, long subway rides, office politics, or any of the other stress-inducing factors of the “old” work style. Working at home will be healthier, right? Not necessarily.

Health Risks of Loneliness

For all the anxiety the “rat race” might have caused, it also gave us a valuable place to socially interact for most of our waking hours. Those face-to-face human interactions often produced life-long friendships and a great sense of belonging. And while we can still somewhat recreate those dynamics virtually, those things don’t happen organically. Without some intentional actions from both remote leaders and remote workers, working from home carries with it a high risk of loneliness.

Well before our COVID-imposed isolation, a 2018 study by Cigna pointed out the severe risks that come with prolonged isolation. Cigna’s study primarily focused on seniors, but their findings are easily applicable to what many are facing now, being forced to work from home while facing local restrictions on social interactions.

Put simply, loneliness poses severe health risks, mostly in the form of a suppressed immune system and increased levels of inflammation. Obviously that’s a major problem in the midst of a global pandemic. The inflammatory increase is also associated with a number of more serious health conditions, including cancer. With greater numbers of people who enjoyed and thrived working with others now in what feels like “lockdown,” expect to see more negative effects.

According to Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. She’s also found that loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.

“There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators,” Holt­-Lunstad says.

How to combat work-from-home health risks

We eventually learned how to counteract many of the health risks that the “rat race” brought us. We learned to exercise more, to be more careful during our commutes, to make sure we got enough sleep; all of these helped reduce the stressors brought on by work conditions.

Similarly, if we’re going to continue working remotely, we must honestly look at the health risks and what new behaviors we need to develop.

  1. Kick the bad habits. Smoking, over-eating, and sedentary lifestyles weren’t good when you were commuting. Add it the health risks discussed above that come with being more isolated, and these habits can make you a ticking time bomb. The good news is that most of these bad habits are closely associated with your old “rat race” routines. For example, your smoking might be centered around the commute and break times at the office. Now that these routines have changed, it’s an opportune time for you to kick the associated habits. It wont’ be easy, but without the “anchor” routines, you’ve got a head start. Now you need to create new habits. That’s critical because it’s just as easy to pick up new bad habits as you establish new routines. Be intentional about your actions.
  2. Get connected. If work was your main source of social interaction, you need to find something new. You can still interact with your co-workers virtually. Definitely do that and maintain those relationships. But you can’t substitute human interaction. Most places are opening up to some degree. Seek out social groups that fit your interests. Find a book club through your local library, get active in your local church, or join an exercise group that rides bikes, plays golf, tennis or the like. These groups can offer you social and intellectual support and encouragement as well as physical and spiritual “exercise” if you choose. You don’t need to be connected 24/7, but even the most introverted among us needs some human contact for life balance.
  3. Set your boundaries. Speaking of balance, this is key. You’re setting up new routines. Make sure those include clear cut-off points between work and “real life.” That can be difficult without the natural boundaries we had when we worked outside the home. Let your supervisors and co-workers know what those boundaries are and enforce them consistently.

This is a time that historians will likely look back on and label “revolutionary.” For us as leaders and workers, that means we must be ready to adapt and make the necessary changes so that we can continue to be productive. That starts with taking care of ourselves.

Get a head start on becoming a great remote teammate by pre-ordering Kevin and Wayne’s upcoming book, The Long-Distance Teammate. If you can’t wait for that to come out, we’ve got individual modules of our 12 Weeks to Being a Great Remote Teammate available now at an unbelievable price.

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  1. And a great blog it was too. We visited both Joe and Scott over the weekend and they two are working from home. They both also came to the same conclusion you did and that they had to move their office from the kitchen table to (one case) upstairs the other case downstairs and privatize their office. I thought your point of being a great listener was the key point of the whole blog

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