2014 was a good year for teleworkers. Not only did the number of companies that allowed telecommuting increase, but more companies that began businesses did so using remote workers from the start. In fact, “telework” is now almost a household word. People work remotely or at least know someone who does. Like anything else, of course, there are some downsides. For example, in exchange for a 5-second-commute, many telecommuters may be unintentionally hurting their health.
It’s well documented that teleworkers work longer hours than their onsite counterparts. Whether the cause is an inability to shut down, a desire to impress the boss, or a combination of other factors, there are health concerns teleworkers should be aware of and replace with healthier habits.
According to James A. Levine, M.D., Ph.D., answering questions for www.mayoclinic.org, excessive sitting “seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer.” 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, will be more beneficial. The point is to avoid long periods of sitting altogether.
Most people think of good posture as being about appearances, and poor posture asmerely being unattractive. But posture is more important than looking poised. Accordingto the Kansas Chiropractic Foundation, “the long-term effects of poor posture can affect bodily systems (such as digestion, elimination, breathing, muscles, joints and ligaments)”.One of the chief causes of poor posture is sitting for extended periods of time. Teleworkers often have desk jobs, so in addition to constant sitting, long hours can make them tired causing their postures to suffer.
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 as well-known 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.
According to journalist Cathy Johnson, producer of ABC Health Online (www.abc.net/au), 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 pretty impressive evidence to encourage home based workers to start walking or bike riding several times a week.
Poor eating habits.
It can be easily argued that onsite workers have pretty bad eating habits, rushing to snack stands or fast food joints during their lunch hours. However, telecommuters don’t fare any better despite the control they have at home. In fact, being at home with an entire kitchen at one’s disposal often makes the eating habits of teleworkers worse.
Furthermore, teleworkers tend to feel guilty for taking breaks, so they blend work and lunch times. Eating while working not only doesn’t give workers breaks they need, but italso creates mindless eating. Although there are many psychological concerns involved with mindless eating, the risk for telecommuters who eat at their desks are poor digestion, poor food choices, and not getting mental breaks. According to a 2013, Redbrick contributor: “It is important to get away from the desk. This allows yourself to unwind, revamp and get some fresh air, but also prevents you from eating mindlessly.”Furthermore, eating over a keyboard is most unsanitary. “The University of Arizona found that the average office keyboard harbours over 400 times more bacteria than the averagetoilet seat.” (Redbrick.me)
While it’s fun to picture teleworkers asleep until noon since they don’t have to punch a clock or fight with traffic, this is rarely the case. In fact, because of the blur between work and home it is more realistic to expect teleworkers to rise earlier than ever to get a start on their days, yet work late into the night to recoup any lost time throughout the day because of family obligations or other interruptions. And, the fact that teleworkers areperpetually wired to their companies make it all the easier to ignore their bodies’ signals for sleep and to keep plugging away at work.
In fact, Dr. Carolyn Axtell, of the Institute of Work Psychology and Management, The University of Sheffield (UK) and Barbara Nelson, CTO of iPass referred to teleworkers as“remote over-workers”. (Emphasis mine.) In a study conducted by Dr. Axtell it was 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. According to Matthew Wall, reporting for BBC News, “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 teleworkers!
Humans are social creatures. Teleworkers are humans. So it stands to reason that teleworkers are also social creatures, doesn’t it? But how do we support remote workers’ primal needs when the very nature telecommuting suggests working away from co-workers and sometimes people in general? The truth is, a solution to this issue, and whose responsibility it is, are up for debate. Companies have just begun to take this aspect into consideration, and to realize that socialization of teleworkers goes beyond conference calls, Skype-ing, and yearly meet-ups.
Most jobs performed by teleworkers are technical or intellectual. Performing these jobsgenerally requires the constant use of computers. This means non-stop squinting at computer screens whether to type and enter information, or to research and read. telework simply can’t be done with eyes closed. This can cause Computer Vision Syndrome(CVS). Combine a constant staring at computer monitors along with poor house lighting, topped off with working late into the night, and teleworkers risk doing serious damage to their eyes.
According to the American Optometric Association, preventing or reducing CVS “involves taking steps to control lighting and glare on the computer screen, establishing properworking distances and posture for computer viewing, and assuring that even minor vision problems are properly corrected.”
No one wants their intention to improve their work-life balance to result in damaged health. Fortunately, most of these risks can be minimized with a few changes in the way work is done. Part II offers several tips to specifically address the health risks we discussed above.