All of Us

The Hidden Health Costs of Remote Work

by Mike Critelli

In recent years, advances in technology and the COVID-19 pandemic have led to a significant increase in remote work, also known as telecommuting or working from home. While many may assume that working “in the comfort of home” is healthier and more conducive to wellbeing, this assumption is flawed for at least three reasons.

Ergonomics and Movement

Most homes are not set up with a focus on creating an environment for office work. Lacking the ergonomic setup available in an office setting can lead to poor posture, strain on the back, and an increase in musculoskeletal issues for workers. 

Additionally, remote workers may not have the opportunity to move around and stretch as much as they would in an office setting. This can lead to muscle tension and stiffness, which can also contribute to back pain. 

Sitting for longer periods of time can contribute as well to obesity and conditions associated with metabolic syndrome—diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease. 

Zoom fatigue is another issue related to remote work and lack of movement. Many workers complain of feeling mentally and physically exhausted by video conferencing. This exhaustion is due to several factors, one of which is prolonged, direct eye gaze. In a normal face-to-face meeting, participants spend very little time looking directly into the eyes of one another, whereas in a video conference, individuals are typically staring more intensely at one another for the entire meeting.

Air Quality and Pathogens

Another issue I became acutely aware of when visiting both my daughter and my younger son in San Francisco, is that many apartments, especially those that young people can afford in large cities like New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles, have poor indoor air quality because of substandard ventilation systems. 

The recent debate about banning gas stoves, while it would be an overreach in many respects, shone a light on the degree to which millions of Americans have conditions like asthma which are made worse by the indoor environments in which they would spend the majority of their waking hours if working remotely. Fungi, rodents, dust, and, in some instances, mold are all too common in much older apartments and townhouses. They can all exacerbate asthma and allergies.

Distractions at Home

Distractions at home can also contribute to stress and decreased productivity for remote workers. Many adults, especially younger workers, have roommates or housemates who create noise and distraction for those who must work from home. Noisy children and other family members can also make it difficult to concentrate on work tasks, leading to increased stress and potential health issues, as well as lower quality work output.

In Summary

Employers whose employees work in office settings are usually able to create a more optimal work environment than what the employees can create on their own at home or at third place settings like coffee shops or diners.

To mitigate the health risks associated with remote work, it is important for workers to take steps such as setting up an ergonomic workstation, taking regular breaks to move and stretch, and engaging in regular exercise. Attention should also be paid to other environmental factors that can affect health and wellbeing.

While remote work offers many benefits, it is important to be aware of the potential health costs associated with it and take steps to mitigate those risks.