The workforce may steadily be trickling back into offices across the globe, but we are far from back to our pre-pandemic norm. In fact, many of us are facing a seismic shift in the way that we operate. Over 19 months since COVID-19 first wrought havoc on our lives, PwC has told 14,000 US staff that they can work remotely from anywhere in the country. Likewise, the UK government is proposing that every employee will be given the right to request flexible working, regardless of the time served in a role.
“Empowering workers to have more say over where and when they work makes for more productive businesses and happier employees,” said Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng. “We’re making flexible working part of the DNA of businesses across the country. A more engaged and productive workforce, a higher calibre of applicants and better retention rates – the business case for flexible working is compelling.”
Yet love it or hate it, ill-managed remote working can also come with a sting in its tail. While many extoll the virtues of flexibility and cutting out the commute, research also suggests the realities of ‘always on’ digital working, combined with physical isolation from colleagues, can increase stress.
The pitfalls of remote work
One survey by Microsoft and the CIPD revealed how working from home equates to insurmountable workloads and longer working hours for many UK workers. Many employees say they are being stretched further than before, with one-in-three (30%) reporting working longer hours and more than half (53%) saying they felt they had to be available at all times.
Workers also report becoming increasingly aware that their mental health had deteriorated, thanks to heightened anxiety levels, disrupted sleep patterns, and the challenges of working in a personal setting. Many find it difficult to create a degree of separation between work time and personal time, stating it felt impossible to switch off or take breaks. Then of course there’s the loss of socialisation – 65% of workers miss that human connection.
The anatomy of stress
Everyone experiences stress: it’s part of being human. Stress responses, like fight-or-flight reactions, are designed to protect us from potential threats or predictors. Once the danger has passed, the body quickly returns to normal. With chronic low-level stress, however, it’s a very different story.
When people feel constantly anxious, stress hormone levels become elevated. This can result in irritability, sadness, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, headaches and insomnia. It can also exacerbate underlying health conditions, such as hypertension and diabetes or lead to unhealthy behaviours, such as overeating or not eating enough, excessive alcohol consumption or drug abuse.
Rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms and goosebumps on the skin are just some of the warning signs that can indicate stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are bombarding your body.
Alarmingly, chronic stress also changes how our brains work. Impairing our prefrontal activity, where we do our logical higher-level thinking, exposure to long-term stress can make it difficult to think clearly or make rational decisions.
Why movement matters
In addition to chronic stress symptoms, today’s remote workers are also at risk of another well-documented health issue: inactivity.
In recent years, studies have found that a sedentary lifestyle increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and depression. According to Dr Michael Mosely, we all need to move more. Even if that is just taking time out to stand up for 30 minutes a day.
Working from home for the past 19 months has put an end to early morning brisk walks to the train station or HIIT classes on the way home. Plus, we’re no longer engaged in spontaneous physical activity like walking from the desk to the conference room or the water cooler. Yet research shows that incorporating frequent movement into our daily lives can have a powerful mood-boosting effect and goes a long way to combat the negative impacts of chronic stress on our bodies.
According to scientists at Johns Hopkins University, by increasing our physical activity we can reduce feelings of anxiety, increase our energy levels and improve our sleep patterns. It’s also a great way to ensure your spine and other joints benefit from the mobility that keeps them functioning in tip-top condition.
How to improve physical and mental wellbeing
Since movement is the key to mental and physical wellbeing, getting into the habit of consciously moving every hour is going to benefit in a multitude of ways. All you need to do is get up to frequently to refill your water, stretch or take a few laps walking around your home. Alternatively, why not stand during meetings or conference calls, taking advantage of this time to get on your feet and be mobile.
At lunchtime, or at the close of the day, take advantage of an online stretching class and deploy these exercise tips to relieve tension throughout the day. There are plenty of stretches that you can do right at your desk too.
Taking 30 minutes to go outside and stand in the garden or walk around the block will also help give you a valuable break from screen time and allow you to re-engage with the world that is beyond your home’s four walls. Perhaps you could use this time to call a friend, or catch up on a favourite podcast.
Finally, if you have a height-adjustable standing desk then switching between sitting and standing throughout the day is a great way to boost your activity levels and optimise both your productivity and wellbeing.
If remote working is going to be a permanent feature of your life, then talk to your employer about what help is available to create a comfortable and ergonomic home workspace. With the right seating, desk, and workstation components, you’ll be able to ensure your body is appropriately supported and that screens are at the right height, so that you can stay injury-free.
More content on burnout here.
Richard Guy is Country Sales Manager UK & Ireland at Ergotron.
Sophie Barton is our Features Editor. She a journalist and editor with 20 years’ experience in the national media, specialising in wellbeing and lifestyle.