Survey reveals all the ways remote work is ruining the health of Americans

While many of us felt like the world was crashing down around us back in the spring of this year, the cumulative toll of almost a full year of lockdowns may be extracting a heavier health toll than the initial stress of the pandemic.

A new survey of close to 1,000 people just released by the University of Southern California reports over 64% of working Americans have developed new physical health problems while working from home during the pandemic. Similarly, just under 75% are dealing with at least one new mental health issue.

Remote work from the comfort of one’s living room or bed sounded pretty appealing back in April, but as time has dragged on many report feeling like their “home office” is more like a prison.

A couch is no replacement for a desk, and none of us realized during the glory days of 2019 how much we appreciated greeting Dave in accounting during every stroll to the break room.

Besides the lack of ergonomic work equipment and social interaction, Americans also say that working from home has actually led to heavier and more stressful workloads in many instances. Overall, surveyed remote workers say they feel greater pressure to get more work done, deal with more distractions throughout a typical workday, and spend roughly one and a half hours longer “at work” than they would have during a pre-COVID day at the office.

Remote workers are also more likely to feel less job satisfaction and more neck pain since switching over to WFH. Notably, according to the survey’s results, women, parents, and high-income employees appear to be experiencing the worst health issues.

Jumping into the survey’s findings in greater detail, several fascinating results were reported by the team at USC. Surprisingly, living with at least one teenager at home was found to decrease a remote worker’s odds of developing new health problems.

Another surprising conclusion was that pets of all kinds didn’t seem to have much of an effect on mental or physical health. It’s plausible to assume a furry friend in the house would help foster some wellbeing while working from home, but this survey doesn’t support that theory.

The cause is unclear, but more female remote workers than men report experiencing greater feelings of depression during the pandemic as well. On a related note, female remote workers earning less than $100,000 per year were found to be more likely than male employees earning more money to experience two or more new health problems.

What about parents? Surely no group has been put to the test more than parents of young kids who’ve had to pull triple duty as parent, teacher, and employee.

Well, it takes a certain degree of mental strength to be a parent in the first place, which is why the survey reports parents of young infants tend to have stronger overall mental well-being. That being said, those same parents were also more likely to report a new mental health issue since starting remote work.

Regarding parents working from home with a toddler in the house, these individuals showed more robust physical well-being but were also susceptible to new physical and mental health issues as lockdown dragged on.

Working from home is an adjustment in more ways than one, with nearly 75% of surveyed workers saying they’ve changed the hours they typically work since starting remote employment. Another third of respondents have specifically changed their working hours to accommodate someone else in their home. 

These schedule changes can extract a health toll as well; employees who changed their working hours were more likely to develop new mental or physical ailments.

Of course, with gyms closed and the kitchen just a short trip away, most working Americans have also seen their diets and exercise routines suffer this year. Generally, respondents say they’ve been working out less and eating more junk food. Predictably, junk food intake was linked to lower wellbeing and diminished physical health.

Many of the physical problems Americans are developing in 2020 are likely linked to a lack of an adequate workspace. Only a third of those surveyed say they have their own workspace at home, with 47.6% even saying they have to share the room they work in with someone else each day.

“The quality of your home workspace is important; having a dedicated workspace signals to others that you are busy, and minimizes the chances of being distracted and interrupted. Increased satisfaction with the environmental quality factors in your workspace, such as lighting, temperature, is associated with a lower chance of having new health issues. In addition, knowing how to adjust your workspace helps with physical health,” comments co-researcher Burcin Becerik-Gerber, Dean’s Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, in a release.

All of this isn’t intended to suggest that working from home this year was the wrong approach. We were all blindsided by the coronavirus, and remote work was quite literally the only option to keep so many companies afloat and countless people employed (and safe from the virus) through this awful year. 

It should go without saying that actual COVID-19 patients and their loved ones have faced the worst of this pandemic. As we approach the first anniversary of this awful virus’ emergence, though, this study is yet another illustration of the fact that no one’s life has been left unchanged by the pandemic.

The full survey can be found here, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.