WFH May Be Bad For Your Health — Here's How To Fix It

Doctor & Founder Of Parsley Health By Robin Berzin, M.D.
Doctor & Founder Of Parsley Health
Robin Berzin, M.D. is a functional medicine physician and founder of Parsley Health. She received her master's from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was later trained in Internal Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Woman Sitting on Her Couch Working on Her Laptop

Image by Lumina / Stocksy

As New York City and others in America enter month three of work from home, I find myself taking stock of both all of the silver linings and all of the negative realities of this situation. As I tally them up next to each other, my conclusion is that WFH won't work for long. To make it sustainable, even for a couple more months, we have to take drastic action or suffer real consequences to our physical and mental health. 

Before social distancing, my company had "Work From Home Wednesdays," so I thought it would be no problem to switch to WFH more often—we already delivered medical services via telemedicine; we were used to video-based sessions, as well as connecting with our internal teams via Zoom and Google Hangouts. But what I took for granted when we used to WFH was our collective ability to interrupt the screen time with neighborhood walks, workout classes, errands, and hours working out of the local coffee shop. I failed to recognize how these WFH days were supported by end-of-day socialization over dinners with friends or child care and school for those of us who have kids. 

This current reality is very different, and as I read about how "office life is changed forever," saying that WFH is going to be the new norm, I can't help but think that what it means for our health is concerning: I see social distancing turning into social-media-driven isolation despite our best efforts and muscle mass atrophy in myself and my husband as we sit like we've never sat before, which will lead to lower metabolisms, weight gain, and blood sugar issues. I see psychological stress of work and householding without our usual outlets and screen time eating away at our cognitive function. Don't get me wrong; I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to WFH at all and to have a family to do it with. The time I get with my young children during this moment is a silver lining I am wildly grateful for. But the truth of this is that it's not going to work long term for any of us to stay in our current modes, and so we have to do things differently to make it sustainable if WFH becomes our new norm.

Here are the problems I'm seeing and their health effects:

  1. A highly sedentary lifestyle. Monday through Friday, my reality is camping behind a screen and in my bedroom (which is also my office) 18 hours a day—eight for sleep, one to two for breastfeeding and pumping, and eight-plus for work. I'm far more sedentary than I was commuting, running around my neighborhood, or even walking around my office. I can spend four to five hours straight sitting. Research shows that those who spent more than 23 hours sitting per week, whether in a car or in front of a screen, compared to those who spent less than 11 hours a week sitting had a 64% greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. So with no end in sight of current stay-at-home guidelines, unless I vigorously counteract this sitting and lying, these behaviors will significantly compromise my metabolic health, contributing to inflammation and weight gain, well-studied precursors of almost all chronic diseases.
  2. Lack of support and space. Lack of child care and school isn't sustainable for working parents in dual-career households. My husband and I are both working full time from home in makeshift offices: me in the bedroom, him in the dining room behind a door we installed in the wake of COVID. It's draining and takes an unsustainable amount of effort to productively work from home without the usual life support systems in place. When I embarked on my "Work From Home Wednesdays," I actually rarely worked from home—I'd work in a coffee shop. Or when I was home, I didn't need to worry about my son unceremoniously interrupting my conference calls until 5 p.m., when he came home from activities and school. So as some companies contemplate a permanent work-from-home scenario, they need to ask whether their teams are actually equipped to do this successfully in the space they have and with the family support systems they may or may not have in place. 
  3. Immense screen time. I'm easily spending 12-plus hours in front of a screen between my phone and my computer between meetings, writing, reviewing documents, reading emails, FaceTime dates, and social media. Research has shown that as little as two hours of daily screen time harms a person's psychological well-being. Multiply that by six, and you see the problem.
  4. The psychological toll of video calls. It's not natural to interact solely via screen, especially when you're looking at yourself half the time. Never before in human interaction could you see yourself equally to your conversational counterpart. This is distracting and draining as is having 10 different things to look at pulling at your attention. Because up to 85% of communication is typically expressed through body language, mental health professionals are reporting that video conferencing as a sole form of communication is actually more exhausting—requiring increased focus as we try to process the many nonverbal cues lost through virtual interaction.
  5. "Groundhog Day" and the associated disaffection. Everyone I know describes this situation as an endless work/eat/parent/rinse/repeat experience. Variety is the spice of life, as they say. But recently, I find myself going for drives just to see the world—to remind myself it's there and to break up the monotony of my current reality. I know from my patients, friends, and family that I'm not alone. This repetition is becoming increasingly bland and somewhat depression-inducing—and while I don't have underlying depression, for the 264 million people worldwide who do, this way of life will only prove to be that much more triggering.
  6. There's no hiding the snacks. Over time, Google (known for its endless free snacks in their offices) learned they had to hide the snacks or people grazed on junk all day. For most people working from home for the first time, they're now learning this the hard way. At home my go to's—popcorn and tortilla chips—are just a short walk away and are mine, not my office's, so I have no deterrents to indulging. 
  7. We need germs to be healthy. Human health is built on a microbial soup—an ecosystem of bacteria, fungi, and viruses which fill our guts, cover our skin, and teach our immune systems how to work. Afterall, while our body is made up of about 37.2 trillion human cells, researchers estimate that our body is home to 40 trillion microbes—the vast majority of which are essential for optimal health. A future in an antiseptic bubble holds no appeal and is the opposite of what we need to stay resilient and healthy.

So how can we counteract the negative health effects of social distancing and undo the negatives of a world in which companies left and right are going WFH? If WFH might be the best, safest long-term option, how do we redesign our lives in a way that makes us stronger and more resilient for the luxury of being able to work remotely?

  1. 20-minute workout breaks built into our schedule. Weight training and resistance work are essential. Walking is not enough. I repeat, walking and standing are not enough. You need to do things to build real muscle mass, which will keep your metabolism up and your brain healthy. Studies show that for every 10% increase in skeletal muscle mass, individuals experience an 11% reduction in risk of insulin resistance, and a 12% drop in the risk of developing diabetes. Beyond metabolic benefits, increased muscle strength has been associated with better cognitive function in aging men and women—including both improved memory and concentration skills.
  2. Turn off the feature where you can see yourself during video calls, and end other notifications. You do not need the distractions of email and Slack. This makes calls more productive, focused, and less draining. 
  3. Make weekends real weekends when you don't look at screens all day or work. Now is the time to play board games, work out, go for walks. 
  4. Limit screen time to eight hours per day if you can. This one will be hard. But you have to try. Or you will look at a screen for most of your waking hours. Set blocks of time for no calls, and turn off social media from 6 to 8 p.m. every night. Read an actual book. Listen to music. Cook a new recipe. 
  5. Set up your workstation for success. Get a standing desk, a real chair, a big monitor if you can. This makes the difference between a hunched and backbreaking existence and one that feels good for the hours you're at a desk each day. 
  6. Don't be afraid of germs. Plant an at-home garden. Get a dog and walk it. Exposure to a variety of bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms is crucial for the immune system to learn the balance between reaction and tolerance—microbes teach the cells of the immune system that not everything is harmful. In fact, individuals with a greater diversity of gut bacteria have a decreased risk of many health conditions including asthma, obesity, depression, and diabetes. Forget the idea of living in a hermetically sealed bubble. It will make us weaker, not stronger. 
  7. Cook fresh veggies into every meal, and skip buying the snacks. A house without potato chips and candy makes it easy to skip them. If you need snacks, choose popcorn, veggie sticks, and 90% dark chocolate, which are my guilt-free go to's. 
  8. Switch it up. Go for a drive, a long walk, or bike ride (with your cloth mask on), or otherwise get out of your house if you can safely. Remind yourself there is a world out there. 
  9. Meditate for 10 minutes, twice a day. Since you've got all that commute time back, there's no excuse for not breathing and being present two times per day. Deep belly breathing while meditating stimulates the vagus nerve and turns on the parasympathetic or "rest and digest" part of our nervous system, which helps to lower heart rate and reduce anxiety in just a matter of minutes.

But here's the catch. You'll notice that I don't have a solve for the space and social support challenge, because frankly I'm not sure if there's a good answer. We need to get to a point where we can safely go back to schools, have child care, and reconnect in person with family. We cannot allow this situation to continue indefinitely. 

We need to embrace a critical combination of widespread testing, contract tracing, general precautions like hand-washing and wearing masks, staying home if feeling unwell, and ultimately a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19. The future is a world in which we live with COVID-19, not apart from it. And the sooner we realize that, the sooner we can put the right structures in place to make it happen safely. I welcome that world with open arms. And frankly, I can't wait to go back to my office.

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Robin Berzin, M.D.
Robin Berzin, M.D.
Robin Berzin, M.D., is a functional medicine physician and the founder of Parsley Health. She...
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