People on ‘autopilot’ as remote work continues, US doctors say. What’s at risk?

There can be downsides to working from home, and nearly two years of teleworking has impacted the mental and physical health of many people. — Dreamstime/TNS

Boundaries are broken down, people often experience isolation and loneliness and their physical health, in some cases, can suffer during prolonged remote work, California health experts said.

Many Americans are nearing their second year of working from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic. And while this allows for more convenience and fewer commutes, teleworking has impacted the mental and physical health of many people, experts told The Bee.

According to a poll in 2021 by the American Psychiatric Association, a majority of the 1,000 people surveyed said they experienced mental health impacts from working from home, including isolation and loneliness.

With many workers directing all their attention to a computer screen for many hours each day, they may feel drained emotionally and cognitively, said Dr Shacunda Rodgers, a clinical psychologist in Sacramento.

“When we were working in the office, there was a big boundary between work life and home life,” said Rodgers. “And now that people are working from home and have been working from home for, you know, nearly two years, there’s a loss of boundaries really between work life and home life.”

Rodgers, who is a member of the California Board of Psychology, said she’s worked with clients who are “checked out” and on “autopilot”.

The stressors of working from home, as well as from the pandemic, have also caused feelings of burnout, disengagement, depression, fatigue and anxiousness, she said.

Physical health complications

Dr Eric Tepper, a family medicine physician in Sacramento, said he’s seen some clients have physical health issues due to working at home. Patients are having problems with sleep, exercise, orthopedics and eating – along with depression and anxiety.

And from family practice to rehabilitation, doctors are problem-solving the complications.

The manager of outpatient rehabilitation for Mercy General Hospital in East Sacramento, Dr Benjamin Braxley, said the effects compound over time.

“I would say the number one thing that we see is a change in strength,” said Braxley, who is also the chair of the Northeast District of the California Physical Therapy Association.

He said with stay-at-home orders, people walk less and shorten the amount of walking they normally would do. Over time, this causes them to be less able to walk long distances or handle stairs.

Blood clots, such as deep vein thrombosis, is also known to occur when sitting for many hours at a time without moving.

But Braxley said he has yet to see severe physical complications from remote working, such as soft tissue, muscle or bone injuries.

What are the risk factors?

Pre-existing conditions appear to be risk factors for health complications from working from home, according to medical professionals.

“Based on my experience with clients that I have seen, people who were already depressed and people who were already anxious – the pandemic has definitely made that worse for a lot of folks because they don’t have access to the same type of supports and resources,” said Shacunda, the clinical psychologist in Sacramento.

In terms of physical health, Braxley of Mercy Hospital said that patients are more so coming in due to chronic conditions that have gotten worse.

“They come to see us, not because they’re working from home, but because of deconditioning lead to, you know, a worsening of an unrelated orthopedic problem,” he said.

Tips for better health

As the world continues to navigate the pandemic and vaccines, many Americans will remain working from home. According to a Gallup poll, 45% of full-time employees in the US worked partly or fully remote in September.

Since more homes are becoming permanent work offices for many, health experts shared tips on how to manage one’s well being while working from home.

– Structure your days

Tepper, the Sacramento area family doctor, said you should live by a schedule.

“If my work starts at 8 o’clock, that means I’m actually doing my work at 8 o’clock,” he said. “But that also means at 5 o’clock, I’m done and I can turn off my computer.”

He added that you should take breaks and do something healthy for yourself, such as doing a quick work-out.

– Invest in an ergonomic home office

“One way that you can think of ergonomics is your position while working,” Braxley said.

Ergonomics refer to comfort, safety and efficiency in a work environment.

Braxley recommends people to have work equipment, such as computers, close to their body.

“Specifically, if you're a computer worker, your screen should be directly in front of your body to avoid any sustained twisting or reaching,” he said. “Sustained twisting or reaching over days and weeks and months of repetitions can set you up for more strain and discomfort.”

– Pay attention to your body and mind

Rodgers said practicing mindfulness is important for your overall health.

This means paying attention to the present moment and being aware of when you feel anxiety, depression, burnout, aches and pains, she said.

She said you should ask yourself: What am I dealing with? How well am I attending to it? Where do I need extra help?

By answering these questions, you can get more clarity on your situation and what types of support you need.

– Go outside

Tepper said people need to make a conscious effort to have a social life.

Social interactions and building relationships, whether with friends, family members or a spouse, are known to help peoples’ mental and physical health.

Simply going outside to feel the breeze on your face, look at nature and listen to the sounds around you are also helpful, Rodgers said, because it breaks up the monotony of the day.

If you notice any complications with your health, reach out to your doctor. – The Sacramento Bee/Tribune News Service

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