As people worked from home en masse during the pandemic, it provided an incredibly rich opportunity to explore the impact it was having on worker productivity and wellbeing. One of the most detailed explorations was done by a team from the University of Southern California who have published a number of papers based on their findings. The results reveal the extent of the physical and mental health challenges people faced during the pandemic.
“Although it was apparent that the pandemic disrupted our lives in a way that was stressful, we were a bit shocked by the high incidence of new health issues among the home-based workforce so early on in the pandemic,” the researchers say.
For instance, one paper found that working from home didn’t have any negative impact on worker productivity. Indeed, total productivity remained largely consistent, albeit with people tending to work about 90 minutes more each day.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean they are working longer hours, but that people are physically at their computers or workstations for longer,” the researchers say. “It challenges the assumption that if you’re working from home you’ll be less productive, which has been a longstanding barrier for employers. We learned that we can work from home without losing overall productivity; however, it’s complex, and everybody’s situation is unique.”
A second paper found that people typically shifted their schedules considerably during the pandemic. This increase in flexibility was indeed reported as one of the perks of working from home, not least as the loss of commute meant more time could be spent on productive things. It did result in a blurring of work-life boundaries, however.
This increase in time spent working and the loss of a commute also had an impact on people’s physical health, however, as illustrated in a third paper. For instance, about a third of respondents said they shared their workspace with others during the pandemic, with only a third having a dedicated office and even fewer having an ideal physical workstation setup with screens, ergonomic chairs, and so on, but those who did have these reported better health and productivity.
“Employers have to provide the right environment for their employees in their homes, if they want them to be healthy and productive,” the researchers say. “So it’s not about just the formal office, but also the extensions of a more “fluid” office.”
It was equally important to ensure that people had social interactions with others, even if only virtually, as those that managed to do this reported better health and productivity.
The importance of environment
A final paper highlighted the crucial link between the quality of work environment, and especially things such as noise levels, and factors such as tiredness and fatigue. What’s more, people had higher levels of stress and anxiety when they were unhappy with their home work environment.
“This leads us to the idea that we need to customize our workstations to improve health and well-being, and help with productivity,” the researchers explain.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the studies revealed a clear satisfaction divide broadly along income lines, with those earning lower amounts both unhappier with their home work environment and more likely to report health issues associated with it than their wealthier peers.
“Working from home may impact some people differently than others, so we need to look at individual policies,” the authors explain. “It’s how you set up a social and physical environment, and the technology needed to support that.”
While the very nature of flexible work would lend itself towards having an individual approach, perhaps a first step would be to better inform people about how their workstation is affecting their health and productivity. The studies found that just 11% of us are actually aware of the potential impact, which obviously limits any potential remediating actions we can take. Self-reflection may, therefore, be a good place to start to encourage us to think about how our workspace affects us and indeed be more aware of the physical and mental cues regarding our own health.
“Really try to pay attention if you’re feeling anxious or stressed, or experiencing musculoskeletal pain, then track those symptoms and try to identify how they relate to one another,” the authors conclude.
This content was originally published here.