Dr. Adrian Bennett, director of psychology at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, and Monica Van Niel, an occupational therapist and clinical specialist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, both caution against the potential health risks of hybrid work schedules.
The popularity of hybrid work schedules is hard to dispute.
A staggering 83% of the more than 9,000 global workers surveyed for Accenture’s Future of Work study, released in April, said they prefer the ability to work remotely at least part of the time. That finding is echoed in other studies, like one by Condeco, a workspace scheduling software firm, that suggests hybrid working arrangements lead to happier, more productive employees.
Dr. Adrian Bennett, director of psychology at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, hears this sentiment among her clients. Fewer hours spent commuting means more opportunity for family bonding, cooking homemade meals, gardening and/or working out – among other activities that support wellness. Remote work provides more autonomy to better balance professional and personal demands. Also, time away from the distractions of an office and co-workers can be especially helpful for introverts and people who are sensitive to overstimulation, such those with ADHD.
“And when people are doing more complex tasks – like they're working with large amounts of data on spreadsheets or taking in a lot of information because they’re writing reports – the less interruptions they have, the better, and so they find that doing the stuff at home can be more productive,” she said.
But remote work can be “a double-edged sword” in relation to your health and wellbeing, according to Bennett.
“My colleagues and I are certainly hearing more complaints about stress and burnout now that the boundaries between work life and home life have become somewhat blurred,” she said.
Employees working remotely often feel more pressure to respond immediately to emails and messages to prove they are working, Bennett explained. Others become overwhelmed or stressed because their home workspaces are situated in living areas of the home. Not only does this lead to unwanted distractions during office hours, Bennett said, but makes it more difficult to switch gears when work is done but you are still in the same environment.
Some people struggle with the irregularity that comes with a hybrid work schedule. Getting up, going into the office and then returning home at the same time each day provided structure. On the other hand, not “getting into a daily life rhythm is stressful for people,” Bennett said.
The pressure can also come from employers who mistakenly try to replicate in-office policies and procedures with their hybrid workforce. Online meetings, Bennett noted, are a great example. While there’s nothing wrong with virtual meetings, a full day of team building Zoom or Teams encounters can be exhaustive and counterproductive.
“Zoom fatigue is a real thing,” she said. “Plus, people tend to engage in more self-monitoring when they are looking at themselves on screens, meaning they become very self-conscious about what they look like, and that can also be distracting and draining.”
Then there’s a host of ergonomic issues that arise when remote workers spend hours in poorly designed workspaces. Hand, wrist, elbow, shoulder and back pains, as well as headaches, are some of the most common complaints occupational therapists address among people working from home, said Monica Van Niel, an occupational therapist and clinical specialist at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center.
“Many people are still just making do, improvising, with remote workstations,” Van Niel said. She asked one client to take a picture of his home workspace “and it was a terrible setup. I know he’s not the only one.”
There are, however, a few ways to make hybrid work healthier.
Start by talking to your employer and/or supervisor about expectations, Bennet recommended. When does your workday start and end? How long do you have to respond to an email or instant message? How should notify others that you will be silencing devices to focus on a task? How much freedom do you have for personal demands during office hours, assuming you still complete work tasks outside of the workday?
Separate work and home life, to the extent possible. Shoot for a workspace that is away from common living and dining areas, Bennett said, and preferably not where you sleep. Discuss boundaries around your working hours and when you can be disturbed with roommates and family members.
Set a routine. Sure, office days and home days will be a little different, but structure around each of those settings will go a long way toward alleviating stress and helping to mentally and emotionally prepare you to be productive, according to Bennett.
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Move around regularly. Whether you are at home or in the office, get up and move every half-hour or so, Van Niel suggested. Without consistent movement, joints and muscles stiffen, leading to discomfort and pain. “It’s also not very good for your metabolism to be sitting for eight hours,” she said. “Do a lap around the house or office.”
Keep virtual meetings in check, when possible, and try to carve out time between meetings to take that walk or concentrate on a solo task.
Finally, optimize your workspace. You want to be able to sit all the way back in your chair, Van Niel said, with your feet firmly planted and knees at a 90-degree angle. Your arms or forearms should be supported, on the desktop if you are keyboarding or on chair arms if not, so that your elbows are at a 90- or 100-degree angle as well. Wrists should be straight. Also, keep your monitor at eye level to avoid looking down. If you are using a laptop, that might mean getting an external keyboard so that you can place the laptop on a higher surface, like some books or a box.
“Then think about keeping your ears and shoulder and hip in alignment, which will force your head to come back and improve your posture,” she said.
OSHA, Van Niel added, has a computer workstation eTool to guide individuals in setting up an ergonomically correct home workstation. That can be found at osha.gov/etools/computer-workstations.
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