A little over a year ago, a massive work-from-home experiment began when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. Companies across the United States abruptly closed their offices, asking employees to work remotely. A recent Gallup poll found that, as of January 2021, 56 percent of U.S. workers were still operating out of their homes all or part of the time – many of them dealing with childcare and remote-schooling pressures at the same time.
In this new paradigm, the line between work life and personal life has been blurred to the point that many are wondering: “Am I working from home, or living at work?”
“It’s tough right now because everything is out of our norm,” says psychotherapist Amy Exum, LMHC, with Baptist Health’s Community Health & Wellness team. “Most of us are feeling pretty tired, if not exhausted. It has been over a year of this, and our bodies and our minds just were not built to sustain this level of emergency mode.”
Justin Thottam, D.O., a back and neck pain physician at Baptist Health’s Miami Neuroscience Institute, has seen an increase in issues including herniated discs and severe pain among his patients. “People are using makeshift workstations,” Dr. Thottam observes. “Where they had ergonomic chairs and standing-up desks at the office, they don’t have that anymore. So, they’re using their kitchen countertops and couches and beds.”
Health impacts associated with long periods of high stress are of concern to family medicine physicians such as Maria Ordonez, M.D., with Baptist Health Primary Care. “The more work they’re putting in and the additional stressors they have from both work and family brings a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and other health problems,” she says, adding: “It’s important to keep a balance.”
The three experts were guest panelists on a Baptist Health Resource Live program that focused on the ups and downs of working from home. Host Jonathan Fialkow, M.D., deputy medical director and chief of cardiology at Baptist Health’s Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute, and chief population officer for Baptist Health, guided the discussion about ways to combat the physical and mental health challenges many are experiencing.
Read excerpts in the Q&A below, and check out the full episode of Resource Live for more helpful tips.
Dr. Jonathan Fialkow: “Microsoft released a study on the remote work phenomenon. They found that our work week has gotten longer by three to four hours a week because we’re always accessible and we’re not really finding that down time. What suggestions do you have to find some balance?”
Amy Exum: “One thing that we can do is to look at it differently. We’re going to look at this from an integration standpoint; that work and personal life are just integrated. We can figure out a couple of different styles. One style is, if my employer allows me, to work a couple hours, then take a break and do some personal things, work another couple of hours, do some personal things, really integrate that throughout the day. That may work well for some people.
“The other approach is to really be a little bit stricter with your schedule and say, okay, I’m allocating these hours of my day to focus on work, give or take anything that happens in between. And then I’m going to really disconnect and shut down from working during my personal hours. So, some things that I suggest are to turn off the computer, actually shut it down, put it in away in a cabinet or a drawer where you cannot see it. If it’s in a different room, close the door so it’s not that reminder. On top of that, turn off those notifications from your phone if you have a position where you can do that.”
Dr. Jonathan Fialkow: “Let’s talk about the ergonomics aspect of working from home. What would you tell someone who wants to avoid those neck and spine type of injuries or strains from the home workstation environment?”
Dr. Justin Thottam: “You want to have a chair that is good and has spinal curves to emphasize good posture. All of us, including myself, have a tendency to slouch. Be aware of it and watch out for it. Getting up every hour or so and stretching and doing exercise can go a long way.
“The height of the chair should be so your knees are at the same height as your hips with your feet flat on the floor. Your knees should fit underneath the desk with some ample space there. Having a foot rest may be beneficial. You can have something that pivots, so even though you’re sitting, you’re moving your legs, getting circulation going, you’re stretching out the muscles that way.
“In terms of the mouse, you want your wrist to be neutral. Sometimes you can even put a little cushion there to kind of help and take some of the stress off of the wrist. Your chair arm height should be appropriate so that you’re not stressing your shoulders. Your computer screen should be at eye level or a little lower so you’re not stressing the neck. Those are just a few things.”
Dr. Jonathan Fialkow: “If someone’s sitting at their desk or on their couch or at the kitchen table and they feel a little lower back strain, do they get up and walk around? Or do they lie down flat and take pressure off their back?”
Dr. Justin Thottam: “I would actually get up and stretch. Sometimes it’s just because you’re slumping forward and you’re stressing all of those ligaments and muscles, as well as putting some strain onto those joints of the back. So, getting up and stretching, I think, will go a long way. Lying down and having a flat surface with your knees up can also be beneficial. That’s more for arthritic pain, but can be beneficial in stretching out the low back as well. But the majority of the time, it’s the standing and walking and stretching that helps you more than the lying down and keeping it flat.”
Dr. Jonathan Fialkow: “What about screen time? Can looking at my computer screen for long periods of time have an adverse effect on my concentration or vision?”
Dr. Maria Ordonez: “The answer is yes. There’s a lot of eye fatigue with prolonged exposure to screens, right? Because there’s a lot of glare and our eyes have to strain a little bit and we have to focus attention close up. It’s hard for the eyes to then adjust to seeing a distance. So, I tell people not only to take the physical breaks for exercise but also take a break and look at a distant object to relax your eyes.
“And then the other issue is with circadian rhythms, right? At night, staring at the blue light (emitted by) the computer or the phone can also disturb our sleep. So, I tell people to try to have a point where you’re not looking at the phone anymore, or if you need to, set it on the night mode or maybe wear blue light glasses if you can so that it doesn’t interfere with your sleep.”
Dr. Jonathan Fialkow: “Exercise really does come into play in many aspects. Going out for a walk has the physical aspects of core strengthening, endurance, but also that psychological aspect of listening to the birds, seeing the sun, a change in venue. And you don’t have to go out for a 45-minute walk. A five- or 10-minute walk can really be something that we can incorporate into our schedules and find great benefits from. So, of all the recommendations (the panel) made I definitely would want to emphasize that and make people realize the multiple components that are handled by exercise.”