In March 2020, many companies shifted their employees to work remotely due to the rising severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most individuals still currently work from home or through hybrid work policies. Meanwhile, some companies such as Apple, Facebook, Salesforce and Twitter have switched to long-term remote work after realizing this format may be the future.
It has been more than a year and a half since the sudden switch to remote work and the overall benefits and harms have become more prominent.
The advantages of working from home include better work-life balance because of increased flexibility, allowing employees to better manage their time between work and personal life. Not commuting reduces stress and provides employees with extra time to devote to other responsibilities.
Commuting more than 30 minutes a day each way increases stress and anxiety and driving more than 10 miles each way is associated with higher cholesterol, elevated blood sugar and increased risk for depression.
Remote work also has a positive environmental impact in reducing people’s carbon footprints. During the shelter-in-place order, Bay Area streets were empty as most businesses closed and employees worked from home. There were fewer cars on the road, which significantly decreased emission levels, resulting in better air quality and reduced pollution.
California’s highest greenhouse gas emission is transportation at 39.7%, of which 28.5% is attributed to passenger vehicles. Working from home decreased the number of people commuting to work, causing carbon dioxide transportation emissions to drop by 18%. Most business and personal airplane flights were also withheld, significantly reducing domestic (35.8%) and international carbon emissions (52.4%).
The shelter-in-place order in Bay Area counties observed a 30% decrease in urban carbon dioxide emissions driven mainly by traffic emissions (48%), measured from 35 Berkeley Environmental Air-quality and CO2 Network, or BEACON, nodes. The BEACON is a tool to measure greenhouse gas emissions in real time. The project was first prototyped in 2012 by chemists at UC Berkeley and is now used in various major cities.
The data shows that the transition to remote work positively impacts the environment and lowers greenhouse gas emissions. This decrease in carbon emissions significantly helps to combat climate change.
Working from home, however, also has many disadvantages that need to be addressed. The negative impacts our society primarily acknowledges are mental health risks, isolation and burnout. But ergonomic problems, which can be just as harmful, are often overlooked.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the drastic switch to remote work resulted in nearly half of remote employees working in makeshift home offices in shared spaces such as the living room, dining room, bedrooms and even the laundry room. As a result, 45% of remote employees started experiencing shoulder, back and joint pain, and 71% stated their pain has progressed.
Since the pandemic, almost all companies have reported an increased focus on their employees’ mental health. However, many failed to take account of the environmental health and safety of their home workstations. Remote workers must adjust their setup to ensure they are comfortably sitting straight in a neutral position. This posture requires having your monitor elevated at eye level, a footstool to ensure your thighs are parallel to the floor and adjusting your elbows to bend about 90 degrees.
In addition to poor ergonomic conditions, another research found employees have been spending more time on the computer since the pandemic. Being stuck at home all day during shelter-in-place makes it challenging to separate work and personal life, resulting in more time spent on the computer working and ultimately causing burnout. Extra time on the computer also contributes to the increased physical pain remote workers have been experiencing.
It is employers’ responsibility to ensure the health and safety of their employees. Promoting the health and well-being of employees has been shown to encourage productivity by at least 12%, also creating benefits for companies.
It is crucial for corporations to establish ergonomic remote workstations through training and providing their employees with home office equipment. If workers encounter insufficient space to create an ergonomic workstation at home, employers should consider renting workstations for those employees. This solution will increase productivity and ensure their ergonomic health is also taken into consideration. Companies such as WeWork offer flexible workspaces while taking safety and comfort precautions.
According to a Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine study, offering on-site chiropractor services enhances employees’ wellness and reduces overall health care costs. Corporations should also contemplate offering chiropractic care to alleviate neck and back pain caused by poor ergonomic workstations.
Throughout the pandemic, many employers have been disregarding the ergonomic safety of their employees, but it is essential to evaluate this component as the norm of remote work persists. Employers are responsible for the health and safety of their employees; therefore, it is important to find solutions to ensure workstations are ergonomically sustainable for the long-term health of workers.
Michelle Chen is a Master of Public Health candidate at San Jose State University