The government is urging more people to return to offices, tweaking its guidance in August after Boris Johnson said he wants “people to live their lives more normally”. Yet, it can be argued our office lives were neither normal nor healthy.
Far from adding ‘nice to have’ benefits, such as saving money on commuting, home working offers life changing benefits that can boost our health, physiology, wellbeing – and productivity too.
Of course, not all these factors are in an employee’s control. It’s well documented that parents of young children have struggled to balance work with parental duties in lockdown and domestic violence has risen. Added to this, distrustful employers can fuel presenteeism and the 'always on' culture doesn't help.
However, those caveats aside, there are five ways working from home might be better for us than offices, which have been drawn up in discussion with health and wellbeing professionals.
1. You can move more often to prevent DVT and heart disease
Our working days are allocated into seven hours, but it’s only in offices where all those hours are likely to be spent sitting continuously.
Not only might this shore up back and joint problems, but prolonged sitting is also linked to heart and circulation issues, says Robert Bridger, consultant in human factors. “With sitting everyone talks about back pain, that’s only one thing. There’s something else which is the fact that if you’re sitting still the blood pools in your lower legs. A bit like when you’re on long airline flights and you get deep vein thrombosis – it’s the same thing in an office. Your leg muscles are passive and what happens is gravity causes all your body fluids to head down. It’s like a sponge.”
He says it’s important to activate the muscles of the lower leg, where the vein muscle pump is located. “When you move your legs, your calf muscles contract and they squeeze the veins and push the blood back up.” Climbing the stairs, walking to the kitchen or doing housework are all great activities to activate this muscle at regular intervals. All are readily available in the home.
2. You are in control of your time and your workspace
“Structuring your working day to the times that best suit you and your Qi energy needs, provides a great opportunity to improve your wellbeing and success at work,” says Zoe Vita James, a classically trained Feng Shui practitioner. James says that knowing your own Qi (life force or energy) is a good base for rethinking how and where you best work.
“The people I’ve worked with have very different needs,” she explains. “Some need to sit near a window (for Fire Qi), others need to sit near the Wood energy of a garden. Feng Shui will identify this, as well as those people who need to start work early in the day, and those whose most productive time is mid-afternoon.”
It is a complex and ancient practice, but the main point is home workers have the freedom of choosing the space that best suits them in the house (as opposed to where your desk happened to be in the office). Furniture Industry Research Association (FIRA) guidance advises sitting 90 degrees to a window to let fresh air circulate and provide natural light.
James also recommends using a collapsible table or desk, especially for those who don’t have the luxury of home offices: “It gives great flexibility to set up your working space to align to a person’s favourable elements, as well as to the prevailing energy of the year, month and even day.
“Setting it up in the morning and tucking it away at the end of the day also helps give a sense of purpose to your working day. It also guarantees your ‘desk’ is clutter free.
3. You can manage work-related stress better at home (perhaps)
At home, it’s not that annoyances don’t happen, but it’s that we don’t have to fight down our impulses to be annoyed as we did in the office, says Bridger. “In a public space, say your computer turns blank, you want to punch the screen and you can’t. This takes self-control.” The energy required for this self-control produces stress. “Many of the stressors of working in offices are to do with self-control and that will have an impact on physical health,” he explains.
At home there are natural stress relievers: “You can go and reward yourself, go to kitchen make tea and have slice of cake. You can go into the garden or look out the window.”
A caveat here is that working in the home can take some getting used to, and that mixing work and private spheres can itself be stressful because it’s harder to draw that line between where work ends and winding down begins. According to Working anytime, anywhere: the effects on the world of work, a 2017 report by the ILO: “Blurring of the boundary between paid work and personal life, [can lead] to problems for the health and well-being of workers.”
4. Working from home sharpens the mind
Lucky was the office worker who had a view, even if it was just a window onto a carpark. At home, most people will have at least a window showing trees and sky, if not a garden to look at. These views improve our mental acuity when we are at work, explains Bridger, who says it’s a well-known school of thought called Attention Restoration Theory (ART).
“When you’re depleted because of psychological demands at work; it depletes your higher cognitive processes and your ability to attend to things,” he says. When there are nice things to look at, it restores your attention and is good for your mental functions: “There are lots of potential benefits of working from home.”
5. Home working can make us more productive
Offices are a potential breeding ground not just for coronavirus but for presenteeism. “In offices, it was thought that as long as you’re at your desk, you are working, but you could be miles away doing nothing,” says Levent Çaglar, Senior Ergonomist at FIRA. At home there’s no pressure to keep up appearances. We can come back to the task and get it done quicker, or we can work harder for fewer hours and get more done. “You don’t have to work nine to five,” says Çaglar. “Maybe you start later and work later. It doesn’t make any difference. As long as you are given targets that you need to achieve, then how you do it is up to you.”
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