In spring 2020, at the onset of the global COVID-19 pandemic, many employees found themselves unexpectedly setting up home offices and settling in to flatten the curve. Beds, dining tables, couches: Anything could be a workspace in this new world. Now, nearly three years later, many people have finally returned to the office, albeit more frequently following a hybrid model. But the 59% of Americans who work from home some—if not all—of the time might find themselves stuck with the bad WFH habits they developed at the start of the pandemic. And it could be hurting their bodies and brains.
While we still don’t know much about the long-term implications of remote work, researchers agree that working outside of a traditional office setting can negatively impact our brains and our bodies with everything from eye strain to back pain. (Admittedly, there were also issues pre-pandemic with spending too much time sitting at the office.) But there is hope. We talked to experts to learn more about the short-term impact of WFH and what can be done to make remote work better.
Ways remote work could harm your brain and body
If you’ve been working remotely for sometime now, you may have already noticed the physical impact on your body. According to Krys Hines, a Washington, D.C.-based workplace wellness and ergonomics educator at KH Ergo and Wellness, the recent shift to remote work has aged our bodies by about 10 to 15 years.
“Quite abruptly people were making workspaces at home that perpetuated postural strain and mechanical stress. Work was happening at the kitchen table, on the couch, in the bed, and from a desk space without ergonomic support specific to the individual,” she says. “Essentially, people fit themselves into a workspace instead of creating a workspace for their body.”
But it’s not just our bodies that are hurting. In a 2020 Microsoft study, researchers found that “remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration,” but not necessarily in a good way. The study found that “brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork were much higher when collaborating remotely than in-person.”
Part of the reason is that the amount of visual attention we need to give in a virtual setting is higher than during in-person meetings, causing our brains to work harder, explains Dr. S. Thomas Carmichael, secretary of the American Neurological Association and professor and chair of the department of neurology at UCLA.
In everyday situations, our brains rely on “unexpected inputs,” such as body language and items within our peripheral vision to gather information about situations and people. When that scope of input is limited to say small rectangles displaying just people’s faces, those inputs are eliminated causing our brains to go into overdrive.
“When we have virtual meetings, we’re not getting nonverbal cues. We’re not getting an area of focus that includes the room and larger elements of our interactive environment,” says Carmichael. “We’re simply seeing a zoomed-in version of a person and what we’re faced with, among other things, is we’re losing a neural basis of real-time social interaction, and we’re not acquiring information about others beyond the visual information of their face.”
The loss of additional context clues, such as a person’s body language or seeing an interesting photo on a colleague’s desk, may also be impacting our productivity and innovation, according to a recent study in the Journal of Nature.
“When we interact with people in person, there’s a lot of unexpected things that happen in our environment,” says Carmichael. “The brain may need this variety of input. And it may need the unexpected, unanticipated aspect of interaction that sharpens our ability to think more broadly and more generally to come up with new ideas.”
Ways to make remote work better for your brain and body
Although we may never be able to fully replicate all of the physical and mental benefits of working in the office, there are small changes that can help improve remote work. One way to do that is by playing games, suggests Tanya Tarr, behavioral scientist and president of Cultivated Insights. Yes, you read that correctly.
Creating conditions for low-stakes play simulates problem-solving, encourages collaboration, and mimics the mirror neurons (brain cells that are activated when we perform an action and observe others performing the same action) that are often created in an office setting. These neurons are also responsible for producing empathy, which translates into trust, safety, and belonging—feelings that may be missing from remote and hybrid office settings.
“We are creatures of habit that do better when we see other people doing the same thing,” Tarr explains. “So that’s part of the power of being located in a traditional office setting when things are super safe. We’re seeing other people do what we are doing, and it encourages us to stay accountable. It gives us a sense of belonging.”
Given the nature of remote work environments, it can be challenging to replicate synchronized activities that produce mirror neurons, but that’s where low-stakes play comes in.
“When we get groups of people to engage in low-stakes games, besides creating mirror neurons, we’re also helping them engage their prefrontal cortex in ways that help us be at ease in places of unpredictable situations,” Tarr says, citing work from psychiatrist Dr. Shimi Kang.
Additionally, creating room for play can help foster team connections (so long as it’s done in small group settings), as well as relieve brain fog and anxiety. Some easy games that translate well to virtual or hybrid settings are Scattergories, trivia, and crossword puzzles.
To counter Zoom fatigue and reduce eye strain, experts recommend breaks between meetings. According to the basic rest-activity cycle (also known as BRAC), humans are optimized to pay attention for about 45 minutes, but at 90 minutes, our cognition drops significantly. Need to jumpstart your brain? Try walking through a door to reset your short-term memory.
“Scientists seem to think it’s because we’ve been socialized to think of doorways as transitions. When we don’t have transitions, that is when our cognition goes into overdrive,” says Tarr. “Then we have a problem because our attention lags, we start making mistakes, and if we start doing it chronically, that’s where burnout happens.”
Movement breaks and proper posture are especially important to prevent common orthopedic issues, such as neck pain, low-back pain, shoulder and hip impingement, tension-related body aches, and joint and body stiffness.
“To reduce these injuries we will need to do more than sit up straight,” says Hines. “It is so effortful to do so, and we often lose task focus while doing this and fall right back into poor posture when a task requires our utmost attention.”
To combat injuries, Hines suggests sitting on a chair or cushion that supports sitting on your sit bones; creating an ergonomic workspace that fits your body, personality, and preferences; considering a sit-to-stand desk; and elevating your computer monitor so that it is four to five inches above your eyes. Additionally, strengthening your core and postural muscles and stretching your neck, chest, hamstrings, and hip flexors can reduce injury as well.
If you need further reminders to take a break, Emily Kiberd, a chiropractor and founder of the Urban Wellness Clinic, suggests enlisting the help of a mindfulness app or simply scheduling an alarm on your phone.
“Some patients find that brain fog sets in after sitting too long,” she says. “Setting that reminder to get up and go outside, or even walk up and down the hallway makes a huge difference.”