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Improving Health and Wellness in the Time of COVID-19: Working From Home

Author: Maria Sydor

The arrival of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) has caused changes that for most of us are unprecedented. The World Health Organization (WHO) has now received reports of more than 62 million COVID-19 cases, and more than 1.4 million people worldwide have lost their lives as a result of the virus. Some of those who have survived face long-term and unknown health implications. Many people have lost their jobs, in numbers not seen since the Great Depression. These people are struggling to pay for housing and food. Domestic violence incidents have risen dramatically. Many parents working from home must simultaneously manage their children and help them with their schooling. Some individuals who live alone are truly struggling with depression from the isolation. And then there are the challenges in our daily lives. Without a doubt, it is harder to go to the store and find things we typically take for granted (there’s a shortage of celery salt, of all things), and our enjoyment of restaurants, shopping, and activities of all kinds has been significantly curtailed, and in some cases, stopped completely. Yet this unparalleled pause has given us time to think beyond the mask, if you will, to reassess what being healthy will mean as we move forward once the pandemic is over. During this time of enforced rumination, we can reflect upon our own health and well-being, and that of our families, communities, and the planet overall.

For many of us, working from home has been a boon. I for one have increased my exercise and now walk for a minimum of 1 hour per day, weather permitting. This is something I was never able to manage when working on site, but the newfound flexibility in my schedule and the additional 3 hours per day I save by not commuting have allowed me to make this a priority. An additional benefit is that I walk with my 3 dogs, and this has improved their well-being immeasurably, and we have all lost weight. I am not the only one up and moving. I have a house directly on the Columbia Trail, a rail-to-trail in Hunterdon County, New Jersey, and there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people (and dogs and horses) recreating. This is all possible because so many of us are working at home in record numbers. More exercise means better sleep, which means better mood and cognitive function. I also cook at home almost exclusively, which means healthier meals and significant money saved. Although it is harder to carve out time to see my extended family safely, the time we do spend together is carefully planned and well enjoyed. My nephews, Oliver and Owen, come out to the “country” to see me, and we have had some wonderful times exploring Teetertown Ravine Nature Preserve, where they can climb rocks and swim, and their mother and I can socially distance on our respective boulders and catch up. And let’s not forget about improved work productivity. Being home allows me to balance my work and home life, and it affords me the flexibility to do what I need to do, when I need to do it, while still getting all my work done. I also have more time to concentrate, and more flexibility to work during those extra hours that I lost commuting before the pandemic.

And speaking of commuting, working at home has had a tremendous and positive impact on the health of our environment. It reduces the number of cars on the road, which lowers fossil fuel consumption, energy usage, and greenhouse gas emissions. Importantly, air pollution has dropped to unprecedented levels across the globe as people stay indoors during the pandemic. In some cities, such as Los Angeles, nitrogen levels have dropped significantly. Those living in Punjab, India, can see the snow peaks of the Himalayas for the first time in decades, and New Delhi alone has reported a 60% drop in fine particulate matter, the world’s deadliest air pollutant. Furthermore, estimates suggest that home energy use is approximately half the energy needed to run an office, and home workers save close to $2000 per year by decreasing commuting costs (gas, car maintenance, parking, coffee, lunches, etc), while their employers save substantial money in operating costs.

The restrictions of COVID-19 have normalized remote work, and when the pandemic is over, our return to work may not be to what we left back in March 2020. Many people have new expectations about flexibility and work-life balance that cannot be undone. This 9-month hiatus from the traditional work model has caused people across the globe to re-evaluate their lives, take stock of what is important, and make better decisions about their health and well-being. In a study that surveyed 4700 knowledge workers about their preferences for working at home or in the office, the majority did not want to go back to the traditional way of working, with only 12% wanting to return to full-time office work and 72% preferring a hybrid, remote-office model.

Technology has afforded us the opportunity to rethink how we work, and the pandemic has given us an unprecedented amount of time to reflect on how traditional work models may not be the best choice for us as individuals, or for the planet as a whole. Global warming is a reality, and this pandemic has shown us a new way of working while putting less pressure both on people and planet. Scientists warn that the improvements in air quality we have observed during the pandemic will be short lived, and pollution will rebound to prepandemic levels once people start returning to work. Over the last few months, I have looked at my nephews, aged 6 and 12, wearing their masks and thought several times that this is likely the first of several pandemics they will experience in their lives. This makes me sad, and also makes me realize and appreciate that I didn’t have such pressures on me as a child. So, let’s put on our thinking caps and set a strong example for the next generation. Let’s not just get through this pandemic. Let’s learn from this catastrophe and move forward with new perspectives on what healthy really means, individually and globally.

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