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Working from Home – It’s Lonely Out There

The adverse effects on health from being sedentary at work all day are well documented. Mainstream media outlets have been publicizing strategies to help office workers and others who spend the majority of their time indoors, seated, usually in front of computers, become more active during their workday. Often left out of the conversation, however, are individuals who work from home. These people might not be reporting to an office in the traditional sense, but they may be working from a home office, or even just a spot at the kitchen counter or dining room table. For all intents and purposes, these folks are office workers, and they’re just as susceptible to the detrimental effects of sitting for too long as the people who commute to a separate location. In fact, people who work from home face additional challenges that may not confront individuals who do their work during a set number of hours in a specific place.

Although many individuals who work from home do so on a set schedule dictated by their employers, others may have more flexible arrangements, in which they are free to complete their work whenever and wherever they choose, as long as they meet any required deadlines and the arrangement suits their employer’s needs. For this reason—no set schedule—people who work from home may find it difficult to “disconnect” from their professional obligations, considering they could technically be working at any hour of the day—or night. Individuals who report to a dedicated location for work may not have access to the required systems or equipment from home, and therefore don’t have the option of getting more done in the evening or on weekends. (They may have the option to work overtime, of course, but once they’re home, they may be able to “shut off” thoughts of work more effectively than someone whose desk and computer are in the next room.)

Regarding the issue of being sedentary, people who work from home may have even fewer opportunities for getting up and walking around than their in-office counterparts. Workplaces vary greatly in terms of size, amenities, and organizational culture, so opportunities to be active may vary greatly as well. Some employees may be able to walk to a café or food court inside the building; others may be able to take a walk or make a trip to a gym on their lunch break. Even getting up to have a conversation with a coworker, rather than calling or emailing, is a chance to stand up and walk a little. People who work from home may need to intentionally inject periods of movement throughout their day, since these “incidental” opportunities are lacking in a work-from-home situation. Individuals with more flexible schedules may have more freedom to engage in physical activity, but they may need to become more aware of prolonged sitting, and how important it is to get up and move around.

Perhaps the most significant aspects of working from home that don’t apply to those who report to an office are loneliness and social isolation. The arrangements employees who work from home have with their employers vary. Some may be on the phone or using Skype to interact with coworkers and clients all day; others may be alone in their home, while significant others and children are at work and/or school. The importance of social interaction—including in-person interaction—shouldn’t be underestimated. Loneliness and social isolation are risk factors for early mortality, particularly in those younger than age 65.

Social isolation, however, may be a relative feeling, similar to stress. The perception—that is, the subjective feeling of isolation—may influence negative health outcomes more than whether someone actually is isolated. Some people feel perfectly content with limited social interaction, and it’s possible to feel lonely in a roomful of people.

Of course, people who work from home may have active social lives beyond their work day, which helps balance the time spent alone. And for those who don’t socialize much outside their work, or who are looking for ways to become more socially active within their profession, online meetup groups make it easy to find like-minded people in the same industry who actually meet up in person for networking, education and relaxation.

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