Despite the COVID-19 public health emergency expiring in May 2023,1 there are some ways that the pandemic has changed how we live indefinitely. One major area of change is how we work.
According to a 2023 survey conducted by Stanford University and the Census Bureau, while the number of people working from home has declined since the peak of the pandemic, remote work remains prevalent, with an estimated 27 percent of full-time employees working from home.2 Another survey found that job postings mentioning remote work are up 12.2 percent, four times the pre-pandemic amount.3
It’s clear that remote work is here to stay in a big way. Considering just how many hours a day we spend working (an average of 8.5 hours for most full-time workers),4 this change is bound to affect both our physical and mental health in profound ways. But is it largely for better or for worse? Here, doctors, dietitians, and therapists offer their perspectives on the good and bad impacts of remote work on our health. They also share their tips on how to take advantage of remote work to live an even healthier life.
Unlike at the office, where the only food readily at your disposal is whatever you pack from home or what’s up for grabs in the shared kitchen, there is a wider variety of options for mealtime and snacks at home. Amanda Baker Lemein, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and the Vice President of Nutrition and Wellness at Golin, says that one positive dietary change she’s noticed with her clients is that more people are eating breakfast — a meal they often skipped pre-pandemic when mornings were more rushed. “People are enjoying breakfast more than they used to, having the opportunity to make a breakfast they really enjoy and sitting down at the table either with their family or enjoying it alone before work,” she says.
Alex Caspero, MA, RD, a registered dietitian at Delish Knowledge, says that many of her clients find they can eat healthier now that they work from home. “Being home allows them time to grab fresh ingredients, like vegetables for a salad, or be more in control of when they are able to take breaks to eat,” she says. However, she says that this isn’t the case for everyone, including some of her clients. “Being home means they are around food more, and especially when combined with stressful situations, this allows them to mindlessly graze and snack instead of taking a proper meal break,” explains Caspero.
More snacking is a trend that Lemein says she’s witnessed, too. “People are finding themselves snacking more and choosing snacks over conventional meals, especially younger generations,” she says.
According to one 2022 scientific study, people working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic believed it was easier to eat healthy while working from home.5 However, remote workers were more likely to gain weight than those working in an office. To this point, both dietitians say that working from home can make it easier to eat healthy if it’s made a priority. If you don’t make that a priority, though, it’s too easy to not eat proper meals and fill up on nutrient-void snacks all day — particularly if your job is stressful or so demanding that you don’t have time to step away from your computer to make yourself a proper meal.
To set yourself up for success, both dietitians emphasize that it’s important to stock your pantry and fridge with foods that are both nutrient-rich and quick to prepare. Otherwise, they might go unused.
Lemein says that it’s also important to build in breaks so you actually have time to make and eat a healthy meal. If you’re prone to snacking, she recommends building snack breaks into your day, too. “Dedicated snack times between meals work well for many people and offer a mini break that can get you standing up from the desk and moving around a bit,” she says.
Both dietitians say that meals and snacks should have fiber, protein, and healthy fats. Otherwise, there’s a good chance you’ll be hunting around for another snack shortly later. “The fun thing about eating from home is that you can choose snacks that you wouldn't normally pack during the work day. I love a bowl of low-sugar cereal and fruit for a snack or a fried egg on whole grain bread, items that would be too impractical or messy to pack for the office,” Caspero says.
Unlike in a company office, no one can physically see if you are at your home office desk for the entire workday (though they may notice if your status on Slack or Microsoft Teams becomes inactive). In theory, this gives more leeway for taking time for a short walk around the neighborhood or to squeeze in a midday workout. But according to scientific studies, people have become less physically active, not more.
A 2022 literature review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that light physical activity decreased by 26 percent for people when they started working remotely, and moderate-to-vigorous exercise decreased by 20 percent.6 Another study that tracked office worker activity throughout 2020 also found that people had a reduced physical activity level when they transitioned to working from home.7
Natasha Bhuyan, MD, a family medicine doctor and the National Medical Director for One Medical, says she has noticed another negative effect of remote work when it comes to physical health: reductions in sleep quality. “Because people sometimes work in the same space that they sleep, they find it difficult to unplug. As a result, patients have told me that they are checking work email at all times, such as in the evening,” she says. “There is less of a boundary between work and home, which often leads to inconsistent sleep and other health habits.”
At the same time, there are also positive ways that working from home has affected our physical health. For one thing, you could be getting sick less often. “Limited exposure to other people or large workplace environments seems to have a positive effect on physical health and immunity as people may not get sick as often when they are more isolated and have time to make healthier lifestyle choices overall,” says Mahmud Kara, MD, the founder and CEO of KaraMD, who has treated patients for over 30 years and spent the early part of his career at Cleveland Clinic. However, he adds that if someone working from home lives a sedentary life, eats nutrient-void food, and has a high level of stress, their immune system can become compromised, increasing the risk of illness.
Also, if you have bathroom anxiety, your urinary and digestive health may benefit from not having to, ahem, go in the office. “In certain workplaces, I’ve heard of people holding their urine or bowel movements to avoid using office restrooms,” Dr. Bhuyan says, adding that this can lead to issues such as constipation. “It’s best to be responsive to our body and use the restroom when nature calls. Having your own restroom where you are comfortable is certainly a benefit.”
As with diet, both doctors believe that working from home can benefit your physical health if you make a conscious effort to put healthy habits into place. This includes carving out time for physical activity and creating clear boundaries between work and non-work, which can lead to better sleep. “When it comes to working remotely, your health routine is what you make of it, especially if you have a flexible position that allows you to prioritize your health,” Dr. Kara says.
Certainly, anxiety and depression rates soared early in the pandemic, but how are remote workers faring now?8 Interestingly, the rates of depression and anxiety are still higher among remote workers than those who don’t work remotely.9 “While solitude can be good for your mental health, loneliness can take a serious psychological toll on your well-being,” observes Amy Morin, LCSW, a psychotherapist and the host of The Verywell Mind Podcast.
Morin points out that loneliness is linked to an increased risk of depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. Dr. Bhuyan says she has anecdotally seen a rise in patients who have heightened anxiety. “Being at home more has led to less social interaction as well as increased anxiety,” she says.
If you feel lonely, Morin recommends asking yourself whether you feel lonely because you aren't connecting to people around you or because you aren't around enough people. The next step, she says, is to develop a plan. For example, if you feel lonely because you literally aren’t around people at all, Morin suggests switching up your work-from-home location — working part of the time in a cafe or shared office space, if you can. And sometimes, it’s not the number of human interactions in a day but rather their quality that matters most.
“If you feel lonely despite having some interaction with people, the key to change is to have more in-depth conversations,” she says. This means making an intentional effort to call or see people with whom you truly connect.
In addition to causing some people to feel more lonely and anxious, one MIT study shows that working remotely may stifle creativity and innovation.10 If you can relate to this, Morin recommends setting intentional breaks and, again, making a conscious effort to connect with people who light you up. “Conversation and movement can spark creativity,” she says. “Taking a break to go for a walk or getting on a phone call with someone to brainstorm a few ideas might help someone who works from home stay creative.”
There is one way that working from home has positively affected mental health: It’s making us more productive.11 “Home is often a quieter space with fewer interruptions, which can be key to productivity,” Morin explains. “People who work in open offices may have trouble concentrating and might find they're frequently interrupted by others.” She also says that people who work from home may observe they have more control over their schedules and can plan their time better than those in the office, where they may get distracted by coworkers or pulled into meetings more often. In theory, this should mean having more time to spend on gratifying activities unrelated to work, such as going for a walk or making a healthy lunch.
All things considered, it’s clear that working remotely is impacting our health in both good and bad ways. Without conscious effort, working from home can easily lead to a decline in health because of a poorer diet, less physical activity, less sleep, and increased loneliness. But with intention, you can take advantage of the opportunity to create healthier patterns, adopt better eating habits, and engage in more meaningful socialization during the time you can reclaim from commuting or office distraction. All of which can make working remotely work in your favor and help you achieve better health.
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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). COVID-19 Public Health Emergency (PHE). Health and Human Services.
Barrero, J.M., Bloom, N., & Davis, S.J. (2023). Why working from home will stick. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 28731.
Hansen, S., Lambert, P.J., Bloom, N., Davis, S.J., Sadun, R., & Taska, B. (2023). Remote work across jobs, companies, and space. National Bureau of Economic Research.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2022). Average hours employed people spent working on days worked by day of week. United States Department of Labor.
Tiboni-Oschilewski, O., Perez-Silva, R., Biasini, B., & Scazzina, F. (2022). Dietary habits during the COVID-19 pandemic. Are work environments part of the problem? Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, 6.
Wilms, P., Schröder, J., Reer, R., & Scheit, L. (2022). The Impact of “Home Office” Work on Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(19).
Gonzales, A., Lin, H., & Cha, J. S. (2022). Physical activity changes among office workers during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown and the agreement between objective and subjective physical activity metrics. Applied Ergonomics, 105, 103845.
World Health Organization. (2022, March 2). COVID-19 pandemic triggers 25% increase in prevalence of anxiety and depression worldwide. WHO.
Mayer, K. (2023, March 10). A Potential Downside to Remote Work? Higher Rates of Depression. The Society for Human Resource Management.
Jarvis, M. (2022, September 1). Analysis of email traffic suggests remorse work may stifle innovation. MIT News.
Molla, R. (2022, May 30). Tell your boss: Working from home is making you more productive. Vox.