Work-from-home survey reveals pandemic’s impacts upon employees’ physical and mental health, productivity and daily routines
November 17, 2021
How to support office workers’ health and wellness, when the “office” can be located anywhere.
By Jamie Wetherbe MA ’04
In the spring of 2020, Associate Professor Shawn Roll and his research collaborators from across USC were two years into developing the next generation of intelligent workstations that can optimize employee productivity in the office. The team has diverse yet complementary expertise in occupational therapy, ergonomics, the built environment and adaptive technology.
So when the pandemic sent almost every desk-based employee home — often to log-in from sofas, spare bedrooms and kitchen tables with less-than-ideal equipment and space — the researchers quickly realized an unprecedented opportunity to enrich their research was unfolding in real-time.
“We were all working from home last spring,” recalls Roll, who is the director of the USC Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy’s PhD program in occupational science. “And we said, ‘Why don’t we put together a survey, and see how this is affecting people?’ This work-from-home shift was the perfect storm for all our areas of interest.”
The researchers developed and deployed an extensive online survey and received nearly 1,000 complete responses from late April to early June 2020. In the year-plus since, they have reported their findings in a series of published papers revealing the wide-ranging impacts of working from home upon peoples’ physical and mental health, work productivity and performance, and shifts to their daily routines and time use.
New physical and mental health issues; no productivity decline; 90 more minutes per day at workstation
Approximately two-thirds (64.8%) of survey respondents reported new physical health issues, nearly three-quarters (73.6%) reported new mental health issues and a majority (55.1%) indicated experiencing at least two new mental health issues.
“Although it was apparent that the pandemic disrupted our lives in a way that was stressful, we were a bit shocked by the high incidence of new health issues among the home-based workforce so early on in the pandemic,” Roll says.
Another surprising outcome was that working from home did not significantly decrease productivity. But while total productivity remained consistent, people did report spending about 90 minutes more, on average, at their workstation each day.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean they are working longer hours, but that people are physically at their computers or workstations for longer,” Roll says. “It challenges the assumption that if you’re working from home you’ll be less productive, which has been a longstanding barrier for employers. We learned that we can work from home without losing overall productivity; however, it’s complex, and everybody’s situation is unique.”
In order to better accommodate those unique needs at home, 60 percent of respondents reported shifting their daily work schedules.
“Office workers reported some benefit to work from home,” says Burçin Becerik-Gerber, professor and chair of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering. “They reported that work from home gave them flexibility by adjusting their work hours and reducing time spent on commuting, but on the flip side, there’s this blending and blurring of work–life boundaries.”
Redefining the office space
With the abrupt adjustment to the home now doubling as an office, Becerik-Gerber was most interested in how changes in physical environments could impact work and health.
“Until March of 2020, most work was done in formal offices,” she says. “Then one day, we found ourselves in our homes with makeshift offices.”
As the mother of three children, Becerik-Gerber, like many parents, was suddenly juggling working and remote schooling, with her entire family occupying the same small space. About half of survey respondents reported sharing their home workspace with others.
“We had our children playing in the background, and we had to constantly negotiate who’s going to work from which room — all of a sudden my children are now my colleagues,” she says. “Other people have pets, parents, other issues to take care of, so all of these different circumstances were very interesting to us to study the support of — or lack thereof — physical, social and organizational perspectives on productivity and health.”
The survey also found that one-third of respondents had a dedicated office for working at home, yet even fewer noted that their physical workstation had an ideal set-up. Workers whose employers provided proper equipment — not just technologies but items like ergonomic chairs, desks, screens and monitors — also reported better productivity and health.
“Employers have to provide the right environment for their employees in their homes, if they want them to be healthy and productive,” Becerik-Gerber says. “So it’s not about just the formal office, but also the extensions of a more “fluid” office.”
While distractions in the workspace were linked to decreased well-being, those who had more social interactions with coworkers, albeit through online platforms, reported better productivity and health.
“Unlike Burçin, I live alone and have full run of my house,” Roll says. “But that also comes with different questions for me: How am I still communicating and interacting with people?”
As Becerik-Gerber adds, “We learned these serendipitous conversations — coffee breaks, bumping into each other in the corridors — are so important for our well-being and productivity.”
Impacts of new technologies, environmental factors, socioeconomic status
The survey identified a number of additional factors playing a role in worker well-being.
“We were interested in looking at the variability in taking on new technology, but there was no variability,” says Gale Lucas, research assistant professor at Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science and the USC Institute for Creative Technologies. “Everybody took on new technology during this change to work-from-home, which is a pretty prolific effect.”
Dissatisfaction with noise levels — a seeming inevitability when workspaces are shared with other adults or kids — was a strong predictor of fatigue and tiredness. The researchers also found symptoms related to stress and worry were more frequent when people simultaneously had low satisfaction with noise and indoor air quality.
“This leads us to the idea that we need to customize our workstations to improve health and well-being, and help with productivity,” says Mohamad Awada, a Viterbi PhD student studying building informatics and human–building interactions.
Income, however, is not so easily customized. Respondents with annual incomes less than $100,000 generally reported more health concerns than did respondents with higher incomes, and reports of new mental health conditions were most prevalent among respondents with incomes less than $50,000. Socioeconomic status was also linked to satisfaction with the workspace, as workers with higher incomes reported being more content with the environment at home.
“People with higher incomes can often afford better housing and, therefore, better environmental quality,” Awada explains.
A work in progress
As many industries continue to work remotely or have indefinitely moved to a hybrid model, employers are looking for ways to foster employees’ health and productivity at home. But what such environments should exactly look like depends on each individual employee.
“Working from home may impact some people differently than others, so we need to look at individual policies,” Roll says. “It’s how you set up a social and physical environment, and the technology needed to support that.”
That ability to customize the ways work is organized, across time and space, proved to be highly beneficial for employees.
“Being able to personalize your schedule to work with your needs, your family needs and your personal life was a major component, as was customizing your space,” says Yoko Fukumura MA ’19, PhD ’24, an occupational science PhD student at USC Chan.
Because solutions aimed at improving health and well-being are so personal, the team next wants to examine what does and doesn’t matter on an individual level. But that is proving to be particularly challenging because there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation.
“How do you, as an individual, understand your own health and how you engage in your work, so that you can monitor and manage your own well-being and productivity?” Roll asks. “That’s really where we’re stuck; we don’t know what the best advice is, beyond the old standbys like getting an ergonomic chair or desk.”
Unfortunately, only 11 percent of respondents indicated having knowledge of how their workstation was affecting health or productivity. Roll says that encouraging self-reflection and generating insights, like identifying when and where you might work best, and being mindful of your physical and psychological health, might offer important clues.
“Really try to pay attention if you’re feeling anxious or stressed, or experiencing musculoskeletal pain, then track those symptoms and try to identify how they relate to one another.”
That process is not intuitively or easily accomplished, Roll says. So it’s crucial that employees have access to resources and services that can support their on-the-job health and wellness, no matter where the job site is located on any given day. And this is where occupational therapists like Roll can play a key role in the months and years ahead.
“An occupational therapist can work with you, including through virtual consultations so we can observe your workspace, to identify personalized tips and solutions,” Roll says. “The pandemic has been incredibly disruptive, but we know there are ways to better support employees’ health and satisfaction throughout the work day.”
“Working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic: Impact on office worker productivity and work experience” is available at doi.org/10.3233/WOR-210301; “Negotiating time and space when working from home: Experiences during COVID-19” is available at doi.org/10.1177/15394492211033830; “Impacts of working from home during COVID-19 pandemic on physical and mental well-being of office workstation users” is available at doi.org/10.1097/JOM.0000000000002097; “Associations among home indoor environmental quality factors and worker health while working from home during COVID-19 pandemic” is available at doi.org/10.1115/1.4052822 [full-text article access may require log-in].