Editor's note: This article was sponsored by Overlake Medical Center & Clinics.
With the coronavirus prompting closures of many businesses, more employees are working remotely from home. But don’t expect working in your pajamas to calm your nerves. In fact, you may be more stressed than before. Per research from Pennsylvania State University, most adults find home more stressful than work.
Researchers from the Penn State School of Labor and Employment Relations measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in men and women on the job and while at home. They found that cortisol was higher at home and lower at work. The effect was seen in both men and women, and in those with and without children.
Why are we more stressed at home?
This finding lines up with other research showing that work outside the home is good for our physical and mental health. Compared to the chaotic, constant demands of home life, working outside the home can actually be a serene experience, says nurse practitioner Rachel Sternoff, DNP, ARNP, of Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue.
At work, you’re pursuing goals, making plans, following routines and receiving regular feedback. And there’s the important fact that you’re also receiving monetary compensation. At home, you receive less feedback or positive reinforcement for work that sometimes feels thankless and endless — without a paycheck.
Work outside the home also includes opportunities for interactions with other adults as well as precious moments of alone time — things that quickly evaporate at home. Workday lunches, coffee breaks, midday walks, shared commutes and meetings allow us to see familiar faces and stay connected to the world.
How stress impacts your health
Sternoff brings up stress with all her patients, whether they work at home or not. “Stress is a big enough issue that I talk about it with every single patient who comes in for a physical. It’s woven into everything we talk about around preventative health.”
Some stress can be a good thing, notes Sternoff. “Stress can help us be productive and give us the drive to get things done.” But high levels of stress keep the body stuck in “fight or flight” mode, she says.
Under stress, the body releases epinephrine, also called adrenaline, which increases glucose in the blood. If you’re really in a “fight or flight” situation, the extra glucose would provide a burst of much-needed energy. Under normal conditions, though, the extra glucose isn’t needed. Over time, elevated blood glucose can lead to type 2 diabetes.
Stress can also lead to elevated blood pressure, heartburn, digestive problems, tension headaches, sleep problems, irritability, infertility and difficulty losing weight, says Sternoff. “Stress also makes us more susceptible to illness, which is especially important right now when we all need to be our healthiest selves.”
Often, when someone comes in with a recurring health problem, whether it’s chronic sinus infections or a yearly case of strep, the problem is linked to high levels of stress, says Sternoff. “When the person can reduce their stress, the issue stops reoccurring.”
Since many of us are stuck at home these days, how can we keep stress in check?
Stick to a daily schedule. The body craves routine, and too much change translates into stress. Sticking to a consistent routine will bring a sense of calm and order to your home life — or work-at-home life. If possible, try to maintain consistent times for sleep, work, exercise and family time.
Take a lunch break. Research shows that employees who take regular breaks are happier and more productive. Home-based workers can follow suit by stepping away from their screens at regular intervals and especially while eating lunch.
Wear earplugs. Whether you barely notice the background din or cringe at every squeal and slammed door, background noise still stresses your system. Studies show that low-level background noise is linked to chronic stress, sleep disturbances and increased blood pressure. If you can’t find a quiet workspace at home, consider donning earplugs if it’s possible (and safe) to do so.
Move regularly. Aim for 30 minutes of activity per day to keep stress at bay, says Sternoff. Jog around the block with the kids, walk to the grocery store or work in the yard.
Eat at consistent times. Regular, consistent mealtimes keep the body’s circadian rhythms on track. At home, the fridge is always calling, making it easy to graze throughout the day and into the night. That can stress the digestive system and make it more difficult to sleep, which ramps up anxiety and irritability.
Connect with colleagues, friends and family. In the workplace, regular interactions with work buddies and friendly colleagues provide a buffer against stress. Remote workers may need to work a bit harder to create opportunities for social engagement. Set up regular check-ins with friends and colleagues via Zoom or FaceTime to feel connected while you’re at home.
Reach out for help. When stress starts to feel overwhelming, checking in with a primary care provider is a good first step. “Remember that your health-care providers are still here for you,” says Sternoff. “We’re still available and can set up a video chat or telephone visit to talk through concerns about stress.”