Back to work: Why returning to the office can bring surprising health benefits

By | October 2, 2021

After 18 months of on-and-off working from home, white-collar employees are drifting back to the office — and it’s fair to say that some are more excited than others.

ut don’t be disheartened. Scientists say that returning to the office comes with its own, somewhat surprising, health benefits for our body and mind.

It’s 7.30am and your alarm is blaring. Since March 2020, your trip into work may have amounted to little more than a bleary-eyed stumble downstairs to your living-room table. But scientists say that a return to a proper commute — involving walking, sunshine and fresh air — can do wonders for our health.

Despite our well-intentioned promises at the beginning of the pandemic to use the extra time to “get into running”, physical activity actually dropped worldwide during each lockdown, according to a study of daily step-count measurements published last year by the University of California.

A daily commute, in contrast, forces us to use our legs, says Jane Ogden, Professor in Health Psychology at the University of Surrey.

“Getting out of the house and going somewhere, even if it’s driving or by public transport, means you are actually walking around and being much less sedentary.”

The power of routine

Doctors have become interested in recent years in the power of a structured day.

A University of Minnesota study published in 2019 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine found that patients who incorporated healthy habits into their lives in a structured, routine way — like eating fruit every morning at the same time or jogging the same route every evening after work — were far more likely to stick to them.

“Structure in your day helps you manage your time,” says Prof Ogden. “It helps your well-being because you know what’s happened and you know what’s about to happen. It helps to pass the time if you’re feeling anxious or upset. You don’t drift.”

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The power of the tea break

Even once we’ve arrived at the office and switched on our computer, we still tend to move around more than we would while working from home.

Daily exercise is boosted by activities as simple as strolling over to a colleague’s desk to chat, says Dr Jenna Macciochi, an immunologist at the University of Sussex. “Before you know it, you’ve done over 10,000 steps just by walking around the office.”

Reducing stress prevents illness

We tend to think it is life’s big relationships — with children, husbands, wives — that are most important for our mental health. But in recent years, psychologists have shed light on the power of small, casual connections.

Think of the colleague at the next desk you might talk to about football or the weather, or the receptionist you chat with on your way upstairs. You’re unlikely to keep up with either while working from home.

Dr Gillian Sandstrom, a psychology lecturer at the University of Essex, asked volunteers in 2014 to record their social interactions. She found that participants with large networks of loose “acquaintances” were happier overall, and participants felt happier on days they recorded a higher number of casual interactions. Other studies have shown similar results.

Restore your sleep rhythm

Sleep hygiene experts have long stressed the importance of making a clear psychological distinction between night and day.

Prof Vicki Culpin, clinical psychologist and author of The Business Of Sleep, says if possible, you should only use your bedroom for sleeping and sex. The longer you spend with your bed in sight, she thinks, the harder your brain finds it to adjust to daytime.

This, of course, becomes very difficult during lockdown. Many home-workers are forced to work in their bedroom, especially if they have family or housemates who might be occupying the living-room slot.

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