Live/work's healthy glow
Most live/workers would agree that their lifestyle is a lot more pleasant than the daily grind of getting to and from work, and the egos, politics and unnecessary meetings that you have to negotiate once there. But is it any healthier? It’s certainly healthier for the planet – fewer harmful emissions from sitting in traffic jams on our way to those colossal wasters of energy and resources that are modern office buildings, but is it better for us?
According to SusTel, an EC-funded survey into the sustainability of tele-working, 19% of BT workers questioned reported a ‘considerable positive effect’ on their health from home-working, and 36 per cent a ‘slight positive effect’, citing things like less driving and stress, more exercise, a better diet and a better home life. The study found that people had more interaction with their local community, leading to a ‘virtuous circle’ of improved quality of life. As research repeatedly shows, good mental health has a huge bearing on physical health.
Joanne is a graphic designer who converted her spare room to a studio and took the plunge to work for herself four years ago after nearly two decades of commuting. ‘The difference it’s made to my health is unbelievable,’ she says. ‘I get far more exercise because I take the dog to the park for at least an hour a day, whereas before he was lucky if he got a 20-minute jaunt up the street and back.
‘I eat much more healthily as I have time to prepare food, and I don’t get home exhausted at nine o’clock after a nightmare commute and instantly crack open a bottle of wine as I was doing pretty much every day before.
I have more time for friends and I’m able to organise my time much better – I can do domestic chores if I’m waiting for a client to get back to me, for example, which frees up much more of my weekends to do things I enjoy. I feel much better, mentally and physically.’
LET THE TRAIN CAUSE THE STRAIN
Commuting, quite apart from cutting an enormous hole in your day, may be healthy for those able to walk or cycle to work but for most people it’s likely to be a 10-minute walk to the station followed by the best part of an hour on public transport or a in traffic jam.
On top of being sedentary, this can send blood pressure rates through the roof. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 found that being stuck in a traffic jam increased the risk of a heart attack in the hour immediately afterwards by up to three times in vulnerable people.
The feelings of powerlessness experienced by those whose daily commute is a catalogue of cancelled and overcrowded trains and signal failures has also been shown to send stress levels soaring.
And clearly, the combination of overcrowding and overheating (or, conversely, freezing) that characterise most journeys is a dream come true for viruses. As anyone who has travelled on a London Underground carriage in winter – squashed against coughing, spluttering and sneezing commuters – will know. Those straps we hang off and rails we clutch are entire ecologies of bacteria just waiting to pounce.
Even after you’ve made it to work, there’s the office to contend with. At one end of the scale there are extreme situations such as legionnaire’s disease in the air conditioning system, but there’s also the endless rounds of colds, flu, viruses and bugs. If you’re working in close proximity to people in a poorly ventilated environment then whatever they – or their children – come down with, you’re likely to pick up too.
Obviously, no one would claim that live/workers are embarking upon a future entirely free from Lemsip and Paracetamol. ‘Things like colds and flu are airborne, so you’re not going to be immune if you’re working from home,’ says a Health Protection Agency spokesperson.
‘You could be sitting at your PC at home next to an open window and still be infected. Plus you go to the shops, you socialise with friends and family – there’s still interaction. We all mix to a certain degree unless you’re a monk on a remote Scottish island.’
But what you do have as a live/worker is a far greater level of control over your environment. You can avoid the whole sick building syndrome scenario – the chemical pollutants, changes in humidity, poor ventilation and bacteria and the headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue that go with them.
It also extends to matters like ergonomics. Once you’ve got your workstation set up satisfactorily you can stick with it – no one’s going to come and move you to another desk tomorrow.
WOULD YOU LIKE A KILO OF SATURATED FAT WITH THAT?
This control extends to what you eat. Some progressive employers may have subsidised canteens with healthy eating options, and many people take their own lunch to work.
But most – through sheer pressure of time – find themselves dependent on whatever local options are available, usually takeaways or sandwich shops selling the expensive, mayonnaise-drenched sandwiches or salt-filled soups that become the office worker’s comfort food.
Then add all the cakes, biscuits, chocolate bars and crisps that fuel many a day, and it can add up to a culinary catastrophe. No-one’s saying live/workers don’t graze but there’s likely to be far less boredom-fuelled snacking when you have more control over your own time.
So what are the potential downsides? Dr John Philpott, chief economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, pointed to the dangers of susceptibility to workaholism through lack of ‘clear routine which delineates work from home life’ in his report Teleworking – trends and prospects.
Dr Maurice Biriotti is chief executive of the SHM consultancy, which specialises in human motivation. ‘Definition of space is terribly important to some people,’ he says. ‘This is my work space and this is my home space.
‘To others it’s not important at all, but time – work time and leisure time – may be the key thing. So a lot of it is down to how individuals view it – these things can be risks or opportunities. The balance is where you stop thinking of conflict and there’s a seamless relationship between work and home.’
But what about the danger of working all those extra hours? ‘That’s true,’ he says. ‘But often people find that the thing that was making them tired wasn’t the work at all, but all the travelling.’
If you’re working alone all the time, however, there can be a risk of isolation, especially if you don’t have a good social network close by. ‘Having a dog is great because not only is it good exercise but I’m constantly stopping to talk to other dog owners when I’m out walking him,’ says Joanne. ‘Before that the lonely aspect of working from home did get to me at times, but it’s all a matter of adjusting to another way of working.’
WILL NECESSITY BE THE MOTHER OF INVENTION?
For live/workers, it’s a lifestyle choice we’ve made. For most employers, however, despite all the talk of the digital economy and concern for the environment, it can often be viewed with some suspicion, a luxury granted in exceptional circumstances and seen as a chance to do a couple of hours work then go shopping or sit in the garden.
But what if there came a situation where employers really had no choice, and all of their staff had to work from home – live/workers could be in the vanguard here. An extreme example would be something like an avian flu pandemic.
‘This is something companies need to take very seriously’ says a Health Protection Agency spokesperson. ‘They need to be prepared. It’s down to individual businesses to have their own business continuity plan in the case of extreme events, and pandemic influenza is one of these.
‘Predictions based on the 1918 pandemic - which was by far the worst ever - could mean that up to a quarter of the population might be infected. So organisations need to have contingency plans in place for the worst case scenario – if the majority of their staff were off sick, or caring for people who were.
‘Business continuity plans are good business sense – they became a lot more common post 9-11. This really is something businesses need to be thinking very seriously about.’