Back Button
Menu Button

Working Remotely – It Comes at a Cost

I sometimes joke that my “international headquarters” is located in Clive, Iowa, with satellite offices peppered “throughout the globe.” Technically, there is a great deal of truth to this seemingly impressive boast. However, fact and fiction become more clear after revealing my true workplace arrangement.

My office is indeed based in Clive, but I don’t participate in daily or weekly employee meetings. I do not gossip at the water-cooler – heck, I have NO water cooler! My office consists of one person – ME. When I am not physically in the office, I can be anywhere and everywhere still transacting business – with the assistance of my laptop, iPhone and iPad (Wi-Fi is a critical ‘friend’ to me). Even though I have a physical office, I often feel that I work ‘remotely’. Much of what I do is by myself or orchestrated with a few trusted third-parties. I have come to like this ‘remote’ arrangement a great deal. But it does come at a cost.

According to a 2017 Gallup survey, 43 percent of 15,000 employed Americans said they spent at least some time working remotely – usually from their own home. This represents a four percent increase from 2012. In our 2016 Iowa Employer Benefits Study©, we found that over 34 percent of employers with more than 101 employees offer flextime, while just over 14 percent of employers with fewer than 101 employees did. Flextime allows for employees to customize their schedules within a certain range of hours and days. Unfortunately, these results do not specifically reveal how many Iowa employers allow employees to work remotely.

Flexible scheduling and working remotely are increasingly important factors for employees to take (or leave) a job. Employees argue, and many employers acknowledge, that these practices are beneficial for both – workers are more productive for their organizations (an obvious win for employers) while being able to more successfully navigate through their own personal work-life issues (a win for employees). Working remotely and having flexible hours also provide financial upsides to employees –  savings in lunches and transportation costs, along with having greater childcare flexibility.

A 2015 Employee Job Satisfaction and Engagement report by SHRM indicated that 55 percent of employees cited that flexibility to balance work and life issues was a very important aspect of their job satisfaction. This same report found that leading reasons employees would not leave their jobs within the next year was primarily due to compensation/pay (45 percent) and having the flexibility to balance work and life issues (42 percent).

But, as I have personally found, working ‘remotely’ does have some drawbacks. Here are two of the largest challenges that employers (and employees) should be cognizant of when working remotely.

Social Connectivity Can Suffer

Social connectivity drives the engine of our mental well-being. Connectedness within the workplace plays a vital role for employees to feel they are seen, heard and valued through organizational relationships. Working remotely can easily isolate one from social inter-activities that is crucial for employees who yearn to have the ‘sense of belonging.’

According to the 2018 State of Remote Work, surveyed employees who work remotely reported the two biggest advantages were having a flexible schedule (43 percent) and spending time with family (15 percent). But, if not careful, these advantages can be offset by loneliness (21 percent), reduced collaborating/communicating (21 percent), having distractions at home (16 percent), and staying motivated (14 percent).

To go one step further on social isolation and loneliness, as more people in the U.S. are living alone, some researchers are warning this could become a “greater public threat than the widely discussed problem of obesity.” That should grab our attention!

To combat the negative side-effects of loneliness, employers might encourage (or establish policies) requiring remote workers to come to the office once a week to learn and grow. Studies suggest this approach is more likely to generate happier employees compared to fully-remote employees who don’t physically reconnect with the office.

Some employees may be quite geographically remote, and perhaps it would be more realistic to have them come to the office monthly or quarterly. Speaking from experience, the most rewarding days at my office usually result from having face-to-face meetings with various individuals that I would otherwise correspond with via phone or email. Embracing the opportunities to physically meet with others should always be a priority – it is for me.

Stress or Burnout

This may sound somewhat counterintuitive to some of us, but working remotely can nudge employees to work longer hours to please their supervisors, just because they are grateful for having the opportunity to work remotely. For me, if I don’t stay on top of my self-imposed projects, they will not be completed. This responsibility causes added pressure to ALWAYS be engaged with my work, sometimes more than I really should be.

Unintentionally, employees may burnout from performing this additional work without the employer having the benefit of monitoring the employee’s well-being throughout a course of time. That is why it is so critical for organizational leaders to engage with remote employees about what is going on – not only in their work – but with their personal lives. Feeling isolated has large, emotional costs.

As workplaces continue to morph into new environments that require employees to work remotely, it is imperative for leaders to find ways to have regular ‘face-time’ to ensure the worker does not lose the social connectedness that will keep them both happy and productive. This same principle applies to entrepreneurs who are working on their own.

To stay abreast of employee benefits and healthcare issues, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Standing at Your Desk – A Healthy ‘Fad’?

Since mid-October, I have been experiencing a pinched nerve in my lower back. Anyone who has experienced this type of condition knows the pain can be excruciating, as my symptoms also include numbness or weakness of my lower back and left leg. Lumbar radiculopathy is typically caused by a compressed spinal nerve root, which results with pain in the leg rather than in the lumbar spine. Why this happened to me is unknown, but I would speculate it gradually developed from daily running when not biking. Having ‘additional’ birthdays may also be another reason!

With the help of a physical therapist, I perform various daily exercises at home (or in the office). Despite PT, however, the searing pain persisted enough to have an MRI performed, confirming the Lumbar 4 location. As I wait for the next elevated level of care – most likely an epidural steroid injection – I judiciously use Tramadol, a synthetic analgesic opioid medication that is used to treat moderate to moderately-severe pain. For me, the best relief is to simply sit down, which allows me to forgo Tramadol. Accordingly, I spend more time sitting at my desk working on projects that don’t require traveling to outside meetings. Needless to say, having these physical limitations are wreaking havoc on my daily activities…and exercise routine.

I share this ‘protected health information’ because I am intrigued by the latest craze – the stand-up desk – a desk that allows you to stand up while working at the computer. You will find ads in newspapers, magazines and the internet about these desks, often touting why it is so much healthier to be working on your feet rather than, well, your bottom.  The purported health benefits of these desks are both broad and deep. One website listed at least seven potential health benefits when using such desks:

  1. Standing Lowers Your Risk of Weight Gain and Obesity
  2. Lowers Blood Sugar Levels
  3. Lowers Risk of Heart Disease
  4. Appears to REDUCE BACK PAIN!!!
  5. Helps Improve Mood and Energy Levels
  6. May Boost Productivity
  7. May Help You Live Longer

Fantastic! I want…no…I NEED to have a stand-up desk!

Due to our sedentary office jobs and daily living habits, American workers burn around 140 fewer calories per day compared to 59 years ago (1960). In July 2016, The Lancet issued study results that indicated 60 minutes of daily physical activity (e.g. brisk walking, pleasure biking, etc.) may help offset health risks of having to sit eight hours a day at the office. This November, The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued updated activity guidelines for Americans to help combat the fact that nearly 80 percent of U.S. adults and adolescents are insufficiently active. The health benefits of exercise are clearly not fake news, as there is too much scientific research to refute the naysayers.

Cautionary Note

Before buying into the aforementioned stand-up desk ‘craze,’ one might want to consider some research that at least tempers its glowing accolades.  Aaron Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine, writes well-researched blogs about healthcare and policy. Recently in the New York Times, Carroll wrote a compelling piece about why standing-desks are ‘overrated,’ winnowing fact from fiction.

I will not take up my sitting time by regurgitating Carroll’s article, but I would like to summarize his ‘finding’ with the following: Exercise is important for our health, but merely standing is NOT considered to be ‘exercise.’ Sitting may not be the problem on why we are unhealthy, but rather, it may be a “marker for other risk factors that would be associated with higher mortality.”

Personally, I’m intrigued about standing while working at my computer. But first, my lower back must heal before I can stand for any period of time. For now, my lofty expectations about using a stand-up desk have been adjusted at a more reasonable (and comfortable) level…that of my office chair!

To stay abreast of employee benefits and healthcare issues, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

Fast Food – Our Habit of Convenience

Habits we acquire happen over a period of time. They typically begin with a cue and a perceived positive reinforcement of a reward.

Maybe we bypass going to the fitness center or take a bike ride because it is more pleasant to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. It’s just too convenient to press the TV remote (cue) and then become engrossed in countless shows that are entertaining, educational – or both (reward). Doing this too often may develop into a new habit that could detract from a previous habit (e.g. gym or bike). We exchange one habit (exercising) for another, less-healthy habit (TV binge-watching).

According to a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 36.6 percent of Americans eat some kind of fast food* each day, with men being a bit less discerning about what they eat (37.9 percent) than women (35.4 percent). When you think about it, fast food is always accessible throughout the day, making it just too convenient for many of us to pass up.

On a typical day, almost 23 percent of Americans will eat breakfast from a fast-food outlet, while about 44 percent of us will pick up a ‘quick’ meal during lunch. Not to be left out, fast-food dinners draw another 42 percent of Americans.

Ethnic group and age also provide differences when it comes to the daily consumption of fast food.

Ethnic Groups:

  • Black Americans – 42.4 percent
  • Whites – 37.8 percent
  • Latinos – 36.5 percent
  • Asian-Americans – 30.6 percent

Age Categories:

  • 20–39 years-old – 45 percent
  • 40-59 years-old – 38 percent
  • 60+ – 24 percent

Take-A-Way from This Report?

The conventional wisdom about fast food is that people eat it when they can’t afford something better (and healthier). However, this report suggests this wisdom is not necessarily true. For example:

  • Higher income equates to more fast food: The more money we have or make, the more likely we are to eat fast food on any given day. For example, about 32 percent of people who earn less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level eat fast food daily. However, over 36 percent of middle-income families (earn between 130 – 350 percent) purchase fast food daily, while 42 percent of people with incomes above 350 percent consume fast food daily.

This finding is interesting because healthier food can cost a bit more than fast food, and yet, regardless of having the ability to pay for more expensive, healthier food, we often elect the more convenient food that is available at our finger tips (often using the drive through). Additionally, with our younger population consuming more fast food compared to older generations, younger families (and their children) will be more likely to establish unhealthy eating habits – creating health issues later in life (obesity, heart disease, dementia, etc.). The intake of calories, fat, and sodium eventually adversely affects our health in many different ways.

Iowa Youth Obesity Rate is High

Another report recently released by The National Survey of Children’s Health compares the obesity rates of children (ages 10 to 17) for all 50 states. Almost 18 percent of our youth in Iowa are obese, ranking our state as the 10th highest state for youth obesity. Iowa’s white (non-Hispanic) youth are significantly higher than the national rate.

The implications of having overweight and/or obese youth present future challenges to our state. For one, employers desire to have healthy and productive employees in their workplaces, and having unhealthy employees will continue to leverage up their health insurance costs due to higher healthcare usage. No one wants a poor quality of life, but often this is a result of the choices and habits that have been established much earlier in our lives.

Per a recent Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health report, we are still trying to come to terms with the dietary fat we consume – fat that is good and fat that is bad.

This much we know. Establishing a habit based on mere convenience may not be the smart choice we should make for ourselves, individually – or as a society.

Now, where did I put my channel changer…

To stay abreast of employee benefits and healthcare issues, we invite you to subscribe to our blog.

*NOTE: For this survey, fast food was broadly defined as any item obtained from a “fast food/pizza” establishment. It is possible that some people may interpret fast food differently from one another – e.g. takeout sushi, etc.