Working from home can cause ill effects, may not be a sustainable arrangement, Singapore doctors say

People are more stressed and anxious due to more meetings and the boundaries between work and play are not there when working from home. — Picture by Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels via TODAY
People are more stressed and anxious due to more meetings and the boundaries between work and play are not there when working from home. — Picture by Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels via TODAY

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SINGAPORE, Sept 28 — Working from home was a novel arrangement for civil engineer Lucas Lim — no more long commutes, office politics or small talk with colleagues at the pantry — but it came with several tradeoffs.

In the last four months since he started working remotely, the 37-year-old said he suffered more frequent migraines and lower backaches. He has even noticed a bald spot on his scalp.

Similarly, marketing executive Nadia Sahrom, 28, said working from home has caused her eczema to flare up on both her hands and her face.

Thinking it could be due to the cleanliness level in her house, the mother of one called a cleaning company to do a thorough sweep, but even that did not stop her flare-ups.

Doctors TODAY spoke to said since the circuit breaker in April, they have seen at least a 20 per cent increase in patients who developed medical ailments that could be attributed to prolonged working from home.

Dr Sunil Kumar Joseph, a general practitioner who runs Tayka Medical Family Clinic in Jurong, said the most common complaints are musculoskeletal pain, such as backaches and neck strain, as well as migraine or tension headaches.

Body aches are usually caused by inactivity or poor posture, said Dr Joseph, adding that most home offices have poor ergonomics.

“Prolonged inactivity causes poor blood circulation and muscular knots which result in pains and aches. This is also exacerbated by imbalanced positions from poor posture,” he said.

Dr Alvina Nam, who runs [email protected] located in Bayshore’s Costa Del Sol condominium, said migraine and tension headaches are typically caused by stress when working from home.

“People are more stressed and anxious as there are more meetings and the boundaries between work and play are not there when working from home,” she said.

Dr Edwin Chng, medical director of Parkway Shenton, agreed, adding that other triggers of migraines include sleep disturbances, missed meals, heat and humidity, and neck pain.

“It is important for someone with symptoms suggestive of migraine to see a doctor to confirm the diagnosis of migraine and to exclude other more sinister conditions.

“It is also useful to identify the triggers and manage or avoid them to reduce the frequency of migraine attacks,” said Dr Chng.

Other ailments developed

Doctors said they are seeing an increase in ailments such as myopia, cracked teeth, asthma and eczema — a condition that makes skin red and itchy — which could also be a result of prolonged working from home.

Dr Lynn Chiam, a dermatologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said irritants such as soaps and detergents, and environmental factors such as dust mites, pet fur and pollen commonly trigger eczema.

“There has been an increasing number of patients presenting with hand and facial eczema. This is likely related to the overuse of hand sanitiser and frequent hand washing with harsh soaps or detergents,” she said.

Dr Chiam added that higher stress levels during the pandemic could also lead to increased sensitivity and make the skin more susceptible to external irritants and allergens.

“The most important step in the treatment is to avoid or stop the triggers — avoid overwashing of hands, and use gentle soap and moisturisers,” she said.

Like eczema, asthma can also be made worse by similar environmental factors, said Dr Ong Kian Chung, a respiratory specialist at KC Ong Chest & Medical Clinic.

Pandemic-induced stress and anxiety have caused many to complain about shortness of breath, he said, adding that this is usually a psychological problem which can be exacerbated by extra weight gained by many when they work from home.

“If they put on weight, their lung capacity gets smaller. So if they have asthma or any chronic lung problems, it could aggravate their condition,” said Dr Ong.

Similarly, stress and food intake are the common reasons dentists see more patients coming in with cracked teeth.

Dr Raymond Ang, chief operating officer of Q&M Dental Group, said a common problem he sees among those who work from home is the increase in snacking activity, which can lead to dental problems such as tooth decay — especially if the snacks are sugary.

Another problem is clenching and grinding of teeth, which can be caused by stress and anxiety of remote working, and can be damaging.

But it is difficult to attribute the influx in patients with cracked teeth to working from home, although it might be contributory, he said.

Anecdotally, he has also seen an increase in the number of patients with broken or chipped fillings.

“Sometimes when they grind their teeth, they break their fillings first before breaking the tooth... I would suggest getting mouth guards or doing stress-free activities before sleep.”

Long-term effects

In the long run, prolonged working from home can have various health effects.

Myopia is projected to affect 50 per cent of the world population, with close to one billion people achieving high myopia by 2050.

In a report published by the Singapore National Eye Centre (SNEC) in July, researchers noted that prolonged use of digital devices during the pandemic when working from home or attending online classes has increased digital screen time for many.

It also increased the frequency of near-work and limited outdoor activities, which could aggravate the progression of myopia in some people.

Associate Professor Marcus Ang, clinical director of SNEC’s Myopia Centre, said at a virtual event last week that the effects of the pandemic on myopia rates and individuals with myopia may be felt only decades later as it is a slow but progressive condition.

Dr Joseph believes that working from home is not a sustainable arrangement as sedentary behaviour can cause physical deconditioning, which can affect muscle strength, metabolism rates and sleeping habits.

“Inactivity or lack of physical activity has an enormous impact on one’s health. We cannot (work from home) indefinitely, people will feel weaker as a whole.” — TODAY

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