Helping Remote Employees Towards a Healthier Lifestyle Some Insights from MTurkers
By Nina Bartmann, Jonathan Corbin, Ziyi Yan
Remote work is here to stay
In response to the global COVID-19 pandemic, around March 2020, most companies across the U.S. required their office-based employees to work from home. While this shift provided new opportunities such as collaborations across time zones and allowing for flexible work hours, it also meant a drastic change for millions of employees. The boundary between work and life has become blurred and routines disrupted.
Prior to the pandemic, there had been much concern over the lack of physical activity in the workplace. Shoulder stiffness, back pain, headaches — these are all common ailments resulting from prolonged sitting. Whereas the change in environment from office to home might bring the potential for positive changes in health behaviors, recent work suggests that those reporting working from home are in fact sitting more.
While many employees are starting to return to their physical offices, remote work is here to stay. Not only have employees voiced their preference of working from home at least a few times per week, many employers have either granted full choice with regards to work location or adopted a hybrid model. Therefore, it is important to find ways in which we can help this new and growing population of “hybrid-workers” reduce their sedentary behavior patterns and encourage more physical activity.
Surveying experts on remote work
Traditionally, efforts to encourage an active lifestyle among employees have relied on (mostly) in-person occupational health and wellness programs. While those are not only expensive, but also difficult to expand to the home environment of employees, we need to find new ways to effectively reach employees regardless of their work location.
In a very real sense, most office workers are now experiencing a work environment that is very similar to that of the average MTurker.
Yet, in order to generate ways to improve healthy work behaviors at home, we first need to understand employees’ environment and habits while working from home. Instead of surveying employees newly transitioned from the office to their home environment, we are able to draw upon results from a large survey that we distributed among Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers who are experienced with working from home — they are individuals who do online tasks (like research studies or consumer surveys) from their personal computers. In a very real sense, most office workers are now experiencing a work environment that is very similar to that of the average MTurker.
Thus, by surveying MTurkers, we gained valuable insights from their work experience that we can extrapolate to office-based employees now faced with a reality of a hybrid work model.
Understanding the work environment
The research was conducted between December 2019 and April 2020, and included over 2,000 MTurk workers between 20 and 77 years of age. The majority of respondents use MTurk for part-time work for approximately 11-20 hours per week, which equals to 2-3 hours per day, assuming a 5-day work week.
When asked about their current working location, over 75% of participants reported that they are currently located at home, confirming that most MTurkers were already working from home pre-pandemic and thus are a valid population to draw inference from.
Just like most other office-based employees, surveyed MTurkers all work on desktop or laptop computers. Almost all of the MTurkers indicated that they at least have some space to move around. This information is particularly important as it points out that employees do not face environmental constraints, but other constraints (most likely psychological constraints) that prevent them from moving sufficiently during the work day.
Sedentary and break behaviors
On average, MTurkers spent approximately 5 and a half hours sitting during their workday. When zooming in on the average time different age groups spent sitting during the day, we found that younger adults tended to sit longer and the time spent sitting generally decreased as age increases.
Based on current activity guidelines, it is recommended to break-up sitting and to stand up and move around once every 30 – 60 minutes. From our study results, around 70% of the respondents self-report to adhere to this guideline.
When asking about the types of breaks MTurkers usually take, most of them had to do with meeting basic physical needs such as using the bathroom, or getting water and/or food. Only about 15% of the participants took breaks to go on a walk. Also, only one in four of the participants were actively aware of the health benefits of taking breaks.
The MTurk workforce provided us with a lot of insights into their work environment and habits while working from home, which we can use to inform future interventions to improve physical activity levels in all desk-based employees now confronted with the reality of a hybrid work model.
While MTurk workers do have enough space to allow for movement, such as stretching, many do not break up their sitting bouts enough, which is particularly problematic among the younger workforce. When sitting is interrupted, it is mostly for physical needs; only few people use their break time to walk or engage in exercise, and only one-fourth of the participants were aware of the health benefits of taking breaks.
Particularly striking is the fact that slightly more than 25% of participants reported spending time on the Internet when taking a break from their work, while only about 15% reported using that time to go on a walk. Whereas social media is certainly entertaining, there are ways in which we can transform that break into a healthier one: Break-up sitting and stand-up while scrolling through Facebook or imitating the latest dance on TikTok (just make sure you do it in a safe place where you can be distracted!)
Particularly striking is the fact that slightly more than 25% of participants reported spending time on the Internet when taking a break from their work, while only about 15% reported using that time to go on a walk.
By making a connection between behaviors – social media use and standing up – we can piggy-back on existing habits to add a new, healthy behavior. If you get some water, use this time to go on a short walk. Any time you open social media, use that as a reminder to stand-up and stretch. These connections are also referred to as implementation intentions — the act of forming “if-then” plans, stating that if a certain situation occurs (e.g. if I’m taking a phone call), then I will respond in a certain way (e.g. then I will stand-up and walk around). Thus, implementation intentions help us remember to complete an activity by associating it with a typical daily habit.
The other benefit of forming implementation intentions is that they are not environment dependent, meaning that they are ideal for employees working in the physical office some days of the week, and at home on other days.
In addition to implementation intentions, other research we have conducted has shown that novel reminders to break up a work task can be effective in encouraging people to stand-up. Our research has shown that up to 86.8% of message recipients indeed follow the advice to break-up their sitting by taking a short break standing up.
As many of us continue working from home or change to a part-time home/work schedule, it is important to develop habits of getting up and moving around periodically, regardless of where we are. Forming implementation intentions as well as thinking of novel and creative ways to remind colleagues or ourselves to stand up more frequently, are promising avenues to combat a lack of physical activity in the workplace.