Virtual fatigue - the pitfalls of ‘work from home’

The pandemic and work-from-home is not here to stay. As vaccination rates increase, offices will begin to open up.


Thirty-five-year-old Pranav loved working from home. He could sleep in and still make it to work on time. He didn’t have to travel two hours each way during peak hours in packed public transport. He had a lot more flexibility. He could cultivate hobbies and pick up new skills. He had a lot more time. He had a life.

But after nearly two years in lockdown, even Pranav, who fretted at the lack of a work-from-home policy at his advertising agency before the COVID-19 pandemic, wants to go back to work.

He is not alone.

Millions of office workers initially welcomed work from home as one of the few positives of the pandemic after COVID-19 first forced us into lockdown. 

A study conducted by Godrej Interio found that nearly 80% of the Indian workforce worked remotely.

People felt as if they had greater control structuring their day and, were free from the draining commutes that bookended the pre-pandemic workday, with energy left over to dabble in post-work interests.  

But now, they are itching to go back to the office.

With everything from meetings to company events having moved online, employees are spending the entirety of their working hours in front of a screen. This has led to ‘virtual fatigue’.

‘Virtual fatigue’ is an umbrella term. It concerns a whole host of health concerns arising from too much time spent in the virtual world. With work-from-home here to stay, for now at least, here are some of the most common instances of ‘virtual fatigue’ and steps to manage them.   

Visual fatigue

Unsurprisingly, this is the most common form of virtual fatigue. Nearly 72% of the Indian workforce spends nine hours or more every day in front of a computer/laptop or smartphone/tablet screen, the Godrej Interio study found. 

Where the pre-pandemic workday involved meetings and interactions that gave us some relief from staring at a screen, all our interactions have now moved onto a device of some sort. As a result 41% of the respondents polled in the Godrej Interio study reported experiencing moderate to extreme irritation levels and burning in their eyes at the end of long virtual calls.  Meanwhile, 19% said they experienced blurry vision after extended video calls.

While there is no alternative to video conferencing amid the current scenario, there are ways to manage the strain it causes on our eyes. 

For starters, it’s important to make sure the screen is at an ergonomically adequate height and distance from your seating position. 

It’s also advisable to lower brightness levels on your gadgets as it results in lesser strain on the eyes or switch it into the more eye-friendly night mode, which dampens the emission of blue light that takes such a toll on the eye. 

Wherever possible, one can also switch interactions to audio only calls.  

Lastly, take regular breaks and step away from the screen. Blinking often and doing certain eye exercises during such breaks will help further ease the strain.

Listener’s fatigue

This occurs because of prolonged use of headphones. Working from home brings distractions along with it. Ambient sounds like kids playing in the background can make it difficult to focus on interactions. Headphones cut out the white noise but prolonged use can lead to ear pain and headaches. About 61% of the respondents in the Godrej Interio study said they used headphones with their smartphones, 63% used them with their laptops while 31% plugged headphones into their tablets.

More than half of the respondents reported experiencing pain due to headphones/earpods. 

Again, there are ways to manage this.

The best solution is to find a corner in your house that’s has minimum ambient noise and distractions. That way you won’t need to use earphones at all. But that’s not a practical option for everyone. The alternative is to take a quick power nap or just a few minutes off to breathe. This will help calm the mind, reduce anxiety, stress as well as blood pressure.

The best solution though is to use your headphones only when absolutely necessary, such as in an extremely critical meeting for example.

Physical fatigue

We’re all familiar with an aching neck, back or shoulders by now. These are nothing but symptoms of physical fatigue.  About 40% of the respondents in the Godrej Interio study said they sat in one place without any breaks. About 19% said they attended long calls sitting on their beds, 13% from the sofa and 9% while sitting on the floor. While they may not appear severe enough to take seriously, all of these aches and pains are nothing but the beginning of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) which can have serious long-term consequences. 

About 86% of those surveyed in the Godrej Interio study said they were suffering from MSDs. Those in the 26-40 age group complained the most about experiencing some form of pain.

This is extremely alarming and needs to be managed. Pay particular attention to the ergonomics of your workspace and your posture. Invest in proper office furniture if necessary. Avoid working while sitting on the bed, sofa or floor. Move around, dedicate some time at the end of the work day to light exercise. Take breaks. Stretch, try and relax various groups of muscles.

Mental fatigue

The mental toll taken by virtual work is the most pervasive yet least quantifiable consequence of working from home. With the pandemic having taken its toll, an unchanging work environment combined with working in silos and practically no real-time interaction as well as blurred lines between ‘the home’ and ‘the office’ have resulted in longer working hours. All these factors contribute to a heightened state of mental fatigue. This mental stress manifests in the form of irregular sleep patterns, extreme fatigue, headaches and an inability to focus on work. 

The Godrej Interio study found that 60% of those surveyed felt moderate to extreme levels of fatigue. 53% had trouble sleeping at the end of the workday while 51% experienced headaches after long work calls. 

The most important way to manage this mental strain is to, quite simply, take some time off. Engage in hobbies, exercise – they release happy hormones in your brain. Decorate your workspace with plants. Avoid too much caffeine, eat on time and plan your day as much as you can. Schedule “me time.”

Light at the end of the tunnel 

The pandemic and work-from-home is not here to stay. As vaccination rates increase, offices will begin to open up. Yes, the way we work will be different. Some companies may choose to adopt a hybrid approach. But, nevertheless, we will go back to face-to-face meetings. But until we do, it’s important for us to be mindful of the consequences of virtual work and for our sake take steps to mitigate them.

(The views expressed in the article have been solely curated for BW People publication, by Dr. Reena Valecha, Principal Ergonomist - Workplace & Ergonomics Research Cell, Godrej Interio)

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