Mary is a freelance lifestyle writer and photographer. She runs a blog, An Eye Behind, that focuses on the secret life of London.
As the UK and many other nations around the world surpass one year of lockdowns and social distancing measures, it’s important to take a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic and prolonged periods of isolation has affected our physical and mental wellbeing.
2020 amounted to what was a year like no other for citizens around the world as working from home became second nature and in-person socialising took a back seat to Zoom quizzes and home baking. Despite many of us seeking to develop new ways of working, playing and communicating with friends and family during the pandemic, this rapid change of lifestyle has had a significant impact on our mental and physical health.
According to Statista data, the early months of lockdowns and social distancing measures implemented as the pandemic made its way to Europe and North America and reached the shores of Oceania were profoundly lonely - leading to large numbers of adults experiencing stress, anxiety or sadness.
Today, as we look back on 12 months of restrictions, how have our mental and physical states improved?
1. Mental Health Impact in Young People
The pandemic has been found to have especially impacted the mental health of young people, with increased levels of clinical depression being identified, according to a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research.
Although increased levels of clinical depression had been reported, this came alongside a decrease in alcohol consumption among young people since the arrival of lockdowns and social distancing measures.
During the study, researchers from the University of Surrey surveyed 259 young people before the outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019 and compared their progress during the months of May and June 2020 - the height of the first lockdown - whilst measuring levels of depression, anxiety, wellbeing, alcohol use and sleep quality.
The researchers found evidence of a substantial impact on mental health among young adults, while a significant rise in depression symptoms and a reduction in overall wellbeing also took place in the given timeframe.
Worryingly, levels of clinical depression in those surveyed were found to have more than doubled, rising from 14.9% to 34.7% by mid-2020.
2. The Health Effects of Working From Home
Despite many workers viewing the emergence of working from home as a positive development to come out of the chaos caused by the pandemic, it appears that remote work has had an adverse effect on the work-life balance of many employees.
According to recent research from IT services company, Atlas Cloud, the work-life balance during lockdown improved for workers over the age of 55 - with older workers reporting an approximate 17% improvement in their balance.
Remote workers aged between 35 and 54 also experienced a small increase of 3% in terms of work-life balance quality, but the pandemic was found to have a largely unhealthy impact on younger workers.
Significantly, employees aged between 18 and 24 experienced a 12% drop in their ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance whilst working from home, while those aged between 25-34 also suffered from a 4% drop in work-life balance.
However, the necessity of working from home may have conjured more physical adverse health side-effects for workers.
The switch to remote work led to millions of employees swapping their purpose-made desks and seating to more alternative workspace arrangements - whether those substitutes meant more kitchen chairs, sofas or coffee tables came into use, these quick fixes may have lead to more skeletal issues for workers.
With the living conditions of many workers unfit for the dual-purpose of living and working space, it didn’t take long for people to begin feeling the strain of spending their working days sat in front of a device or monitor.
Conducted during the opening two weeks of the initial lockdown in the UK, the Working from Home Wellbeing Survey undertaken by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) has shown that remote workers quickly began to experience musculoskeletal complaints. Compared to their normal physical condition, individuals reported new aches and pains - particularly in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%) and back (55%).
For employers intending to take their health and safety obligations seriously, these findings may be cause for a review of their policies whilst transitioning towards remote workplaces. Without appropriate seating, desks and screen displays, there’s a danger that employees who work long hours are putting their wellbeing as well as their productivity at risk.
3. The Loss of Physical Activity
The pandemic has also had an effect on the level of physical activity that residents are participating in around the UK. While some individuals have used working from home as a chance to embrace healthier lifestyles, much of the country is suffering from falling chances of participating in physical activity.
Research from Doncaster Council has shown that 45% of residents have reported doing less physical activity in the second lockdown as opposed to the summer of 2020
Even prior to the pandemic, the area was below the national average for physical activity, with one-in-three residents finding it difficult to participate in exercise on a weekly basis.
The findings have prompted a new campaign to ‘Get Doncaster Moving’ - an initiative that hopes to boost participation in physical activity and sport across the borough.
The case of Doncaster residents is one that’s reflected in many locations around the UK. With prolonged periods of time where individuals have been unable to take part in team sports, the NHS and health insurance plans alike may be required to adapt to the long term physical health impact that a year of inactivity may lead to for citizens nationwide.
With news of a roadmap away from COVID-19 restrictions on the way, the emphasis must turn towards safeguarding the health of individuals in the age of the ‘new normal’. From encouraging healthier remote working environments to incentivising exercise, the hard work is far from over.