Working from home or living at work?

By Sterling Méus 

Sterling Méus is an AmeriCorps volunteer with the California Conservation Corp's Watershed Stewards Program, placed at California Sea Grant's Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program

I am an AmeriCorps Member serving at California Sea Grant’s Russian River Salmon and Steelhead Monitoring Program. Much of my job consists of conducting fish and stream habitat monitoring to support the recovery of endangered coho salmon and threatened steelhead in Russian River streams. By the early 2000s, coho salmon were almost eliminated from the Russian River system due primarily to broad-scale habitat degradation and overharvesting. Now, through extensive habitat restoration efforts and the intervention of a conservation hatchery program, the salmon are finally starting to rebound. With the escalating impacts of climate change, monitoring their population and identifying the most important factors limiting their recovery is more important than ever to help keep them from disappearing from this region altogether. 

While “saving” the salmon is a formidable job, it has some great benefits. My coworkers and I get to survey streams on private land that members of the public do not have access to and there, under the guise of work, I climb trees, hike mountains and wade under waterfalls while searching for fish. Some of the properties we access are so isolated that I can’t help but imagine what it must have been like when the land was truly wild and untouched by humanity. On the other hand, seeing beautiful streamside parcels of land that people have stewarded, sometimes for several generations, is also a wonderful experience. I also have the rare privilege of handling an endangered species that may not be on the planet in the next 50 years, and I am trying my best to do my small part to help preserve this species—a responsibility that I never imagined I would have. My job makes me happy, it is rewarding, it makes me feel like I am making a difference in the world and, best of all, I get to work outside all day.  

In recent months, I have come to understand just how important it is to spend time outside in nature and how lucky I am to be able to do what I do for a living. This past year has been difficult for me and, I believe, for most of us. The pandemic has forced many people’s lives and jobs to drastically change. Because of this, many people are now spending more time indoors, away from other people and from nature, than they did before the pandemic. 

The psychological impact of working in places that you otherwise use for recreation or relaxation, like your home, has become much more apparent in recent months. Mine was one of the many jobs that shifted to a remote structure for a long period of time, and I can really relate to these blurred lines between my personal and work spaces and the challenges that creates. Researchers also found increased rates of work hours and fatigue with many employees who work at home, something I have also experienced. 

A BMC Public Health study on the physical and mental impacts of working at home found that many employees suffer from mental strain when there is no clear delineation between their work space and personal space. 

Those who know me will recall me saying often that my worst fear is being stuck in a cubicle all day.  Going from an active outdoor lifestyle to a sedentary one when my job transitioned to remote work was a big change for me. When I am working outside on restoration sites or monitoring salmon, I feel like I am taking an active part in conservation and it is easy to feel like I am doing something meaningful. Without that regular exposure to both the natural environment and meaningful work, it became increasingly difficult for me to be productive while working from home. 

For many around the country, access to green spaces has become a problem, especially in urban areas. Access to parks, playgrounds and other recreation areas has been limited in cities across the country due to the pandemic. 

Marc Berman, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who investigated how interactions with nature can impact mental health, found that nature can reduce risk factors for some types of mental illnesses and improve psychological well-being, as well as provide opportunities to increase physical fitness. He concluded that the combined lack of access to available greenspaces and the inclination for people to stay indoors due to the pandemic has created a mental health crisis in urban areas. In his research, Berman explored how interactions with nature can impact cognitive performance and found that even videos and sounds of nature can provide some gains, especially when actual outdoor exposure is not possible. Interestingly, he also determined d that having just 10 more trees on a city block increases how healthy nearby residents feel—an improvement equivalent to a $10,000 increase in income, or a seven-year decrease in age. 

Thankfully, I have returned to working in the field and not only do I feel $10,000 richer and seven years younger, but I have never agreed more with the quote “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”.