World Health Organisation (WHO) urges employers to consider the psychological health and safety considerations of remote working, while UK unions call for ‘right to disconnect’
Remote working during the pandemic has revealed huge physical and mental health benefits but charities and health organisations have warned that without proper health and safety planning it also has some major downsides.
Benefits of remote working – also called teleworking – highlighted by the WHO and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) - include better work-life balance, greater opportunities for flexible working and physical activity. It can also help reduce traffic and time spent commuting, as well as decreasing air pollution.
However, the report also found that in some circumstances remote working can also lead to isolation, burnout, depression, home violence, musculoskeletal and other injuries, eye strain, increase in smoking and alcohol consumption, prolonged sitting and screen time, and unhealthy weight gain. WHO and the ILO has called for safeguarding and support measures to be put in place.
A survey by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found that 45% felt working from home was better for their health, but a significant proportion, 29%, thought it was worse. However, the overwhelming majority (74%) of people did not want to go back to working in an office full-time, instead wanting to split time between home and the office.
The RSPH survey also highlighted some vulnerable groups. Of the 26% of people working from a sofa or bedroom, nearly half (48%) said they had developed musculoskeletal problems and nearly two thirds (59%) said they felt more isolated from their colleagues. Women were more likely to be isolated than men – 58% and 39% respectively – as well as develop musculoskeletal problems – 44% and 29% respectively.
“Psychological health and safety considerations could include considering how work’s organised, dealing with anxiety around isolation, and level of support and supervision provided.”
Mental health concerns were not previously high on the agenda of employers, but remote working has underlined this need. Andrew Foster, EHP and CIEH Health and Safety Advisory Panel member said of teleworking: “It's positive in lots of ways but because there is so much more of it, employers and organisations need to think a bit more about the psychological health and safety considerations - more than just whether a workstation is set up properly.
"For some people these considerations will be much greater than others, and so they need to think about people's individual circumstances."
He added: “Psychological health and safety considerations could include, for example, considering how work’s organised, dealing with anxiety around isolation from other colleagues, level of support and supervision provided, workload, uncertainty and lack of control.”
The RSPH made similar recommendations to the WHO and ILO in calling for employers to provide mental health support, have access to work equipment and remote assessments for their physical set up, and development of a culture with clear work-life boundaries.
The WHO and ILO has produced guidance for healthy and safe telework, and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has also compiled tips and checklists for healthy teleworking.
Unions across the UK are also campaigning for the ‘right to disconnect’ from work communications during non-paid hours to create healthy work life boundaries, and this is contained within the Trades Union Congress manifesto. This right has already been granted to workers in France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Slovakia, and the Philippines.
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