With Covid 19 pandemic leading to a surge in teleworking, effectively changing the nature of work practically overnight for several workers, the United Nations Agencies have called for crucial changes to safeguard health while teleworking.
In a new technical brief on healthy and safe teleworking launched on Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) outline the health and risks of remote work arrangements along with a needed to accommodate both the shift, and the ongoing digital transformation.
WHO Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health Maria Neira said “the pandemic has led to teleworking, effectively changing the nature of work overnight for many workers.”
PHYSICAL HEALTH OUTCOMES
The UN Agencies in the report says that there are several studies that show the impact of prolonged computer work on a number physical ailments (e.g. musculoskeletal damage and eye strain) in office settings. They mention that two studies reported reductions in blood pressure with teleworking. While the telework has most recently been used during the COVID-19 pandemic to prevent the spread of the virus, it has been also found that some teleworkers have also struggled to continue to work when they are sick, which has been termed sickness presenteeism.
MENTAL HEALTH OUTCOMES
Five studies (including one review) undertaken either before or during the COVID-19 pandemic reported social isolation as a potential adverse health affect associated with telework. Another study reported a higher incidence of loneliness, irritability, worry and guilt among teleworkers. Conversely, a cohort analysing employee demographic data, medical claims, health assessments and remote connectivity hours reported a reduced risk for depression among those who teleworked compared with those who did not.
In the UN study, they come across two studies of employee demographic data, medical claims, health risk assessments and remote connectivity hours showed a relationship between health risks for alcohol abuse, tobacco use and relationship varying by telework intensity.
PROTECTING AND PROMOTING HEALTH, SAFETY AND WELL-BE TELEWORKING
The UN Agencies have come up with the following action points
- Teleworkers should have a dedicated workspace that is private, quite and secure
- A well designed ergonomic office chair is a critical component of the tele workers home office.
- When setting up a computer workstation layout, the work surface should be large enough to ensure the proper placement of the monitor, keyboard and mouse, along with a document holder. When using a laptop, it is worth considering an external keyboard and monitor to allow for the monitor to be at the proper height for viewing, to reduce neck strain.
- Employers, through occupational health services, should provide workers with assistance in setting up the teleworking station.
- While typing or mousing, the worker should keep their wrists in a straight, non-rigid position, and avoid positioning the wrists u n exaggerated angle or in a position that causes tension in the
- If a smartphone or tablet is used, its height should be level or slightly below (e.g. by placing the device on a magazines
- Visual strain and eye fatigue can be reduced by positioning the monitor to eliminate glare
- Varying computing postures and taking regular stretch breaks
PSYCHO-SOCIAL RISK FACTORS
- Employers should encourage workers to set boundaries on woprkhours and keep a regular schedule to ensure they do not to work an excessive number of hours
- Employers should avoid contacting workers outside of scheduled workhours, and should encourage co-workers and managers to communicate only during scheduled workhours
- Regular social interactions during telework (e.g, virtual meetups and dedicated social time before and after meetings) may decrease the sense of isolation and detachment during telework.
- Employers should provide teleworkers with ICT tools and software that will help them to connect efficiently with co-workers and managers
- Workers should be encouraged to engage in enjoyable social and recreational activities during work breaks.
- Workers should be informed about the potential psychosocial risks related to telework
HEALTH BEHAVIOURS AND WELL-BEING
Employers can encourage and enable teleworkers to define boundaries for work and personal time to ensure that they maintain a work- and non work-related activities and a time-management.
Employers can promote the opportunity for workers to be and control of their schedules, to manage the competing demands of work and family tasks.
Excess screen time and irregular workhours during telework can have detrimental effect on sleep patterns.
Workers and employers should work together to develop and implement telework arrangements that allow workers time to rest, recuperate, and address personal activities.
WHO recommends that all adults should undertake 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or some equivalent combination of moderate intensity and vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week
Among the benefits, the report says, are an improved work balance; opportunities for flexible working hours and more physical activity: reduced traffic and commuting time, and a decrease in air population across urban areas.
These can all improve physical and mental health, and social well being. Moreover, teleworking can also lead to higher productivity and lower operating costs for many companies.
However, the report warns that without proper planning, organization and health and safety support, teleworking can lead to feel isolation, burnout, depression, eye strain, increased also consumption and unhealthy weight gain. “Which way the pendulum swings, depends entirely on whether governments, employers and workers, work together, and whether there are agile and inventive occupational health services to place policies and practices that benefit both workers and the work.” said Dr. Neira.
SETTLING INTO A ‘NEW NORMAL
As both companies and employees alike have experienced the benefits of home and hybrid work, Director of ILO’S Governance and Tripartism Department, Vera Paquete-Perdigão, said that they are “here to stay and will likely increase after the pandemic. As we move away from this ‘holding pattern’ to settle into a new normal, we have the opportunity to embed new supportive policies, practices and norms to ensure millions of teleworkers have healthy, happy, productive and decent work”, she said.
Occupational health services should be providing ergonomic, mental health and psychosocial support to teleworkers using digital telehealth technologies, the report says. For example, employers should put measures in place to ensure me personnel receive adequate work-related equipment; relevant information and training to reduce the psychosocial impact of teleworking; and establish the “right to disconnect”. ·
The report outlines the roles of governments, employers, workers and health services at workplaces to promote and protect health and safety while teleworking.
It also offers practical recommendations for the organisation of telework that meet the needs of both workers and businesses, such as developing individual work plans with clear priorities, timeline and expected results.
The agency advice calls on businesses to develop special programmes for teleworking that combine measures for managing work and performance, using effective digital platforms.