Employers and the government need to do more to address the health and wellbeing risks related to remote working, and should target support at individuals who are the most at risk of mental and physical health problems.
This is according to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (Iosh) which has praised new recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) as “setting the standard for making remote work sustainable”.
The technical brief on healthy and safe teleworking, which was published earlier this month, outlines the health benefits and risks of remote working, which can include improved work-life balance and flexible working, but also a higher likelihood of staff developing burnout, depression, eye strain and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
The WHO and ILO report also highlights several negative behavioural effects from increased homeworking, including an increase in smoking and alcohol consumption, prolonged sitting and screen time, and unhealthy weight gain.
“In the nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, it’s become very clear that teleworking can easily bring health benefits and it can also have a dire impact,” said Dr Maria Neira, director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, at the WHO.
“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 put in place policies and practices that benefit both workers and the work.”
Vera Paquete-Perdigão, director of the ILO’s Governance and Tripartism Department, said employers now have the opportunity to embed new supportive policies, practices and norms “to ensure millions of teleworkers have healthy, happy, productive and decent work”.
The report places specific emphasis on occupational health’s role in the identification and mitigation of risks among remote workers and says OH needs to “expand their delivery channels”.
“New channels could include online consultations, mobile applications and online checklists to conduct risk assessments, online evaluation of worker health, digital tools for mental health and psychosocial support, and tele-ergonomic assessments and interventions,” it says.
“Workers’ representatives are important in selecting and arranging for effective services with such professionals, including giving workers information on how to access their advice and services.”
The report says OH professionals should:
- Educate staff on the potential physical and mental health risks from remote working before it is introduced
- Refer staff for ergonomic assessments, either at an organisation’s premises or remotely, as well as occupational and physical therapy services to treat MSDs and eye strain
- Assess remote workers’ health risks by identifying characteristics and signs that could be early symptoms of health conditions
- Inquire about work-related stressors (such as low autonomy, harassment by managers or bullying) and non-workplace stressors (work-life imbalance, childcare demands, domestic violence)
- Regularly screen remote workers for mental ill-health through online surveys and mobile apps
- Ensure illness or injuries arising from remote work are reported.
Dr Ivan Williams, policy development manager for Iosh, said: “The recommendations of the report set the standard for making remote work sustainable, but the findings also highlight the downsides when a workplace culture is neither supportive nor conducive to remote work.
“Regrettably, excessive hours of work and overwork are still often associated with working remotely, which has a detrimental impact on workers’ mental health and wellbeing, increasing the likelihood they’ll experience higher rates of anxiety, depression and sleep disorders.
“Managing occupational safety and health risk factors linked to teleworking will also require a more targeted approach because female workers and vulnerable disadvantaged teleworkers can also be made to struggle with family responsibilities, which adds further strain and mental burden.”
Iosh head of health and safety Ruth Wilkinson said: “Getting the ‘culture’ right is also important when establishing new competency requirements for working and managing in this way, ensuring all workers get equal treatment and fairness.
“We want to see employers, supported by governments and workers, take action to prevent and manage risks that come with teleworking and that organisational management systems, policies and processes are in place and well communicated.”