The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) have urged measures to protect the mental health of employees who telework.
A new white paper on safe and healthy teleworking published by the two UN agencies outlines the health benefits and risks of teleworking, and the changes needed to accommodate the shift to different forms of remote working arrangements brought on by the pandemic of COVID-19 and the digital transformation of work.
The text points out that well-organised teleworking improves the balance between work and personal life, offers the possibility of a flexible schedule and physical activity, and saves the time spent travelling.
In addition, recent studies report a lower incidence of high blood pressure and stress, a lower tendency to depression and greater emotional well-being due to quality family life, as well as the consumption of healthier diets because food is prepared at home.
“The pandemic has led to a surge of teleworking, effectively changing the nature of work practically overnight for many workers,” said Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, World Health Organization. “In the nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, it’s become very clear that teleworking can as easily bring health benefits, and it can also have a dire impact. 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.”
On the other hand, remote work reduces air pollution and travel times, which also contributes to improving physical and mental health and social well-being.
Likewise, telecommuting can achieve increased productivity and reduced operating costs for many companies.
Increase in Telecommuting
The document details that as a consequence of the pandemic, remote work increased in Europe from 11% to 48% and 40% of paid working hours were performed remotely. In Latin America and the Caribbean, more than 23 million people transitioned to teleworking in the second quarter of 2020.
The agencies cite an analysis that indicates that remote work will continue to grow and calculates that 34% of jobs in the United States, for example, could be done remotely.
Risks of Telecommuting
However, remote work without planning, assistance and health security also carries risks, among which physical ailments stand out, such as musculoskeletal and visual fatigue, derived from prolonged work on the computer, which also occurs while working in an office, if one lacks an ergonomic workstation.
Equally worrying is the frequent lengthening of working hours and the fact that many times people work while still sick. Another potential harm is social isolation, which can lead to increased loneliness, burnout, depression, irritability, worry and feelings of guilt in workers. Similarly, it can lead to more conflicts between work and family than traditional office hours, especially when the professional occupation is very demanding. Domestic violence, increased use of tobacco and alcohol, and harmful weight gain are other possible risks.
The WHO and the ILO clarified that all these findings are based on preliminary studies and that more research will be needed to determine the true impacts of teleworking for different workers and for longer periods.
For the benefits to outweigh the harm, UN agencies recommend that workers receive the proper equipment to complete their tasks; that they are provided with relevant information, guidelines and training to reduce the psychosocial and emotional health effect of teleworking; that managers be trained in effective risk management, remote management and health promotion in the workplace; and that the “right to disconnection” and sufficient days of rest be established.
According to the report, occupational health services must be trained to provide ergonomic, mental and psychosocial health assistance to those who work remotely, using digital telehealth technologies.
The document encourages employers to discuss and formulate individual work plans for telecommuting and clarify priorities; be clear about timelines and expected results; agree on a common system that announces availability to work, and ensure that managers and colleagues respect the system.
It also suggests designing special programmes for remote work, combining measures for work and performance management with information and communication technologies and adequate equipment, and occupational health services.