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02/09/2021

Teleworking is here to stay – let’s make sure workers stay safe and healthy

Even as people start returning to the office, for many workers teleworking will continue in some capacity – for some even at fulltime. It is therefore vital that they are given the proper support from their employers to ensure that they are not putting themselves at risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and mental health problems.

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The pros and cons of teleworking

The number of people teleworking soared in 2020, with a large share of EU employees teleworking fulltime at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. This substantially boosted the already upwards trend in teleworking in recent years. Many workplaces plan to continue giving workers the option to telework in the future, yet the risks of musculoskeletal disorders and mental health problems when working from home might be underestimated.

While there are many potential advantages to telework – reduction in time spent commuting resulting in less stress, better work-life balance, increased autonomy, improved concentration and higher productivity – the downsides can negatively impact on workers’ mental and physical health. Research has shown that teleworkers tend to work longer hours at home in order to ensure that they meet or exceed supervisor’s expectations. As result, they sit for longer periods of time with fewer work interruptions than in the office. This, in combination with poor ergonomic home workstations, may lead to the development or exacerbation of health problems such as musculoskeletal disorders.

Telework can also blur the boundaries between work and home and lead to a sense of isolation from colleagues, resulting in less face-to-face interaction and support. Working environments may also lead to problems due to background noise, poor air quality, or safety issues from cables or electric hazards, for example[1].

The importance of teleworking policies and training

Organisations providing telework need clear policies and procedures to ensure that they efficiently manage the related occupational health and safety hazards. This should include provisions on how to assess and manage occupational risks, ergonomic equipment, hours of availability and expected results.

The first port-of-call should be to carry out a workplace risk assessment – together with teleworkers and management – to create a ‘checklist’ to help identify the hazards associated with teleworking, and in turn, develop an action plan to guide preventive and protective measures and focused multidisciplinary solutions and interventions.

As well as providing suitable, ergonomic equipment and adjustable furniture (based on the outcomes of the risk assessment or existing legislation when applicable), employers should provide training to teleworkers on how to make optimal use of their dynamic workstation and stay active throughout the teleworking day. Training on healthy (de)connecting, the merits of a healthy work environment and regularly moving and changing posture during the workday is very valuable too.

Support teleworkers in preventing MSDs

As an employer, consider providing teleworkers with ergonomic laptops, external mice and keyboards. Technical support should also be provided on how to set up and use home workstations.

You can also promote regular exercise by encouraging employees to take part in active breaks and short workouts during online meetings (try to alternate team meetings with one-to-one talks to stay connected). You could also encourage a system of teleworking buddies to allow employees to share their concerns, which will detect potential difficulties more quickly.

Finally, make sure that everyone is involved in ensuring that telework is safe and healthy. Putting in place the correct procedures, setting up workspaces appropriately and ensuring teleworkers enjoy a good work-life balance will go a long way to mitigating the mental and MSD-related risks associated with teleworking.

You can find out more in our article on regulating telework and occupational safety and health in a post-COVID world or by reading about the results of a webinar on the topic, organised by EU-OSHA in March. There’s also a fun an informative Napo video on teleworking that you can share with your network.

From February to April 2022, the focus of the Healthy Workplaces Campaign will be on telework and more resources will be published under the corresponding priority area.