Teleworking positives and negatives: Employers and employees share their stories
It is important to hear the voices of individuals who have been teleworking as part of their daily working lives. A set of interviews has been carried out with employers and employees in Spain, France and Italy to explore their experiences of telework and its impact on their health and well-being in the context of the COVID-19 crisis.
What workers say about teleworking and their health
One of the benefits of teleworking, cited by many respondents, is removing the need to commute, leading to an increase in free time and reduced stress. Stress is associated with negative health outcomes, including an increase in musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). However, it is worth noting that a significant number of workers have used the time gained to extend their workday, as we can see from this respondent in France, “The time saved on commuting is mostly spent on work activities.” Additionally, the lack of commuting can remove an important source of exercise. Interviewees referred to increased sedentary work as a cause of both physical and psychological problems.
Many respondents recognised the lack of a clear stopping point to their working day as a problem. “Working time has certainly increased, because having work at home there is always the temptation to connect,” reported a consultant. Working long hours is associated with prolonged static postures, which have been shown to negatively affect musculoskeletal health. An administrative officer from Italy illustrated this issue, “I still continue to receive emails after 18.00, which implicitly leads to being connected after the working time agreed by the contract … I bought a back brace at my expense, because the little movement has brought me back discomfort.”
Important risk factors for developing or aggravating an MSD while teleworking are unsuitable workspaces and equipment. This has affected many workers, particularly those in cities, in shared houses or with children. A public officer recounted the difficulties of finding enough space to work while his children were also at home, “I found myself in difficulty because I have a small house and therefore the desk is the kitchen table and the chair is the kitchen chair, I had to leave space for the boys when they were in distance learning.” Chairs that lack the capacity to be adjusted to the optimal height result in a poor head position and if screens are too low, it can lead to poor back and neck postures.
On a positive note, for this HR manager, teleworking has brought greater autonomy and made it easier to balance work and personal life. “I manage my working time and workload better, while gaining flexibility to look after my daughter." This improvement in work-life balance is contingent on organisational support and trust from managers.
The reduction in stress from an improved work-life balance is likely to have a positive effect on workers’ health overall, including a reduction in MSDs.
What employers say about teleworking and workers’ wellbeing
While some companies provided their staff with ergonomic equipment or furniture, for companies with no prior experience of teleworking, even offering basic equipment was challenging according to the HR director of a large banking company, “At the beginning we did not even have laptops or cell phones for everyone.”
While it is positive that companies supplied staff with ergonomic equipment, for some employees it did not solve their issues. Interviewees mentioned that there were employees who did not have enough space at home to set up an adequate work area, making much of the equipment useless. It is also harder to solve issues such as a lack of light or excessive noise.
Companies are limited in their ability to manage OSH risks in employees’ homes, as one HR director pointed out, “We were aware that we could not actually control that all the employees indeed applied all the occupational safety and health criteria. We had to rely on employees’ individual responsibility.”
Where there was an organisational culture of trust, employees had more freedom to adjust their hours to create a better work-life balance. In a company where normal working hours are 07.00 to 15.00, a head of unit states, “In my department there is a worker who has two small children. She asked me [if she could] stop working from 13.00 to 15.00 to organise their lunch and then work from 15.00 to 17.00. I did not have any problem. I know she accomplishes her tasks.”
Companies can take measures to protect their employees’ physical and mental health and to reduce teleworking risk factors that can lead to MSDs. These include:
- Implementing a clear telework policy, including a proper risk assessment
- Offering workers more autonomy over when and how they complete their work
- Setting availability limits
- Training managers to develop communication and social skills
- Combatting isolation with virtual coffee breaks and social calls
- Exploring some tips for preventing MSDs while teleworking.
It’s important that employers are aware of teleworking regulations, which may have been recently updated in their country.
Most employees express a preference for continuing regular telework and most companies are discussing plans to integrate telework into their standard setup. It is important that employers implement the appropriate organisational strategies to mitigate the negatives and enhance the positives. Workers should be supported with the necessary equipment and any organisational and social support to set clear work-life boundaries and protect their wellbeing while teleworking.