A joint report from two United Nations (UN) agencies includes measures that employers should put in place, such as providing effective OSH support, so that workers’ health is adequately protected while they undertake teleworking.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) and World Health Organization’s (WHO) new technical brief on healthy and safe teleworking, warns that without proper assessment, management and planning, the impact of teleworking on the physical and mental health and social wellbeing of workers will be significant.
Although the shift towards ‘different forms of remote work arrangements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the digital transformation of work’ have led to some important employee benefits, notably improved work-life balance and opportunities for flexible working hours, the ILO and WHO stress that employers need to do more to minimise the negative impacts.
The report highlights a number of significant health-related issues that have been linked to teleworking from home for long periods, including isolation; burnout; depression; domestic violence; musculoskeletal symptoms and other injuries caused by poor workstation design; eye strain; an increase in smoking and alcohol consumption; prolonged sitting and screen time; and unhealthy weight gain.
The aim of the report is to provide governments, employers, workers and workplace health services with guidance on how to promote and protect health and safety while teleworking.
‘Managing occupational safety and health risk factors linked to teleworking will require a more targeted approach'
One of the report’s key recommendations is that employers should ensure that all managers are given training in effective risk management, distance leadership and workplace health promotion.
Employers are also urged to make sure that all workers receive adequate equipment so they are able to complete their job tasks.
They are also advised to provide employees with relevant information, guidelines and training to help reduce the psychosocial and mental health impact of teleworking.
In addition, the report places a strong emphasis on the employee’s ‘right to disconnect’ and having sufficient rest days.
The report adds that employers should ensure that occupational health services can provide ergonomic, mental health and psychosocial support to teleworkers using digital telehealth technologies.
The report notes that teleworking has had some wider benefits for organisations such as lower operational costs and higher productivity.
The technical brief also offers a number of practical recommendations that cover how telework is organised so that the needs of both employees and the wider organisation are met.
These include managers discussing and developing individual teleworking work plans and clarifying priorities with employees; managers being clear about timelines and expected results; both parties agreeing on a common system to signal availability for work; and ensuring that managers and colleagues respect the system.
‘Teleworking and particularly hybrid working are here to stay and are likely to increase after the pandemic, as both companies and individuals have experienced its feasibility and benefits,’ says Vera Paquete-Perdigão, director of the ILO’s governance and tripartism department.
‘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.’
According to EHS software specialists EcoOnline, many employers may need to reassess their OSH provision and support for hybrid workers.
‘We want to see employers ... take action to prevent and manage risks that come with teleworking’
In December last year, the software firm conducted a poll of OSH professionals in 447 companies for its Hybrid Working Study and found that barely half of employers surveyed (52%) provided safety training for employees who split their work between home and the physical workplace.
Although nearly six out of 10 of the firms polled said they were planning to carry out new risk assessments for their hybrid teams, 43% of respondents said they had no plans to do this.
When asked how these assessments would be conducted, half of the employers said they will ask their employees to fill out a risk assessment form. Of the remainder, 37% said they would continue to use their current approaches together with an in-office assessment; 4% said they would send OSH professionals to the employee’s home for an-person review, while 3% said they intended to conduct online video assessments with managers or an OSH practitioner.
The study also highlighted gaps between the provision of the self-risk assessment and training. Although 97% of companies said they would be asking about workplace ergonomics in the risk assessment, only 14% planned to follow this up with training in correct posture and workstation set-up.
The study results reveal that hybrid working patterns will continue. However, only one-in-three of the companies surveyed said they were very confident that they were fully prepared for the management challenges this presents.
Last month, IOSH magazine hosted a webinar in partnership with EcoOnline, which explored how OSH practitioners can help ensure hybrid work patterns, including teleworking, do not introduce new risks.
‘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,’ said Dr Ivan Williams, policy development manager for IOSH.
‘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.’
Ivan added that IOSH would be keeping a close eye on developments and how they affect workers’ safety, health and wellbeing, particularly on flexible working, home-workers’ ‘right to disconnect’ from work and workplace monitoring and surveillance.
IOSH’s head of health and safety Ruth Wilkinson said that it was also important to get the ‘culture’ right when establishing new competency requirements for working and managing in this way to ensure that 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,’ she said.