Good in Parts – Is Remote Working Doing more Harm than Good to our Wellbeing?

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remote work and wellbeing

There is a lot of chatter around the benefits of remote working or a hybrid approach, but many leadership teams are beginning to question whether these apparent advantages are actually quite as beneficial as they seem.

Remote working is a great concept on paper

I think it is probably fair to say that the move to a more remote working practice has several apparently clear-cut advantages. We all know it can cost considerably less in terms of resources, premises and other material expense. There is also a lot that has been written about the potential benefits of work-life balance choices and empowerment. On paper, it seems like an obvious choice. The potential technical and logistics problems excepted, the initiation of a hybrid or remote work policy often stacks up as a logical exercise. However, as is often the case, the numbers and logistics perspective may not be the whole story. Right in the middle of all this are two general issues that may be causing a change in perspective. Firstly, in the past, remote working has been available to a much smaller number of workers, many of whom were already orientated towards it. Secondly, while the logical decision based around the numbers may look good on paper, those pesky human beings themselves tend not to follow a logical course.

The wellbeing problem with remote working

The possible problems associated with working from home are starting to cause real concern in the boardroom. There seems to be a gradual increase in the number of reports suggesting that working from home may not only be less beneficial for a significant number of workers but that it may also be harmful.

If you take a single incidence out of the many that are beginning to appear online, in this case from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), you immediately see two areas of concern. As you would expect, the majority of home workers, 45% in this case, did adapt very well during the pandemic and felt it was beneficial. However, a significant number did considerably less well. In fact, 29% of respondents said that they felt their health worsened due to working from home. When you consider that number and the impact it could have on the efficiency and productivity of a workforce, it is no wonder that leadership teams are concerned. If you had a 29% potential sickness level due to working conditions in any other area of your business, I suspect the response would be very decisive.

In fairness, of course, these numbers do need to be considered in the context of the lockdown. We need to temper the concerns they raise with factors such as the unusual nature of enforced working from home, the relative preparedness for it and the social situation surrounding the pandemic, to name just a few. However, if remote working is to continue, then it would be prudent to consider them as potential red flags.

Physical concerns

In a workplace environment, there is far more attention paid to the physicality of the environment as a living space, particularly musculoskeletal and eyesight wellness, than there is remotely. Simply put, most homes were not built to accommodate working. As a result, one in four people in the survey were working from a bedroom or sofa. Working propped up in bed or crouched over a coffee table is the kind of thing that is unlikely to sit well with workplace health and safety. Unsurprisingly, nearly half of these people reported musculoskeletal problems.

A further concern is the general level of physical activity. 46% of the respondents reported taking less physical exercise. While it is easy to dismiss this as a side effect of the enforced lockdown, it could be a mistake to take this figure too lightly. Many workers are already in occupations that limit the exercise options, and let’s remember, at that point in the pandemic, walking and running were being actively encouraged. Less motivation to exercise and a non-physical occupation, coupled with working on a sofa, could be a recipe for continued health issues.

Mental Wellbeing Concerns

This is probably where the biggest potential danger sits. Removing the workplace from your daily routine may have a lot of practical and financial benefits, but it also removes the social element. Limited human contact is simply not good for most of us. We feel isolated and lonely, which increases susceptibility to a wide range of mental wellbeing issues. The numbers from the report are pretty grim reading. 67% of people reported feeling less connected to their colleagues, and 56% said they had problems switching off. That second number is of real concern at C-suite level, where burnout and mental wellness are common issues.

Remote working is a conundrum, but it is one that needs to be solved, and that resolution is going to need to come from senior management. While we will almost certainly see further information as the situation develops, it would seem that, despite the high level of satisfaction for most in the average workforce, there is a problem. The significant few that dislike working from home may well be a big factor in ongoing success. Not just the success of working practices but also of the company as a productive, profitable, healthy and supportive organisation.

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