Health effects of working from home during the pandemic
E-working (connecting from home and elsewhere to work) has its benefits in terms of efficiency and stress reduction but has always carried risks.
For example, it can blur the line between work and home with the temptation to work longer hours (sometimes excessively) due to convenience and time saved by avoiding travel. A 2019 U.S. based survey on remote tech workers found 82% felt burnt out, 52% worked longer hours and 40% felt they needed to contribute more than their in-office colleagues.
A June 2020 report indicates this risk is heightened in women who may need to devote time to caring responsibilities or education, have financial vulnerabilities as single parent families or face a heightened risk of violence at home.
In addition, whilst e-working can increase productivity for some, it can reduce motivation for others, especially when it is a long-term arrangement.
The pandemic has intensified some of these risks and added others.
This is largely due to the marked increase in adults experiencing serious mental illness.
- An April 2020 study found adults in the US were eight times more likely to screen for positive mental distress than in 2018. Participants who met the criteria for moderate to serious mental illness jumped from 22% to 70% (with young adults between 18 and 44 years increasing tenfold). While this study was not limited to those e-working, it highlights the intensification the pandemic may have on the associated risks.
- An April 2020 study found a marked global rise in stress and anxiety during the pandemic, with nearly 50% of the participants attributing a decline in mental health to the pandemic. Common reasons for the decline include anxiety, worries about jobs, stress, working from home and feeling less busy.
Psychological hazards of e-working during the pandemic is a relevant factor. The Australian Psychological Society identified these hazards as conflicts between work and family, workload and over-working, future uncertainty and isolation/loneliness.
Heightened levels of stress around the pandemic is also a relevant factor. An April 2020 study reported 88% of the participants (US employees) faced moderate to extreme stress during the pandemic and nearly 70% faced the most stressful time of their professional career. Participants noted their productivity consequently declined by at least one hour a day for 62% and at least two hours for 32%.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a marked rise in mental health related prescriptions since March 2020.
These risks can be mitigated by undertaking appropriate risk analysis for each employee, ensuring controls are instituted that mitigate those risks, ensuring regular communication between management and employees around individual circumstances, setting clear expectations including around joint goals and objectives, scheduling regular informal team gatherings, and ensuring access to support and resources.
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