Remote work was intended to improve work-life balance prior to March 2020. But when the pandemic suddenly struck, remote work has been widely practiced and became the norm and we now understand better some of the challenges and issues that could come with it. Most organizations have to resolve those changes, or at the very least, adopt new work practices, because remote working is here to stay.
Remote work appears to be a nebulous concept that is open to interpretation, so it is important that we first define what it is. Remote work encompasses several terms that refer to work outside of the physical office building while utilizing information and communication technologies to stay connected. Remote work appears to be the preferred academic term for this mode of work, whereas working from home or WFH is a term commonly used by governments as a result of the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Whether we realize it or not, remote work brings so many benefits to our lives. It helps employees to spend their time wisely by giving them more flexibility in how and where they work. Before remote work became a norm, a lot of parents were stressed out about managing their children’s school pick-up times and many employees felt exhausted from commuting back and forth to the office.
On the flip side, concerns about feeling isolated, lack of work culture, and poor quality of social interactions among employees, became pressing issues for organizations which were unfamiliar with remote work.
In looking back on remote work, we can weigh the benefits and drawbacks of remote work, so that in the future, we can learn from our mistakes and create a better workplace for everyone.
Who is a Remote Worker?
According to research on laborers from around the world, there is no clear definition of ‘remote worker’ until the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 2016 determined that a remote worker is someone who spends time working away from the main office building rather than on the role.
Remote work is defined as work that is performed away from an office building regularly using information and communication technologies to stay in contact. Remote work was regarded as a ‘perk’ of certain roles in many organizations earlier, and as such, was not properly managed. This was controversial at that time; however, research indicated that much remote work is done without formal arrangement, risk assessment, or support program provided to the remote worker.
Risks to Physical and Mental Health of Remote Workers
While the risks involve the employer’s contractual obligations, it does not establish any health and safety standards. Employees are expected to recognize their duty to reduce the risks of illness. It is widely acknowledged, both in regulation and in reporting, that the health risks to those who work remotely include both physical and psychological risks. Some risks that might happen while doing remote work are:
- Weight gain
- Prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders
- Significant increase in psychological issues
Many employees’ musculoskeletal problems are exacerbated by the elimination of the need to commute and walk around the office. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) are injuries or disorders of the muscles, nerves, tendons, joints, cartilage, and spinal discs. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD) are conditions in which the work environment and performance of work contribute significantly to this condition.
This, combined with the temptation to eat more at home, is causing weight gain. On the other hand, the psychological issues that arise are results of:
- Lack of social interaction
- Difficulties in adapting to technology-related issues
- The quality of a home workstation and working environment
- Lower levels of supervision and management
- Increased risks of human error, including data breaches
Keeping these in mind, organizations should identify the risks of remote working and assist employees in conducting self-evaluations of their workstations. Any physical or psychological risks identified as part of this process are then evaluated further, and appropriate action should be taken.
This viewpoint is emerging from many countries during the pandemic, indicating that even larger and well-known organizations appear to be ignoring this risk, possibly because they believed the crisis would be brief. Employers, however, must not disregard these serious health issues.
Remote Worker Health Trends
The lack of risk assessment caused harmful results to the remote workers’ health. Remote workers reported that mental issues are a key concern among the other health issues in the current COVID pandemic with musculoskeletal disorders in the form of back pain leading the way. The underlying factor of mental health, however, is the case of loneliness experienced by remote workers.
Previously, a manager can easily observe if an employee was struggling physically or psychologically but monitoring employees has become more difficult when the employee is not visible, as in the case of remote work. Because of remote working, traditional support programs must likewise evolve constantly to address the pressing issues resulting from remote working amid the pandemic.
Company health benefits and the provision of a counselor to assist in the employees’ mental well-being, particularly in addressing the symptoms and considering the underlying issues would help manage the potential physical and psychological stressors of remote workers.
Employers who are at the forefront of caring for employees are now starting to recognize this and are now requesting information from professionals and experts on occupational health. Companies have begun consultation on programs and services that can be offered to address these issues. Related to this, the concern for relevant training on mental health management has also been identified.
As mentioned above, the number of new issues which have arisen from such a fast transition to remote work has highlighted many other concerns that may have already existed before but were either just ignored or not identified earlier.
Organizations Should Support Remote Workers
To assist employees who have chosen or have been forced to work remotely, it is critical to not only assess the physical and psychological risks, but also to ensure that the individual employee receives the necessary information, instruction, training, and supervision for this new remote work world in which they work. These must be implemented within a formal framework where employers can continue to develop and adapt. Employees, in turn, must understand the process to be able to assess issues and to locate and avail of the most appropriate support.
Remote workers should be directed to where they can get help and support if they have any health concerns, IT issues, troubles setting up their workstation, concerns about any information that are related to communication, data security, or other issues that they may experience.
It is important for an organization to give assistance to remote workers in understanding what is expected from them and to prevent issues which might be more difficult with people working from home such as performance, feeling isolated due to lack of social contact resulting to loneliness, and feeling overwhelmed, as work can take significantly longer if they do not have the proper workstation at home.
In summary, employers are expected to comply with health and safety regulations, such as:
- Conducting risk assessments and ensuring that remote workers understand their roles in the organization.
- Providing remote workers with some control over their work, particularly when demands are high.
- Providing access to appropriate management or third-party support, such as training and supervision.
Here are some recommendations for organizations to consider when developing or promoting a remote working program:
- Ensure that any potential health risks are assessed and managed appropriately.
- Provide opportunities to boost employee engagement and innovation.
- Provide opportunities for advancement.
- Expand opportunities for corporate social responsibility and sustaining the local communities.
That said, organizations need to promote remote work programs by addressing issues that need further development, particularly, since remote work is part of an employment agreement, companies must ensure that the facilities for remote work are provided as part of the agreement and that these should be subjected to risk assessment. Remote work should include an occupational health and safety program, and this should not be overlooked. This must be developed to support remote work covering physical and psychological risks, with additional support for those who have disabilities.
In conclusion, remote work indeed offers flexibility to organizations and individuals, but to develop effective remote work programs, a holistic approach needs to be carefully considered, planned and risk-assessed to benefit all remote workers.