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Tackle new toll on remote workers’ wellbeing, urges IOSH

07 March 2022

WHILE EMPLOYERS and organisations have enjoyed the higher productivity levels and lower operational costs delivered by a surge in home teleworking during the pandemic, they must now combat the negative impact on remote workers’ physical and mental health and wellbeing.

That’s the view of world-leading workplace health and safety body the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) in its response to new joint analysis from United Nations agencies the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

Their report points to the isolation, burnout, anxiety and depression that can occur if teleworking isn’t given proper planning, assessment, management and health and safety support. This can also lead to musculoskeletal symptoms and other problems caused by poor workstation design, equipment or environment and too much sitting in front of a screen.

The new ILO/WHO report comes at a tipping point after a prolonged period of mass teleworking, says IOSH, where a drastic change in policies and strategies is urgently needed to manage the health, safety and wellbeing issues created by home-based teleworking.

Dr Ivan Williams, policy development manager for IOSH said, “The recommendations of the report set the standard for making remote work sustainable, but the findings also highlight the downsides when a workplace culture is neither supportive nor conducive to remote work.

“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,” he added.

“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.

“We’ll 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 head of health and safety, Ruth Wilkinson, presented at a WHO event on ‘Healthy and Safe Telework’ earlier this month, when she outlined and discussed IOSH’s own transition to teleworking during the pandemic.

“Teleworking – whether it be remotely, at home or in a hybrid arrangement – had been around for a good number of years before the pandemic but Covid has undoubtedly accelerated the transition to remote work,” said Ruth.

“This can bring benefits, providing it’s well organised, managed and monitored. Yet like any other health and safety risk, teleworking must be considered as part of the risk management process, with the core principles of health and safety management and the hierarchy of control applied.

“Getting the ‘culture’ right is also important when establishing new competency requirements for working and managing in this way, ensuring 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.”