As virtual work environments become more common amid COVID-19, the mental and physical health of workers could change.
With the onset of the pandemic, telecommuting quickly become commonplace all over the world. While to some, there wasn’t much change – they’d been working remotely for years – others got to experience telework for the first time. As workplace expectations shifted, it been evident to many employers that their employees likely could continue to stay home indefinitely and be just as productive. This was good news for telecommuters.
However, while tasks may be able to get done without issue from home, does telecommuting affect the mental and physical health of employees? This topic was discussed at the 1st International Congress and 12th Spanish Congress of Occupational Medicine and Nursing in Madrid, Spain. The event was organized by the Spanish Association of Occupational Medicine Specialists (AEEMT), and participants discussed telework’s role in specific health issues, including musculoskeletal disorders, psychosocial dynamics and mental health. They also touched on how to approach insurance coverage should employees get injured at their home offices.
The Spanish Royal Decree (Law 8/2020) was instituted two years ago to make telecommuting a necessary emergency measure in order to maintain the well-being of the economy during COVID-19. In Spain, the percentage of teleworkers increased substantially with the passing of the law, going from “4.8% before the pandemic to 34%,” according to government data.
María Teófila Vicente, MD, PhD, coordinator of various working groups within AEEMT, stated at the time, “If there is no option to work from home, over 50% of companies may lose employees.” The move was a necessary one to keep employment numbers up and the economy running smoothly.
Vicente, however, was curious about how the move would impact workers’ mental health. She was especially concerned with the fact that no preplanning could have been done, so the shift was rapidly executed and somewhat disorganized. She discussed how not adhering to normal office hours could have a negative affect on mental health as well, saying significant factors include “marathon workdays and being connected to work all the time, workers feeling invisible, loneliness, and the sense of isolation and being cut off from communication with others. These workers also face difficulties in finding a balance between family life and work life.”
She ended on a more positive note, saying, “That said, we should keep in mind that there are some notable advantages as well.”
Vincente then highlighted some of the positive aspects of telecommuting, citing published literature, including an article published in the journal Heliyon, which states, “Telework may facilitate the inclusion of certain groups into the labor force. It contributes to employees’ job satisfaction and has an impact on work-life balance, employee productivity, and career growth. In addition, flexible work practices, such as telework, are expected to proliferate.”
As far as ensuring that teleworkers’ health is protected amid changes to the workplace – especially since these changes seem to be here to stay – Vicente said that decreasing psychosocial risks means the country must continue “strict compliance with Spain’s Royal Decree–Law 28/2020” moving forward. If it does continue to comply, the government’s efforts should minimize risks and maximize the benefits of working from home.