Urgent changes needed to protect health of virtual workforce

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Friday, 4 February, 2022 - 12:00
Industry news
National News

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) recently called for measures to be put in place to protect workers’ health while teleworking.

A new technical brief on healthy and safe teleworking, published by the two UN agencies, outlines the health benefits and risks of teleworking and the changes needed to accommodate the shift towards different forms of remote work arrangements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the digital transformation of work.
Among the benefits are improved work-life balance, opportunities for flexible working hours and physical activity, reduced traffic and commuting time, and a decrease in air pollution – all of which can improve physical and mental health and social wellbeing, according to the brief, which also noted teleworking can lead to higher productivity and lower operational costs for many companies.

However, without proper planning, organisation and health and safety support, the impact of teleworking on the physical and mental health and social wellbeing of workers can be significant. It can lead to isolation, burnout, depression, domestic violence, musculoskeletal and other injuries, eye strain, an increase in smoking and alcohol consumption, prolonged sitting and screen time and unhealthy weight gain.
Measures that should be put in place by employers include ensuring that workers receive adequate equipment to complete the tasks of the job; providing relevant information, guidelines and training to reduce the psychosocial and mental health impact of teleworking; training managers in effective risk management, distance leadership and workplace health promotion; and establishing the “right to disconnect” and sufficient rest days.

Occupational health services should be enabled to provide ergonomic, mental health and psychosocial support to teleworkers using digital telehealth technologies, the report said.
The report also offered recommendations for organisations, including discussing and developing individual teleworking work plans and clarifying priorities; being clear about timelines and expected results; agreeing on a common system to signal availability for work; and ensuring that managers and colleagues respect the system.
Enterprises with teleworkers should develop special programmes for teleworking, combining measures for the management of work and performance with information and communication technologies and adequate equipment, and occupational health services for general health, ergonomic and psychosocial support.

The report outlines the roles that governments, employers, workers and workplace health services should play in promoting and protecting health and safety while teleworking.

“The pandemic has led to a surge of teleworking, effectively changing the nature of work practically overnight for many workers,” said Dr Maria Neira, director, department of environment, climate change and health at WHO.

“In the nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, it’s become very clear that teleworking can easily bring health benefits and it can also have a dire impact. Which way the pendulum swings depends entirely on whether governments, employers and workers work together and whether there are agile and inventive occupational health services to put in place policies and practices that benefit both workers and the work.”

Vera Paquete-Perdigão, director of the ILO’s governance and tripartism department, said teleworking and particularly hybrid working are here to stay and are likely to increase after the pandemic, as both companies and individuals have experienced its feasibility and benefits.

“As we move away from this ‘holding pattern’ to settle into a new normal, we have the opportunity to embed new supportive policies, practices and norms to ensure millions of teleworkers have healthy, happy, productive and decent work,” he said.