Telework allows employees to perform their work outside a fixed location with the help of information and communications technology (ICT). The International Labour Organization (ILO), estimates that approximately 260 million people worldwide worked from home before the COVID-19 pandemic, representing 7.9 per cent of global employment.
Although teleworking is a growing trend in many industries today, its prevalence in the European Union has remained quite constant in the last decade. According to Eurostat, in 2019, before the crisis, only 5.4 per cent of the labour force in the EU usually worked from home. However, the share of employees teleworking at least sometimes has increased to 9 per cent in 2019.
Because of the COVID-19 crisis, European governments have installed epidemic control measures to contain the spreading of the virus, including lockdown restrictions and closures that have created a great impact on society. For instance, millions of workers in Europe and all over the globe have suffered major changes to their working arrangements, and are now forced to telework fulltime. As reported by Eurofound’s Living, Working and COVID-19 survey, over a third of employees working in the EU reported working from home following the pandemic. Many workers have now changed their office desk for improvised work setups in their homes.
Even though telecommuting plays an important role in preserving jobs and production during this crisis, it is also a challenge for employers and workers, especially those who have no previous experience with teleworking.
Research has shown that remote work can be beneficial. For instance, teleworkers spend less time commuting and away from home, which can lead to a better balance of home and work life. It also increases job satisfaction and performance. Furthermore, it provides employees with more flexibility and autonomy over the location and scheduling of work.
However, teleworkers can experience blurring of boundaries between work and home time, which can lead to family conflict. They also tend to work more hours and are prone to presenteeism—the problem of being on the job but, because of illness or other conditions, not fully functioning. They can also suffer from social and professional isolation, and have fewer opportunities for information sharing.
These drawbacks can be even more challenging today, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Many parents are being forced to juggle childcare with telework, which makes balancing work with family life, very difficult; especially when schools have remained closed due to COVID-19 restrictions. This situation can lower productivity but it also increases stress and anxiety. Furthermore, physical distancing and lockdown have led to elevated loneliness in many people, which is associated with depression. Teleworkers could be more vulnerable, as working remotely can also lead to social isolation.
In general, workers all over the globe have had very little time to adapt to this rapid change in the work environment. In this context, organisational support is key for effective teleworking.
According to the ILO, management support (from top management to frontline supervisors) is vital to make teleworking as effective as possible. Both teleworkers and managers need the appropriate tools and training, plus adequate tech support. Also, setting clear expectations is very important (i.e. goals to achieve, results reporting or work availability), as well as promoting trust among managers, teleworkers and their colleagues.
The COVID-19 pandemic has a major and potentially long-lasting effect on mental health and wellbeing across populations in Europe and worldwide. Early reports concerning the levels of psychological distress associated with the COVID-19 crisis are concerning and have led to the release by the United Nations (UN) of a policy briefing on the mental health impacts of COVID-19, warning that a “long-term upsurge in the number and severity of mental health problems is likely”.
Helping organisations promote teleworkers’ mental health and wellbeing is more important than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic has forced this working style on many EU citizens and, this situation could last long-term.
At an organisational level, managers should support teleworkers by helping them stay connected to the workplace and each other, promoting networking. Nowadays, technology plays an important role in staying connected (i.e. the use of real-time communication tools such as Teams, Zoom, Google Hangouts or Skype). Nevertheless, these video calls can be time draining and cause psychological fatigue. In this sense, requiring breaks between meetings or even setting free meeting days throughout the month could help. Besides, allowing teleworkers to interact and talk about non-related work matters can have a positive impact on their mental health. Organisations can foster virtual “water coolers” to keep employees connected. Another key element is to understand that employees might be struggling because of the pandemic. Managers should show empathy and be available to discuss fears and other work-related issues with an open mind. Work flexibility is also important, as it allows teleworkers to balance work with other responsibilities (e.g. child and dependent care).
At an individual level, teleworkers must take care of their mental health and wellbeing. Thankfully, there are many strategies that employees can use to help overcome the challenges of working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here are some tips proposed by the American Psychiatric Association:
- Create a routine and a clear work schedule. Also, make sure you do not work long hours, stick to a schedule with healthy limits.
- Use technology to stay connected with family and friends. Social distancing does not mean social isolation.
- Boost your immune system by getting enough sleep, eating healthy and staying hydrated.
- It is very important to exercise and stay active. Physical activity improves mental health: it boosts your mood, it reduces anxiety and stress, and it also helps you sleep better.
- If circumstances allow, get some fresh air.
- It is important to stay informed on the latest updates on the pandemic but always from reliable sources (i.e. World Health Organization, WHO).
- Limit media consumption (including social media), as continuous exposure to news, can trigger anxiety and stress.
- Practice activities that you enjoy. For example, reading, cooking, listening to music, etc. Meditation and yoga can also benefit your wellbeing.
Finally, research is key to understanding which factors influence health and, to identify and test interventions that promote health and wellbeing at the workplace. EU’s research funding is a fantastic opportunity to foster collaboration, allowing researchers across different countries to work together. In this sense, several interventions have been developed to promote wellbeing and prevent or treat mental disorders in the workplace, including EMPOWER (The European Platform to Promote Wellbeing and Health in the workplace).
EMPOWER is a European research project that aims to develop a free eHealth platform to address wellbeing in the workplace. In the pilot implementation phase of the project, EMPOWER will offer the eHealth platform to different organisations (SME associations and public agencies) in Finland, Spain and Poland. Furthermore, organisations using new working styles such as teleworking will also be included (i.e. Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya, Spain). By including teleworkers, EMPOWER offers a unique opportunity to prove whether the eHealth platform is also cost-effective in this particular setting.
Kerry Rodríguez McGreevy, PhD
WHO Collaborating Centre for Mental Health Services Research and Training
Department of Psychiatry. School of Medicine. Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
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