Too many digital meetings, increasing workload and a lack of social connection with colleagues have all enhanced the risk of health and wellbeing problems for remote workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research reveals.
However, it is not all doom and gloom as employees have reported that the greater flexibility offered by homeworking has created more opportunities for recreational activities.
These were some of the outcomes from a study of five organisations during the pandemic, the findings of which are in a new report, Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic: approaches to support employee health and wellbeing, published today by IOSH.
The researchers aimed to understand the impact of the pandemic on employees, managers and organisations, look at how employers could support workers’ health and wellbeing and identify barriers and facilitators to this.
They have also unveiled eight recommendations to protect employee health and wellbeing, to serve during this and any future pandemics, including senior management demonstrating their commitment to this area through regular communication, acting on feedback and sharing personal stories, and involving employees in job design and redesign.
Among the issues highlighted in interviews with employees were homeworking challenges, including physical issues caused by a lack of office equipment and mental health challenges due to a lack of boundaries, with “digital fatigue” a key concern.
Also common were increased operational demands with reports of increased workload – caused by COVID-related work and absent colleagues because of furlough or self-isolation – and an “always-on” work culture.
One employee commented that he felt his work resembled “running on a treadmill with someone throwing ping pong balls and [needing] to keep catching them”.
Reports of a lack of social connection with colleagues also featured regularly in interviews and, while organisations did have employee support mechanisms on offer, there was often a lack of awareness of these and how to access them.
Duncan Spencer, Head of Advice and Practice at IOSH, said: “This research really brings to life some of the experiences employees have had, both positive and negative during the pandemic.
“While many have clearly benefited from the increased flexibility and other benefits of homeworking, many other people found it to be challenging, with poor work-life balance and the inability to connect socially with colleagues among the issues highlighted.
“With some people continuing to work remotely while others have moved a hybrid system as we continue to live with the pandemic, it is clear that more needs to be done to protect the health and wellbeing of workers and I hope that organisations might be able to follow some or all of the recommendations.
“What is clear is that if we don’t act on this, there is a strong possibility we will face a health and wellbeing crisis among our workforce.”
The study was conducted by Affinity Health at Work, an occupational health psychology consultancy. It was sponsored by its Research Consortium, which is made up of a number of organisations including IOSH.
The interviews and focus groups were held with employees, managers and health and wellbeing stakeholders between November 2020 and June 2021.
Other recommendations are developing line managers’ skills around wellbeing, promoting an environment of social connection and trust, embedding wellbeing across the culture of an organisation and communicating it consistently and continually, conducting an internal wellbeing audit and monitoring organizational wellbeing.
Dr Jo Yarker, Co-Director of Affinity, said: “Protecting and supporting the mental health and wellbeing of our workforce has never been more important. Our research shows that the priority concerns for staff change over time and this demands that organisations regularly review workforce needs and continually develop their provision.
“Early in the pandemic, many organisations rapidly provided all staff learning opportunities such as webinars and online resources. As time went on, more localised activities and tailored offers were provided and, encouragingly, there was increasing recognition that wellbeing activities will not combat poor job design with some organisations reviewing job design, workload and tasks. As we move beyond the pandemic, organisations must prioritise good jobs and put the ‘work’ back in to workplace wellbeing.”
The research can be viewed at iosh.com/covidlearnings
About the research
The five organisations involved were Acas, Emcor UK, the Ministry of Justice, Santander and the University of Oxford.
Becky Thoseby, Head of Workplace Wellbeing at the Ministry of Justice, said: “I was delighted for the MoJ to take part in this important research, as it makes a valuable contribution not only to our understanding of how the pandemic has affected our employees, but also to the wider knowledge bank in this area.
“We have run our own internal surveys to assess our employees’ wellbeing and this research has been incredibly helpful in triangulating our own findings. The report’s findings were very congruent with our own, showing workload and work pressure to be key concerns for our employees.
“Going forward, I will be using these research findings, along with our survey results and other sources of data, to identify areas for action which we are not currently addressing, and this will form a key part of our plans for the coming year.”