The WHO warns remote work could be bad for you

It can be lonely.
It can be lonely.
Image: Reuters/Nick Oxford
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all day long you wring yourself out
work virtually
go nowhere

Remote workers across the globe will recognize the sense of fatigue and resignation captured by American poet Amy Gerstler in the opening lines of “Night Heron,” a new work.

The writer has tapped into a common feeling as we approach the two-year anniversary of the covid-19 lockdowns that launched a new era for distributed work: Many people with desk jobs are worn out, physically and psychically.

Acknowledging that work-from-home burnout and other issues have become a global phenomenon, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a warning in a new report this month. If companies, lawmakers, and employees don’t collectively manage the way remote work is organized, say experts at the WHO and the International Labour Organization, a work-from-home model can create hazardous conditions, putting employees’ health at risk.

Remote work can lead to psychological, physical problems

Many of the problems that surface in the report have been studied and dissected since the pandemic began.

People might be harming their health by spending more hours on spreadsheets and conference calls, for example, instead of exercising or socializing. Employees can feel tremendous pressure to be in constant contact with their managers and teams. Meanwhile, toiling away in physical isolation can trigger issues like “loneliness, irritability, worry, and guilt,” the report states, citing research. Employees may also experience more harassment when there are fewer witnesses to deter workplace bullies or predators, and they may be exposed to more violence or conflict at home.

The comprehensive report is careful to first present plenty of evidence that working remotely can also made some people healthier. With time saved (and hassles avoided) by not having to commute, remote workers are more likely to get at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. At least one study has also found that teleworkers are less depressed than people who don’t work from home. People working virtually also spend more time cooking at home, which tends to be healthier than eating at restaurants.

Still, remote work can have “a dire impact,” Maria Neira, director of the department of environment, climate change and health at the WHO, said in a press release. “Which way the pendulum swings depends entirely on whether governments, employers, and workers work together.”

The WHO’s ideas for making remote work healthier

Fortunately, there are several steps that companies can take to make remote work healthier now it’s become a fixture of our work culture. Below are just a few of the ideas shared by the WHO.

  • Urge employees to set boundaries around their work hours and work regular schedules. (Employees might choose to privately track their hours to ensure they’re not working excessively.)
  • Managers and workers should discuss how to signal that someone is or isn’t available.
  • Coworkers and managers ought to stay in touch with regular updates and brainstorming meetings, because communicating more can reduce stress levels. However, be conscious of how many hours someone is already spending in online meetings.
  • Encourage workers to do things that are social and active, which could include exercise breaks
  • Ensure that employees have what they need to create ergonomic work stations
  • Train your remote employees on digital etiquette and make sure workers know how to spot and report online abuse

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