Against the government’s rallying cries to get back to the office, businesses are reinventing the way their employees work. While there are health and wellbeing challenges, models such as remote and hybrid working bring significant benefits. “There are huge advantages for both the organisation and the individuals,” says Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) senior employment relations adviser Rachel Suff. “The employers we’ve surveyed are very positive about it being more productive.”
As well as greater productivity, offering remote working can help an organisation attract and retain a more diverse workforce, with recruitment options potentially shifting from local to national and, in some instances, even global.
Being able to strike a better balance between work and life means it also works well for many employees. When asked how wellbeing in the workplace could be improved, the highest response – 48 per cent – for men was ‘more flexible working options’, according to research by Legal & General. Among women, this was the second highest response at 37 per cent, after recognition on work well done, which scored 43 per cent.
Health and wellbeing challenges
While many organisations are shifting to these new models, having remote workers bringschallenges when it comes to employee health and wellbeing. “It’s the main concern among the employers we surveyed,” adds Suff. “It’s a challenge but it is good that it’s something they’re thinking about.”
Under the Health and Safety at Work Act, employers have a responsibility to safeguard their employees’ health, safety and welfare at work, whether or not they’re in the workplace. This includes legal obligations such as the display screen equipment regulations as well as more general requirements to ensure a safe working environment.
In addition to the risks they might encounter in the workplace, remote working presents additional risks, especially around mental health. “Isolation can be an issue where employees are working remotely and there’s also a higher risk of burnout, as the lines between work and home can become blurred,” explains Towergate Health & Protection head of specialist consulting Debra Clark. “It’s also more difficult to spot the warning signs when an employee is based at home.”
Supporting remote health
Just as businesses are assessing which roles and employees are most suited to remote working, Aon head of wellbeing solutions Charles Alberts says they need to be mindful of how health and wellbeing needs will change. “There’s no one size fits all approach but employers do need to be prepared so they can prevent these health issues,” he adds. “There are foundational elements, such as every person at home needs the right equipment to be able to work safely, but then the approach has to be tailored to the individual. It will also depend on factors such as how many days someone is working from home and the organisation’s budget.”
An assessment of what’s already provided can make a good starting point. This should determine whether the health and wellbeing benefits are still appropriate for remote workers and, if not, how they can be adapted. For example, where an onsite gym was provided before the pandemic, it may be more appropriate to offer a benefit that gives access to gyms around the country or a subscription to online exercise classes.
Howden Employee Benefits and Wellbeing head of benefits strategy Steve Herbert says the rise of digital benefits over the course of the pandemic will make this repositioning exercise much more straightforward. “We’ve been able to deliver digital benefits for a couple of years but very few people wanted it. The pandemic has made it acceptable and now everything from remote training to digital counselling and virtual GPs is the norm.”
Even ergonomic assessments have gone online, with some of the occupational health providers offering video-based assessments for remote employees. “They can help an employee set up their home workstation correctly and reduce the risk of musculoskeletal problems,” says Alberts, adding that they cost around £100 a time.
Alongside providing appropriate support to home workers, organisations also need to consider how they manage these employees, especially given the risk of mental health issues. Suff says line manager training is essential. “They are the gatekeeper for an organisation’ s health and wellbeing,” she says. “They need to able to make wellbeing a standard part of the conversation they have with employees. If they’re trained, they’ll be more alert to any changes in behaviour that could suggest a problem, and they’ll be able to ask open questions that will encourage the employee to open up.”
Sadly, in spite of the strain on the nation’s mental health during the pandemic, figures from the CIPD show there was a drop in the number of organisations training managers in mental health – 43 per cent in 2020 down from 51 per cent the previous year. “This type of training will be even more important in a hybrid working environment,” Suff adds. “It doesn’t have to be a big investment: there are plenty of free practical guides from organisations such as Mind, Acas and the CIPD.”
As well as being able to look for warning signs among their reports, line managers also have an important role to play in demonstrating the right behaviours. “They need to remind employees of the importance of self-care,” explains Clark. “It’s easy to work long hours and risk burnout when you’re working remotely. Line managers must set the right example by doing things such as taking a lunch hour, finishing on time and not sending emails outside office hours.”
Having formal guidance and guidelines in place around what’s expected from employees working remotely can help to strike the right balance and avoid them feeling under excessive pressure. Similarly, it may be sensible to redesign jobs to fit the new working arrangements.
Out of sight
Another potential mental health issue that may arise as a result of remote working is the fear of missing out. Alberts says remote employees can worry that their career might stall if they’re not visible. “I’d recommend that organisations have personal development plans in place for all their staff,” he says. “Having the right infrastructure in place makes it fair for everyone, wherever they work.”
This also extends to the way organisations communicate with their staff. Rather than rely on the workplace grapevine to ensure that everything from benefits updates to office gossip is disseminated quickly, Clark says employers need to be much more proactive to ensure that everyone feels included. “They need to make sure it’s relevant and timely and goes out in a variety of different media so it will reach as many people as possible,” she explains. “Line managers also have a vital role to play in signposting so make sure they know what health and wellbeing benefits and support is available.”
While there are some significant health and wellbeing ramifications of a shift to more remote working, the positive news is that benefits providers and employers are ready for it. “We’ve been doing a lot of work with our clients around their wellbeing strategies and what they need to introduce to support remote employees,” says Herbert. “I imagine we’ll see more innovation around the benefits, especially as remote working becomes more commonplace, but the pandemic has already helped shift so many into the digital space. This, and flexibility, will be key to supporting employee health and wellbeing, wherever they work.”