Many virtuous arguments are put forward in favour of this new form of work:
· More flexible working weeks
· The employee is spared the time and stress of public transport commuting
· Technology now fully supporting this option “as if you were there in any case”
· More productivity
· The ability to transition seamlessly to better leisure / private time
In the short-term, corporations will no doubt be congratulating themselves on reduced office and plant costs, and even sincerely believe they are enabling better employee welfare.
But observed through the Bridge to Health lens, this “exciting” new social trend is rather more disquieting, as patients are turn up in increasing numbers with both physical and psychosomatic ailments pretty directly attributable to home-working.
Flaws emerging in the game plan include:
Usually (very) poor work ergonomicsMost people cannot match the quality of professional office workstations at home, and end up using what’s available - the dining room table and/or chair, poor lighting, poor computer set up and angulation. A number of our patients end up sat at the family dining table, hunched over a laptop, shoulders tucked into their ears and complaining of neck and shoulder pain. As (astoundingly) the cost of setting up at home seems in almost all instances to rest wholly with the employee, those concerned often shrink away from a very necessary but sizeable expense.
Poor social interactionOn a daily basis, other than professional exchanges with colleagues over the phone or Skype. Over time, this can result in depression at the lack of more human exchanges, and anxiety at being cut off from colleagues and the office grapevine.
Poor exerciseWhilst the theory is that there is greater flexibility in home-working to “do the right thing” and work out regularly, our observation is that in practice people’s exercise routine suffers. Firstly and most obviously, this is because they lose out on the walk of the commute, but also possibly because there is no-one to go to the gym with (and motivate them to go), or because people are more nervous managing the boundaries between work and non-work during the working day when at home.
Poor eating habitsOur experience is that all too often, our home-working patients end up indulging the Great British sport of eating a sandwich and packet of crisps at their desk over a 10 minute “break”, even more often than back in the office, where they might at least be swept up by colleagues to join them in the office cafeteria.
Lower self-care (and self-esteem)Home workers rarely dress professionally for the working day and may even stay in their nightwear… Cumulatively, this process often results in a loss of morale, self-respect and confidence.
Longer working hoursWe see many home-worker patients suffering from poor management of the boundaries between work and home, not least because there are no obvious boundaries and the management rests squarely with them. They typically feel guilty about “short-changing” their employer or fear an absence from the desk might be “noticed” in a manner they ironically wouldn’t do if in an office, and the net result is that many end up working longer hours than otherwise.
Usually (very) poor work ergonomics back at the officeHome workers attending their employer’s office one or two days a week invariably have to make do with pool desks where all the ergonomics have to be re-adapted for them. In practice, the ergonomics are never attended to in the pressure of “getting going” with work – complete the picture with a day hunched over the laptop and it’s not looking too pretty…
Difficulty managing boundaries between work and home timeMany of our home-working patients find the management of non-existent boundaries between “work” and “home” very stressful, citing instances where the work focus and professional adrenaline clash painfully with partners and children returning home from school or work.
The hope is that an objective large-scale study of this new socio-professional trend may soon reveal, quantify and publicise these many health drawbacks, opening the debate for companies and employees to rethink and negotiate the terms of home-working in a more supportive and sensitive manner.
In the meantime, what would you want to bear in mind when being made the “irresistible offer” of working from home? A few thoughts:
- Assess realistically whether you can afford to “cordon off” a professional space in your home without mortgaging too much practical comfort and putting pressure on home/couple/family life.
- Assess whether that space can be turned into a really professional environment – eg good lighting, work/sitting conditions not too cramped, good ergonomics.
- Investigate the insurance status eg public liability insurance (PLI). Should you, a colleague or a company client injure themselves on your premises – arguably the company’s “extended premises” for the purpose of a meeting – would the company’s PLI cover the claim?
- If you don’t already have modern professional office equipment at home, absolutely shy away from using and adapting house furniture and electronics for the purpose.
- Negotiate with your employer a setting-up budget for professional standard furniture, in particular a stand-up desk. (Please ask me for recommendations). Also also ensure that your laptop has a docking station with a separate key board and screen at the adapted height.
- Negotiate with your employer at least a day or two per week of “face time” in the office, coinciding with the presence of key colleagues, in order to maintain contact with work partners, the office culture and the all-important grapevine.
- Plan your home-working week so that there are adequate breaks for exercise and lunch, ring-fencing those slots first; plan at least a couple of gym workouts or swimming sessions per working week.
- Take enough time over lunch for a short 20 minute walk before another 20-30 minute sit-down meal – away from the desk!
- Prepare a “real” meal for lunch – eg: salad lunch in a Tupperware prepared that morning, or a heated meal from the previous night’s left-overs.
- Plan realistic home office hours, ensuring that the time previously spent commuting is only exceptionally used for work. Commuting time is not just about travelling, it affords an emotional sass or transition between the world of work and home. You may want to use that notional time slot – especially in the evening – for another walk or a spot of shopping.