The pandemic has reshaped society and driven many of us to take stock and rethink career and life aspirations. It is also a unique opportunity to reset and put health front and centre of decision making.
Without good health, the quest for improved productivity is futile. Organisations will ultimately benefit from healthier and happier workers.
When it comes to health, the changing landscape of where work gets done allows workers to benefit from the health supportive elements in both the home and office environments.
Regardless of where people choose to work, spending time in different environments mitigates any potential negative impacts of being bound in one location. As hybrid working is the new status quo, we have the opportunity to improve health outcomes for both workers and organisations.
Review of the health benefits of working at home and working in the office can inform the adoption of best practice in both environments. The Six Ideas by Dexus Working from Home study of 6450 people found, for many people, working from home was more productive and healthier.
On the other hand, the Leesman research identifies the lack of adequate ergonomic setup as a primary negative element that can impact health and productivity outcomes. Peer reviewed studies conducted in Australia show the direct link between those feeling comfortable and supported also reporting better health status.
Distance and commuting time can also impact individual health. In line with other studies, the Six Ideas survey highlighted that many people enjoy not having to commute to the office. It frees up time for personal and more positive activities such as time with family or exercise, providing better daily balance.
However, the commute for many is the only time of the day they are moving – whether it is walking to the train or bus station or actively commuting by bike or running. A CSIRO study of 4000 respondents from their online community found 66 per cent reported less physical activity during the pandemic.
Choosing to actively commute could be the answer to achieving the government guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week. Commuting time is also enjoyed by many as a time to “disconnect” and separate work from home life. While it is recognised that the daily lives of office workers have changed considerably, we are yet to fully understand the longer-term implications or impacts to daily physical activity levels under a hybrid model.
Another key element of successful hybrid working includes programs that promote and maintain positive health practice from remote locations. This is essential to ensure workers’ health and wellbeing is addressed and supported in all work environments. For example, the importance of intermittent breaks is magnified if height adjustable desking or adequate ergonomic setup is not available. Healthy practices such as local walking during breaks may replace the walking around the office to different spaces.
Promoting and reinforcing healthy practices that can be conducted in any environment should be established. For example, we are all encouraged to take the stairs when in an office environment. Extending the promotion of stair use around the local neighbourhood is another instance of how positive healthy activities can effectively extend beyond the office workplace.
The importance of health education is also essential with remote workers as it may not be possible to establish adequate ergonomic setup or set boundaries between work and home life.
There is also some alarming data suggesting employees are working three hours longer per day having a significant negative impact on work-life balance and associated health impacts. The inherent pitfalls of “blurred lines” between work and home life can be addressed with clear policies setting out expectations for both employees and employers.
As organisations move towards adopting adaptable and flexible workplace policies, a key consideration is addressing employee health and safety, in the office and remotely, during these fluctuating and rapidly changing times.
Moving forward, close monitoring of remote working is necessary to understand the changing needs of employees and ensure that workers are not only satisfied, but safe, and that their wellbeing is catered for. As these changes in work patterns and work location become more established, the design and operations of the office workplace and impact on health need thoughtful consideration.
Kirsten Brown is a principal at strategic workplace consulting service, Six Ideas by Dexus. She is a PhD candidate on the topic of health in the workplace.