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24 March 2021

Workplaces must address the challenge of the growing number of flexible working from home arrangements, to safeguard the mental and physical well-being of employees.

Dr Jacqueline Reznik from James Cook University’s Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine, is leading research into challenges relating to widespread home-based work arrangements in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Before the pandemic, it’s estimated just under 8 per cent of the world’s workforce worked from home. During the pandemic it’s thought 81 per cent of the global workforce were impacted by full or partial workplace closures, including the requirement for many people to work from home,” Dr Reznik said.

She said home-based work can present a number of physical and mental health challenges including the potential for social disconnect.

Although working from home has reduced travel time and costs, together with expenditure related to eating out, many workers have found themselves exercising less and eating more while at home.

“We wanted to look at some of the problems of home-based work, and ways workers can support themselves physically and psychosocially, whether in future crises or if home-based work becomes common practice in the future,” Dr Reznik said. 

“A study in 2020, of 51 mobile office workers found more than 40 per cent experienced low back pain and more than 20 per cent experienced neck and other pain – with these percentages increasing over time,” Dr Reznik said.

She said problems included incorrect seating positions, with the majority of these being too low, improperly adjusted armrests, few corrective lumbar supports, monitors either too low or incorrectly centred, and poor lighting.

“Workers would do well to employ the guidelines provided by employers and/or utilise the resources available online to create a healthy workstation.

A safe and suitable work environment and the prevention or reduction in the development of musculoskeletal issues can be achieved with a few relatively simple steps,” Dr Reznik said. 

She said psychosocial issues are also common, including increased feelings of isolation, decreased work-life balance, loss of motivation, and escalation in stress and anxiety.

“Some studies suggest home-based work is more successful if the person is open to new experiences, has a lower tendency to ruminate, and has higher levels of social connectedness outside of work. It seems pre-screening workers who want to work from home could assist in addressing potential issues before they arise,” Dr Reznik said.

Regarding loss of motivation, she said there are multiple possible reasons, including a loss of structure in the working day and the larger number of distractions in the home, and workers finding it difficult to establish boundaries between their work and home life.

Dr Reznik said despite the related challenges, the successes of working from home suggests more workers will choose the benefits, and more employers will support workers to make this choice.

“Learning to manage the challenges involved is an important means of adapting and overcoming the COVID- 19 pandemic.

The lessons learned will also enable workers to be well supported in the future, into what looks like being increasingly flexible workplaces,” Dr Reznik said.

Read more about the research here:

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