Remote Workers During the COVID-19 Lockdown. What Are We Missing and Why Is Important : Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine

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Remote Workers During the COVID-19 Lockdown. What Are We Missing and Why Is Important

Tronco Hernandez, Yessica Abigail PhD

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Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine 62(11):p e669-e672, November 2020. | DOI: 10.1097/JOM.0000000000002018
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This paper highlights the lack of knowledge of the conditions being faced by remote workers, a growing demographic as a result of the lockdown measures during the Covid19 pandemic in the UK. It also points to the link between economic conditions, remote working conditions and productivity, as well as to the relationship between work productivity and three basic aspects of wellbeing. Here, we make the case for an urgent need for data that can lead to tailoring and advocating for strategies to make remote work more productive while addressing wellbeing issues that may affect remote workers’ productivity.

ECONOMIC AND OCCUPATIONAL CONSEQUENCES OF THE PANDEMIC

The current strategy to contain the spread of Covid19 was the establishment of lockdown policies throughout the country.1 These community containment strategies imply social distancing,2 which reduces personal contact and includes the need to work from home when this was possible.3,4 The adoption of a remote working strategy avoided the freeze of economic activities such as work and employment, as well as the spread of the virus.5 Preserving the economy has been a concern for governments worldwide but also for individuals, particularly since investment in human capital (hence income) is decreasing and unemployment is increasing.6 The effort to save lives should involve both preventing suicides that have been associated with unemployment rates,7 and researching ways to preserve health and wellbeing in individuals facing these extraordinary circumstances.8 Additionally, past outbreaks of infectious diseases have shown a positive relationship between health and productivity, which helped preserve the economy.6

According to US data, the workforce in several occupations (eg, finance, computer systems, architecture, engineering, legal, and management sectors) may be able to work from home.9 Nonetheless, for those unaccustomed or unable to perform their work from home (eg, food services, education, healthcare sectors) because, for instance, their job requires more direct contact with people, the lockdown has brought a significant risk of job displacement,9 which means losing a job due to relocation, restructuring or downsizing.10 Job displacement, however, does not depend on individual work performance.10 Consequentially, sectors like education, services or healthcare have adapted their way of working, with the help of technology, to perform remotely.11–13 Despite this, mathematical models have predicted low productivity during the lockdown,14 and this was evidenced by the economic6 and global production15 downturn. This had important implications for occupational flexibility and productivity.16

OCCUPATIONAL CHALLENGES AND WORK PRODUCTIVITY IN REMOTE WORK

The economic costs to cover Covid19 related absenteeism, presenteeism, and disabilities might be higher than the financial gains produced by workers maintaining remote work, particularly during a lockdown.1 Although some workers, such as the self-employed, may be more experienced in making arrangements to work from home,19 other workers were suddenly saddled with the requirement to adapt their workflow and patterns to operate from home. There was an expectation that they would adopt a work mindset (and, in most cases, set up a working space) in a place where they usually rest,4 implement hygiene and preventive health measures,20,21 adopt new childcare strategies22 while also working to mitigate potential financial difficulties for their household.16 Furthermore, working from home could be perceived as a threat to productivity23 and there may be other challenges not previously considered, for example, cybersecurity.24

Little information is available on changes to work productivity in remote workers during the lockdown. Current research questions should aim to understand how the productivity fluctuates when certain occupational groups need to work from home,19 especially considering a gradual lifting of the lockdown22 and that more than a quarter of jobs could be performed remotely.25 A qualitative study in Indonesia4 reported some changes while working from home. Reported barriers to productivity were a lack of work-life balance given the use of a recreational space as a workplace, multitasking between cleaning responsibilities and work, increased stress and decreased work motivation; additional costs of internet and electricity, distractions, and limited communication with colleagues and managers. Some benefits were flexibility regarding working times, saving time by not commuting, more quality time with their family and the psychological comfort of not having physical supervision. Regarding productivity specifically, participants reported a decline that they attributed to psychological and physical disturbances. Thus, there are clear benefits and challenges to working from home and further studies in the area are warranted. For instance, health and cultural practices such as mindfulness and spirituality, which are documented to enhance wellbeing and mental health and may therefore benefit remote workers, are still not universally allowed or encouraged in many workplace environments.26

Mustajab and colleagues4 proposed to verify the general decrease in productivity with further research. However, they also highlighted that there was an advantage of working from home for areas of wellbeing such as social interaction and work life balance. Employees’ productivity has previously been shown to increase as a function of their wellbeing under normal office conditions27 and during telework28; but little is known about what additional effects the lockdown might exert on this relationship.

According to studies conducted during the pandemic, at least half of employees (mostly from professional managerial and administrative roles) reported being unhappy with their current (remote) work-life balance and experienced more physical symptoms compared to their normal working conditions,29 and others have argued that employers’ expectations of high levels of productivity without giving them freedom and autonomy to make their own decision can negatively impact wellbeing outcomes in workers.30 This should encourage companies to adopt a more compassionate and less strict approach to productivity.31

WORK PRODUCTIVITY LINKED WITH HEALTH AND WELLBEING

Health is a multifactorial confluence of safe and fulfilling physical mental and social circumstance (ie, wellbeing) and not only the absence of disease.26,32,33 Wellbeing is a multifactorial personal state that is achieved when the social determinants of a healthy life, in particular physical (diet and physical activity) and psychosocial (mental health and social support), are promoted and protected.26,34–36

Links between these domains and work productivity have already been established. Eating disorders such as binge eating have been negatively correlated with productivity.37 Mental health issues such as burnout significantly affect work productivity and should be acknowledged and prevented.38 Other authors have suggested programs encouraging physical activity and exercise, which are cost-effective interventions to increase productivity.39 These examples serve as a useful evidence base for how wellbeing affects productivity and can continue to inform present and future research into the challenges faced by remote workers. However, important gaps remain, and the current lockdown urges us to work towards a better understanding of them.

There is presently little evidence for how these key domains of health and wellbeing (and their interactions) are being affected by the current, unprecedented circumstances. However, some authors across the world have been focusing on separate domains and tried to understand how people (although not specifically workers) are being affected by the lockdown. For instance, some reported such psychological responses to the pandemic as distress, sadness, and insomnia.1 More studies found that social isolation during lockdowns harms wellbeing,40 altering people's resilience to challenges.41 With regard to diet, Dutch adults reported eating healthier and having fewer unhealthy options at home compared to their usual office environment,42 whereas a British study reported more unhealthy eating and boredom as an incentive to drink more alcohol.29 Only a few authors have so far collected longitudinal data on these components, finding wellbeing to be lower than before the outbreak, but gradually improving, exercise levels remaining consistent, and low food insecurity.43 However, more research is needed, firstly, in workers, and secondly, in workers who have been moved to work remotely. The importance of looking at wellbeing is explained next.

There is evidence of how dietary and exercise habits affect mental wellbeing.21 In turn, mental states, along with diet and exercise habits, are risk factors for developing noncommunicable diseases such as obesity and others.44 Obesity is a multifactorial disease45 that has been documented to increase costs from productivity loss, regardless of sex and income level.46 Absenteeism is used to measure lost productivity counting days that workers are absent from their workplace.47 In the US, obesity and related diseases cost 18 million USD per 100,000 people each year41 and the absenteeism of employees with obesity represents around 10% of total absenteeism costs (8.65 billion USD).46 Research has also shown that workers who engage in sectors with less work-related physical activity, (ie, government, education, religious services, and technology sectors), tend to incur higher healthcare costs than those having more physically demanding work.48 Obesity and other noncommunicable diseases (most of them related to diet and lifestyle) have been documented as risk factors for immune system dysfunction, increased susceptibility to this coronavirus49,50 and as predictors of poorer outcomes in Covid19 patients.51,52

Producing recommendations for how to keep a healthy, as well as sustainable and accessible,53 diet that can increase resilience to infection during a global pandemic,54 should become a research priority area. This includes, but is not limited to, strategies to improve immune system function through food,55 dietary supplementation for vulnerable groups,56 and exercise.57 Mental health issues need to also be studied and addressed to preserve both physical and psychosocial health. Psychosocial determinants of health include education, traditions, religion and social (and gender) support, among others.26 Containment measures due to the pandemic have led to banning recreational and cultural practices,58 which are intimately related with social support, negatively affecting psychosocial health.26

GAPS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

As of the time of writing this article, there are no specific studies on the work productivity of remote workers and their wellbeing, particularly under lockdown conditions. More research should be conducted, aimed at developing strategies that can be implemented by both managers and employees.59 Although some guidance has been published on strategies to maintain productivity when studying60 and working from home,3 particularly in the area of mental health,61 a multidisciplinary approach that considers all important spheres of wellbeing should emerge to manage this crisis and the lockdown recovery.62 Furthermore, more effective channels must be established to more rapidly disseminate scientific findings into clinical practice.

In the event the lockdown is quickly lifted for the “sake” of the economy, an economic boost is predicted along with an increase of the death rate, which would lead to a further economic slump.14 Furthermore, modelling studies predict financial downturns for countries with higher rates of chronic diseases that relax restrictions without a comprehensive strategy for the at-risk population.63 Hence, any effective exit strategy must be mindful of several lifestyle and wellbeing factors.64

Firstly, if remote work is still (at the time of writing this article) the suggested path from governments (eg, the UK Government65), more research about it is needed. Since the number of people working remotely may grow exponentially in the coming years,25,66 due to the risk of further waves of infection and future lockdowns, a scientific evidence base will be necessary to optimise this practice both for companies and workers. A strongly suggested research pathway is to understand the economic and individual impact of the pandemic on workers considering working-from-home arrangements.19,23 This data can further help studies that consider adapting workload to a lockdown environment28 to preserve productivity. Proposed strategies should focus not only on preserving occupational capacity but also think about the long-term resources and strategies.

Second, productivity has been positively associated with employees’ wellbeing, though it is currently unclear how the lockdown conditions might affect this relationship in the medium-to-long term. Recommendations to preserve wellbeing, therefore, should emerge from the current research questions on how to address pandemics.67 Although some strategies have been suggested regarding occupational health and the preservation of productivity, several opportunity areas for occupational health exist.24 There is also a need to tailor recommendations to the specific needs of each national population (and subgroups therein), as they may be subject to different policies and experience different sociocultural and environmental pressures.

Globally, research on these important topics should inform occupational health and public health strategies and policies, in order to mitigate the negative predictors of wellbeing in workers during this and future pandemics.

CONCLUSION

Economy and work have been at stake since the outbreak of the Covid19 pandemic. Many workers have had to start working from home, which poses various occupational challenges, including low productivity that may be exacerbated by—or exacerbate—poor wellbeing. As such, exploring the links between various areas of wellbeing and work productivity should become a research priority, in preparation for both future lockdowns and the progressive lifting of the current restrictions.

There is robust evidence linking preserved wellbeing with increased work productivity; however, very little is known about the additional challenges faced by remote workers under lockdown circumstances. We need to understand both the negative and potentially positive effects of the lockdown for remote workers.

There is a potential benefit to gathering data on the influence that remote work has on the workforce's wellbeing, especially in consideration of the lockdown restrictions. Strategies can be put in place and cascaded from workplaces, empowering employees/workers to preserve their wellbeing and, therefore, lowering the impact of these potential issues on workflow and productivity in their specific occupational area.

Acknowledgments

The author would like to thank Dr Fabio Parente, for his useful suggestions.

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aAbsence from work for which there is no legitimate reason.17.

bDefined in terms of lost productivity that occurs when employees come to work ill and continue to perform their work below the standard performance.18.

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