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World Health Day 2021

The unfair reality of working from home

The theme of this year’s World Health Day – building a fairer, healthier world for everyone – has got me thinking about the unequal impacts of COVID-19. We see this in the statistics and access to vaccines – but also in the dramatic change in our working lives.

In the professional fields in which I work, the major impact has been working for home. For some this has been a positive change, but for others who don’t live in a safe or healthy environment it has been very difficult and sometimes even dangerous.

From one health issue to another

The move to work from home was to protect us from disease, but for many it has caused other health issues. Long hours away from the office have taken their toll on the mental health of people who need interaction, team work, and space and time away from their domestic environment. Isolation, loneliness and anxiety has grown across the world and in Australia, the problem became so big that Lifeline set up a Working from Home toolkit and Beyond Blue a Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service.

One professional I spoke to put it so well: “Last year taught us that we do not need the office to get work done, that working relationships can be maintained digitally and that complex projects can be completed remotely.

It also taught us that the office is not just for working. For many of us, it is a social hub. The place where our emotions get some exercise. It’s usually a spontaneous reaction to an overheard conversation, banter about the weekend sport, the random jovial remark or outrage at the kitchen sink-filler. You can’t schedule a video meeting for a spontaneous interaction.”

The stress of staying at home

A leading mental health issue caused by working home has been stress. In a survey of 1000 Americans in October last year, 4 out of 5 workers at home found it hard to ‘shut off’ in the evenings, and over half the respondents had taken a mental health days since they started working from home. With children at home from school, the stress is made worse by needing to help with school work and caring.

For other people being stuck in the home environment can actually be dangerous. The workplace can be a safety net for some people and spending more time at home can increase the opportunity for domestic issues. Add to this the stress of COVID, potential job losses and home-schooling, and domestic violence becomes a real danger for many at home.

Not all home offices are equal

The physical environment is also an issue and not everyone has the resources to set up the ultimate home office. A study published in the Journal of occupational and environmental medicine showed working from home decreased physical health because of changed food intake, distractions at home, workstation set up and the home environment. Another study done in Italy showed that 41.2% of at-home workers reported lower back pain, while 23.5% reported neck pain. Others reported eye strain and vision problems from bad lighting.

This World Health Day, the WHO is calling for action to eliminate health inequities. In the professional world, this could start with small actions such as checking in on your colleagues as you would if you bumped into them in the office kitchen. If this is to be the norm in some countries, managers need to take larger steps to make their employees have the same level of support at home as they would in the office.

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