June 14, 2021
A new report from the RSA and Vitality warns of the potentially serious impact on the long-term physical and mental health of employees. The authors claim that the ‘long lockdown effect’ should lead employers to see health and wellbeing as important strategic issues and place them on the company’s risk registers. With the shift to more flexible working cultures now set to continue, Healthy Hybrid, a Blueprint for Business, claims to shine a light on the health impact of successive lockdowns on homeworkers.
The report, produced in partnership with the Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) is based on new research among more than 1,000 homeworkers conducted during the third lockdown in January; data from the Vitality Programme; a series of interviews with CEOs and business leaders; and extensive RSA analysis of key research relating to workplace trends.
As debates intensify around how to reorganise working life around home and the office, the report concludes by offering a practical blueprint to help businesses close this expectation gap. Incorporating the best of working from home and office life: a ‘healthy hybrid’, delivering inclusive productivity gains and a healthier, happier workforce.
- Lockdowns have worsened long-standing physical health issues creating an ‘ergonomic timebomb’– daily movement must become mandatory: this becomes more important as figures released by the NHS found that the majority of adults are overweight or obese; 67 percent of men and 60 percent of women. With activity levels at a low, businesses must enable their workforce to take time to exercise and move. The benefits of movement can have a direct impact on health – data from Vitality found that amongst 1.3m Vitality members last year, those who participated in regular exercise had a 28 percent reduced risk of admission to hospital from Covid-19.
- As life became more sedentary at the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, Vitality members recorded a 28 percent drop in physical activity events predominantly driven by marked reductions in the number of people achieving their daily step count goals.
- Additionally, Nuffield Health found that 7 in 10 remote workers said they were experiencing more aches and pains in the back, neck, shoulders, legs and joints, more eye strain, and more headaches; this is despite employees valuing the opportunity to incorporate physical activity working from home. Research from Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace survey showed more than half of the UK workforce suffered from two or more musculoskeletal conditions, such as lower back pain (45 percent), neck pain (34 percent) and shoulder pain (34 percent) pre pandemic in 2019.
- Mental health will remain the ‘long lockdown’ challenge – employers must manage anxiety linked to a return to the office: Britain’s homeworkers may have been shielded from some of the more immediate and obvious impacts of the virus, but the toll upon their mental health has been high. As a result of this decline in mental health, 85 percent of homeworkers say taking employee health and wellbeing seriously will be important when thinking about their future career prospects. In the short-term, returning to physical workplaces needs careful management – our study shows that 44 percent of remote workers have found it “much” or “somewhat” easier to manage their mental health and wellbeing as a result of remote working. However, 50 percent of all homeworkers and 58 percent of female homeworkers feel anxious about the return.
- The pandemic experience has fundamentally changed homeworkers’ expectations – businesses must embrace a ‘demand for different’: The hybrid work people want is not just a simple shift in workplace location, but a shift in possibilities towards a new ‘healthy hybrid’. More than eight in ten would prefer to work at home for either part of the week or in full (just under half 48 percent hybrid; 36 percent at home permanently). The same number again say they are looking for a better work-life balance (80 percent); 7 in 10 want work to allow for a fit and healthy lifestyle (71 percent).
- Women and young people are among groups that have suffered disproportionately – hybrid working must be tailored to the diverse needs of different groups: Four in 10 mothers working from home report losing productivity (42.8 percent) versus a third of fathers (33.8 percent). 33 percent of women report worse concentration than usual compared to one in five men (22.3 percent). Young people have also been adversely affected, research by the Mental Health Foundation shows that 56 percent of people said they were more stressed and anxious about work than before the pandemic, but this rose to 72 percent and 64 percent for the 18-24 and 24-35 age groups, respectively.
- Productivity has improved but at a significant cost – employers need to plan for a ‘healthy hybrid’ that monitors outcomes not hours and guards against burnout: 55 percent of home workers said working from home meant they had found it easier to get more work done, however, on average homeworkers have been working three hours extra per week. Vitality data shows that 40 percent of people are replacing the time that is gained from their commute – one hour on average – with extra time working.
Matthew Taylor, CEO of the RSA said: “This blueprint shows unequivocally that Britain’s homeworkers want better work; work that makes them healthier, happier and allows the pursuit of a larger life. The idea of a “healthy hybrid” embodies the argument at the heart of the good work movement – that good work helps make healthier, happier workers; and healthier, happier workers help create good, productive work. This blueprint lays down a gauntlet to employers to deliver on the hopes so many homeworkers now hold for the future of work.”
- Worsening physical wellbeing – homeworking has reinforced sedentary lifestyles leading to an ‘ergonomic timebomb’ risking increased back and shoulder injuries and pain. This has been coupled with a reduction in physical activity of 28 percent.
- Increased anxiety: 50 percent of homeworkers are anxious about a return to the office. As a result, 85 percent of homeworkers say taking employee health and wellbeing seriously will be important when thinking about their future career prospects.
- Hybrid working expectation gap: Only 16 percent of homeworkers would prefer to be in a physical work location full time, yet 1 in 3 anticipate this will be their employer’s expectation when lockdown rules allow.
- Health and wellbeing needs to be included in company risk registers and prioritised at board level. Ignoring it has the capacity to further impact workforces across the UK.
- Organisations should schedule 30 minutes a day for exercise to protect musculoskeletal health.
- Mandatory breaks and ‘right to disconnect’ policies are needed to protect hybrid workers from burnout and physical health issues.