Health and remote work during the pandemic

When in December 2019 the Chinese Country Office of World Health Organization was notified about cases of pneumonia related to a coronavirus infection nobody suspected what the consequences of the infection spreading would be like and how much it would change our lives. On 11 March 2020, WHO declared a pandemic, meaning a global spread of infection to several continents. The COVID-19 pandemic irreversibly changed working conditions in practically all sectors of the economy and the current epidemic situation, previously unheard of, posed new challenges for employers and employees alike.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads through respiratory droplets, meaning that it is exhaled from respiratory tract in form of an aerosol when talking, coughing, and sneezing. This transmission type makes it easy for the virus to spread from an infected person to a healthy person, both in the work environment and outside.

The clinical course of SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infection is diverse. Even though in majority of cases it is asymptomatic or low symptomatic, some of the infected require highly specialized treatment procedures available in hospitals, and the death rate of COVID-19 is estimated to 5%.

Given the above, the main element of the strategy against COVID-19 seems to be implementing rules to prevent further infections. The degree of risk of being infected with SARS-CoV-2 depends on the type of work and is closely related to having contact with co-workers or other members of the society, so the most effective solution is isolation. Preventing COVID-19 outbreaks among employees and being able to maintain continuity of work, regardless of its kind, has become a priority for all employers.

On 25 March 2020, in order to find proper solutions in relation to the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus recommendations for employers were announced, prepared by the Ministry of Health, the National Institute of Hygiene, the National Institute of Public Health, and the Institute of Occupational Medicine in Łódź. It was advised that employees should be delegated to work at home, that shift work system should be introduced, and that working hours should be flexible and business travels limited in favour of online meetings. To reduce transmission risk of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, restrictions have been introduced in medical facilities concerning preventive medical examinations of staff during epidemic risk, suspending periodic check-ups.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a number of new threats and challenges for employers and their cooperating medical services who provide preventive medical care to their employees. To increase occupational health and safety it was necessary to adjust workplaces so that they complied with sanitary requirements and truly protected employees from infection. Technical amendments of a workplace meant to reduce the risk of becoming infected with coronavirus include:

  • installing transparent screens,
  • designating zones in which a specified number of people can remain maintaining proper distance, using semi-automated or automated door opening and closing systems, especially in busy areas (like entrance to the building, cloak rooms, restrooms) in order to reduce the need to touch door handles,
  • installing contactless, proximity hand soap and disinfecting agents dispensers, disposable hand towels dispensers, and modern automated surface cleaning and disinfecting technologies,
  • equipping AC/air ventilation systems with proper class air filters,
  • providing personal protection measures.

However, the most crucial pandemic-related change is the growing importance and popularity of remote work. It could be said that the introduction of modern technologies revolutionized the job market by allowing people to work from remote locations. The idea of remote work has been around since the 1970s, but prior to 2020 it was more of an exception than a rule.

Naturally, sending employees to work at home poses a number of challenges to the employer. They need to create proper conditions for completing work that would promote effectiveness. The International Labour Organization has indicated ways to support a remote worker in order to increase their efficiency and high quality of services. Among other things, the employer should pay particular attention to clearly specify the aim of the work; to set detailed tasks for an employee; to determine employee’s available hours, with regard to their additional duties not related to work, for example having to take care of someone as a result of schools being closed; to specify how work performance will be monitored; and to provide necessary equipment for remote work (laptops, software), training in terms of using this equipment, and technical support, while remembering about the ergonomics of work.

The influence of remote work on employees’ health and their mood is extremely varied and often difficult to explicitly assess and scientific information in this field tends to be inconsistent. On the one hand, research points to the deterioration of mental health in over 40% of employees, an increased risk of burnout syndrome, or the inability to separate the workplace from the private space leading to disturbing the work-life balance. At the same time, however, it is estimated that employees working remotely often eat properly, sleep longer and better, feel less stressed, catch infectious diseases less frequently, are more physically active, report improvements in private life and their relationships, and feel happier. Medical data about the effect of hybrid work on employees physical and mental health have not yet been made available, but one could assume that a combination of stationary work model with remote work may offer many benefits to the employee.

Employee health concerns that have to be taken into consideration by the employer must now include results of past COVID-19 infections, with dominating tiredness and weakness, often persisting for many months, sleep problems, and mood disorders, including depression. One must not forget the influence of the pandemic itself, causing large amounts of stress, anxiety, fear and uncertainty, hypochondria, intensification of other existing diseases, in particular mental diseases, and increased alcohol and drug use. It is emphasized that the fear of getting ill, as well as restrictions in everyday life, personal and professional, related to the pandemic pose significant psychosocial threat. The most frequent early symptoms of emotional sphere disorders caused by stress include:

  • irritation and irritability,
  • uncertainty, lack of motivation,
  • tiredness,
  • depression,
  • sleep problems,
  • difficulty to focus attention.

Extremely serious health risks in terms of non-infectious diseases have also been observed, in particular cardiovascular diseases and tumours, which partially result from temporary limited access to specialist care, but also from fear of leaving home or using medical services, or from lifestyle changes.

The employee preventive healthcare system is currently facing a no small challenge, which should be faced together with the employers, that lies in encouraging employees to vaccinate and to organize vaccinations, as well as to increase health awareness.

What helps prevent the negative effects of the pandemic on employees mental sphere in the work place is proper work organization, support from the employer, and building good relations with colleagues and managers that will allow employees to communicate their fears and doubts. It is also extremely important to adjust and organize work in a way that takes into account the life and health situation of individual employees.

When you consider the importance of remote/hybrid work in preventing further spread of infection and at the same time ensuring continuity of work, proper organization in this area becomes crucial. Better understanding of the impact of particular aspects of this work model on the mental and physical health and general wellbeing of an employee, and then improving the way it is organized and developing similar forms, e.g. hybrid work, becomes one of the greatest challenges in the area of health and safety of employees. At the same time, the hybrid work model seems a desired compromise which allows to transfer tasks that don't have to be fulfilled directly at the company, and at the same time increases employee’s comfort and leaves their employer with periodic, direct contact with them.

On the one hand, the need to implement modern organizational solutions at the workplace was imposed by the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, but on the other – by the changing situation on the job market. Significant demographic changes in the Polish society in the last years, leading to progressive ageing of the society and lack of available workers on the job market, made it necessary to introduce competitive solutions that would support companies’ HR policy. Encouraging health-promoting behaviours at work and maintaining work-life balance comprehensively strengthen employees’ health.

It’s also worth to mention positive changes caused by the pandemic when it imposed certain solutions on us. First and foremost, there has been a rapid digitalization of many elements of our lives, including access to fully remote or hybrid work. At the same time offices are raising their safety standards, e.g. by increasing distance between desks, designating additional areas for groups working in a rotation, or implementing contactless solutions in passageways. All this, in the perspective of the ongoing pandemic or seasonal periods of increased viral infections (e.g. flu) may significantly reduce the risk of any infection spread. And that – together with the increased comfort of work and life of employees and guaranteed work continuity – seems to be the perfect solution.

Prof. dr hab. med. Jolanta Walusiak-Skorupa
Institute of Occupational Medicine in Łódź
Prof. dr hab. med. Marta Wiszniewska
Institute of Occupational Medicine in Łódź
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