The impact of agile working on our well-being

Occupational disease invariably involves looking back at working practices, which have caused or contributed to a person’s disease. Asbestos, noise and vibrating tools have been the primary focus of our occupational disease practices for many years. However, as working practices evolve, with the workplace of the future expected to look very different, so will the types of health issues affecting employees. It is therefore crucial that we are aware and start to prepare for the possible challenges, as well as the opportunities, that the future ways of working may bring.

Agile working is one such change that we are already starting to see the signs of due to improved technology and the desires of the modern workforce to have a greater work-life balance. In the not so distant future, even our commute to work could look very different, with autonomous vehicles driving us to our workplaces, assuming that we even have dedicated workplaces.

Background

The British Computer Society defines agile working as:

A way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose - with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints – to optimise their performance and to do their best work.

It can involve a person working at different desks in different offices, at home some or all of the time, in co-working spaces with other businesses, or even from a coffee shop. It can also lead to a change in focus from the hours a person works, or their ‘face-time’ in the office, to a focus on outputs.

Not only does this create challenges and opportunities that new technology and growing globalisation brings, but also ever-increasing numbers of employees are expecting to work more flexibly. Indeed, the number of UK workers who have moved to ’remote working’, in that they spend all or most of their time away from the office, has increased over the last ten years and it is expected to continue to rise as we move towards 2020, at which point half of the UK workforce is expected to be working remotely.

The benefits are clear for employers and employees alike. Beyond the obvious business benefit of reduced office costs and environmental benefits, research also tells us that agile working improves morale and reduces stress levels, increases staff retention and importantly widens and unlocks a bigger talent pool, wherein a business can recruit talent, regardless of where they live.

Agile working requires an entirely different outlook and poor and unstructured management and communication practices will undoubtedly lead to a breakdown in trust among team members, impacting negatively on engagement. To work effectively requires the full commitment and support of the employer, including investment in technology and in having robust policies and processes in place. In addition, whilst employees working agilely can feel motivated and empowered, the risks associated are a relatively new concept for employers who must prepare for the development of new health concerns.

Potential risks

Isolation

Whilst agile working has been hailed as the answer to work-life balance, as organisations have started to make the change, there are some concerns starting to surface. This includes the suggestion that home working can actually lead to stress for some people as the blurring of lines between home and work leads to an ‘always on’ culture with work seeping into quality family time. In addition, working remotely from your colleagues can create feelings of isolation, with no sense of belonging if there are not adequate opportunities to effectively interact, as face-to-face communication is often abandoned for emails, instant messaging and the prevalence of workspace apps.

If employees are not provided with the opportunity to collaborate and integrate, could we be faced with an increase in occupational stress claims in the future? Modern ways of working can end up isolating if technology or office design removes the impetus for people to chat or collaborate. Loneliness can be a costly aspect of workplace wellness as lonely people are less engaged with work and more likely to need sick days, not to mention that if the employer is responsible for creating this environment then there is the possibility that this will open organisations up to claims.

New ways of monitoring the well-being of employees will therefore need to be considered to avoid or reduce future risks. Indeed, due to such concerns, we are already seeing companies setting technology free zones and some companies have policies of not writing emails after certain hours.

Sedentary lifestyles

Research has shown that a sedentary lifestyle cause or contributes to health problems, including heart disease, poor mental health, type 2 diabetes and cancers. Office work is a sedentary occupation but office workers are visible to their employers on a daily basis, in a way that home workers are not and to what extent is an employer responsible for monitoring and managing this? If they are, we could see workers being required to use smart devices to record their activity levels to highlight how sedentary they are during working hours to determine what changes may need to be taken. Although this raises additional ethical considerations not to mention the impact on privacy considerations. For now, employer duties do not extend to what happens in a persons home but in this evolving situation this could be set to change.

Comment

We live in rapidly changing times including how we work. As such, some historic risks to health will dissipate and new ones, such as those associated with working from home could emerge. Flexibility in the way we work is certainly something that is growing. It is crucial that employers look to those future risks, anticipate their impact and seek to implement strategies to reduce or avoid them and for their insurers to ensure there are adequate safeguard measures in place when providing cover.

Read other items in Occupational Disease Brief - September 2019

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