Updated: Apr 10
✦ “Do not be afraid of change; it is the only thing that’s dependable” - Japanese Samurai proverb
Change is inevitable. Without it we cannot develop, improve and advance, in literally every facet of human life. Sometimes change is nurtured, sometimes it is forced upon us. Regardless, it almost always leaves us in a different place or position, very much facing the unknown.
We all recall how COVID-19 tore through the world leaving chaos in its wake and reshaping much of our everyday lives as we now know them. While it had a devastating impact in numerous, far more serious ways, it absolutely reshaped the environmental structure and day-to-day dynamic traditionally associated with the work place. It’s fair to say this has largely changed immeasurably, perhaps forever.
With April 28th celebrating World Day for Safety and Health at Work, we thought we would pause to take stock of the ever-evolving work environment in its current and latest guise and focus on some of the health and safety issues related to it, specifically in the white-collar sector.
While “work from home” became de rigueur during the pandemic, it is something that has stuck for many. Thanks to modern day technology innovation, that seemingly endless period of lockdown proved that many professions could still function without having to physically be in the office. As we slowly lurched to a level of normality, workers were reluctant to return to their previous routines of commuting and spending long hours within the office environment, with hybrid working becoming increasingly widespread and acceptable.
A World Economic Forum report in December 2022 highlighted a survey conducted by Ispos which showed that less than one in 10 favoured a full-time return to the office.
Whereas the exact statistics are nigh on impossible to ascertain, it’s safe to say the number of full-time office workers now is far less than at the start of 2020. And while working from home or in a hybrid capacity seems to be the favourable approach for most, it does come with pitfalls relating to health and, to an extent, safety.
One of the most obvious negatives of working from home is that it can increase inactivity. No more commuting, popping out for lunch, walking around the office from department to department, etc. For many, working from home literally brings with it home comforts where even dressing for work is dismissed as unnecessary, while leaving the house can be easily neglected. This is especially pertinent to those living in cold locations when, during the winter months, the temptation to keep the front door well and truly closed is a very real one.
Similarly, people could find themselves neglecting any form of fitness or exercise regime. A frequent past time for many would be a trip to the gym before or after work or perhaps a yoga, pilates or spin class during lunch. While subscriptions for home exercise regimes and virtual workouts peaked during the pandemic, it is not known how much of that was a fad and how much is still currently employed.
Diet can also potentially be compromised when working from home. In this day and age of instant gratification it is all too easy to order in food and it can take discipline to ensure that order is a healthy one. Again, those in colder climes are far more likely to adopt this approach than brave the elements. While the statistic is very much generic, revenue in the Online Food Delivery market is projected to reach almost US$1 trillion this year, an annual growth rate of 12.33%.
One of the most prominent aspects of working from home during the pandemic brought under the microscope was that of mental health. While many embraced not having to mingle with co-workers, there were an equal number who struggled with the absence of social interaction and for whom isolation at home (even if with their families) proved a very real challenge. As mental health has very much become widely acknowledged as a genuine condition and threat in recent years, endless people felt the weight and potentially still could if they are working from home or even in a hybrid situation.
Similarly, the new work environment has seen a shift in the traditional engagement of roles in that independent contract workers and freelancers have now become far more prevalent; indeed the gig economy has never been so ripe. There were a significant number of redundancies during and after the pandemic in a wide range of industries as the economic fall-out truly bit, leaving a sizeable number of people without work or having to turn their hand to something altogether new. Again, whereas this was embraced by many as positive change and opportunity, it had a detrimental impact on many others, with mental health often compromised as a result. The notion of uncertainty and insecurity this new order entails leaves many in a compromised position, something that is especially worrisome for bread winners carrying mortgages, family obligations, etc.
Another aspect of the new working from home/hybrid model is the increase in workload and the impact this has. Cut backs experienced in the past three years often resulted in additional work being farmed onto retained employees. Add to that the almost round-the-clock connectivity that technology now affords us and the fact that many companies are global and thus operating across a myriad of time zones and we see a significant increase in workload which takes a very real strain. In this sort of scenario an inevitable, negative cycle is created where all the areas alluded to above such as exercise, socialising, eating healthy, etc are further compromised as time is in short supply and convenience often the answer.
Of course, like anything, it can go the other way too; many have adapted to the new work environment with relish, adopting much healthier lifestyles, structuring a schedule that incorporates exercise, activity and healthier food options alongside work obligations. In short, they’ve found the right balance. However, in these tentative early days of the ever-evolving workplace, especially for those that may not have found the right balance yet, it is important to pay heed to potential pitfalls that vulnerable people may succumb to. We need to ensure there is an acute focus on supporting mental health and that physical health is not neglected – it is a time for gyms, wellbeing specialists and health food providers to step up and promote their goods and services like never before.
In conclusion, and as alluded to in the Japanese proverb at the outset, change may well be the only thing that is dependable in life - the past few years have been absolute proof of this. Be that as it may, the important thing now is to make sure that change in the workplace is supported by dependable, sensible and robust approaches that safeguard health and safety for all.
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