In these uncertain times, a lot of us have changed our office desk for the kitchen table, and although we certainly feel safer from the raging pandemic outside, working from home can have its own risks to watch out for.

In 2019, only 5% of all UK workers said they mainly worked from home, which represented 1.7 million workers out of the 32.6 million in employment at the time. However, remote working is expected to continue growing globally, especially now that most of us have received a crash course on it over the last couple of weeks. It is predicted that by 2028, 73% of all work teams will have homeworkers.

But who is responsible for your health and safety while you are telecommuting? The answer to that is the same as it would be in the office: your employer remains in charge of your safety as an employee, despite you working remotely.

However, there is always a collaborative element to safety and there is still a lot you can do to improve the suitability of your new environment for what could be a long-term solution.

In this blog we will discuss what risks can be associated with working from home, both physical and mental, and what we can do about them—with some inspiration from how the Pro-Sapien team have risen to the challenge.

Things To Watch Out For

Ergonomics

The forgotten art of sitting down. Who knew in this dystopian reality one of our main concerns would be finding the perfect cushion-to-chair ratio to imitate our deeply underappreciated office chair?

Although it may seem superficial, ergonomics plays a huge role in leading an effective work life. We all have suffered a sore back or shoulders at some point in our lives, and even if right now there are different health issues keeping us awake at night, these can cause serious pain and discomfort in the long-term.

Using the correct chair can greatly improve our posture when working from home, but it is also up to us to check that we are sitting in the right position.

In order to make your home office as comfortable as possible, you might want to consider the use of cushions or investing in a new desk chair. Some employers have even allowed staff to take their office chairs home (Pro-Sapien is one of them!).

Being aware of your posture means you’ll hopefully be able to correct any bad habits before they cause long-term issues. This diagram shows how you should be sitting at your desk:

Guidelines to maintain a good posture while working at a desk

In addition, don’t forget to take breaks. It is recommended to stand up every 30 minutes, so why not set a reminder and use that time to do a lap around the house or, if you’re anything like the Pro-Sapien team, make a hot cup of tea.

A big challenge for me is not walking very far between spaces. In an office there is a short walk to the kitchen, but at home (for me anyway) it’s a mere few steps so I miss having the space to change my scenery. To help with this I take time every now and again to stand on my balcony for a minute watching the quiet world go by.

Hannah S, Marketing & Communications Manager, Pro-Sapien

Breaks help address a number of the risks in this article—not only is it good for your body to stretch your legs, it’s good to give your eyes a rest from looking at a screen.

Black Mirrors

In case you have ever wondered, the title of popular TV show Black Mirror is referring to none other than a screen. Think about it.

Screens play a huge role in our everyday lives. If you look around, on the assumption that you are working from home, I bet most of you will see at least three: your laptop, your TV and your phone.

The average American spends around 3.5 hours online on their phone, so we can only guess how much longer we must spend looking at all our screens combined. Consequences range from fatigue to eye strain and headaches.

Precautionary measures can be taken to minimize risk. For example, reducing glare and reflections on the screen can be done by keeping it from facing windows or bright lights. Intrusive light can be kept low with curtains and blinds.

You might even consider bringing home your office monitor if your employer permits, as it is more configurable than a laptop and can be placed at eye level to improve comfort and posture. It was one of the first things I rescued from the office and I don’t regret it.

Moreover, many devices have a night light setting or the ability to tint the screen to make it easier on the eye. Here’s how to control the temperature of your screen in Windows 10.  

Screenshot of how to control your screen temperature in Windows 10

Isolation

Isolation is a word we’ve heard more often than usual recently.

Sometimes psychological threats are overlooked, but with a quarter of the world’s population being encouraged to stay home and limit social contact, the risks associated with isolation have never been so real.

In fact, even in normal times (can we call them that now?), 41% of remote workers reported high stress levels, compared to just 25% of office workers. This highlights the fact that telecommuters are an especially at-risk demographic for stress, and EHS professionals know too well the consequences of stress at work.

Signs that isolation is taking its toll on your mental health include loneliness and burnout. These feelings can be especially acute for employees who haven’t teleworked before or do not have a habit of doing so frequently.

A further side-effect of isolation is feeling a lack of support from colleagues that you would normally experience in the workplace, which can cause heightened stress and lack of sleep.

Lack of socialising and seeing people is what I struggle with, never mind not getting my weekly takeout lunch on Fridays.

Reza H, Developer at Pro-Sapien

Despite the current unprecedented conditions, employers should actively put in place a structure to facilitate on-going support despite physical distance.

Microsoft Teams does a great job as the foundation for such an initiative, but it is up to employers to use it in a way that will promote a culture of support among employees. Teams usage jumped to 44 million in March as more and more companies rely on the communication platform.

In terms of what we can do to feel less isolated during work hours, try to communicate with your colleagues as much as you would in the office. If you are feeling lonely, chances are they will be feeling the same way. A great way to do this is to have a ‘Kitchen’ or ‘Lunchtime’ Teams meeting that’s always available for any employee to drop in for a chat.

Blurred Lines

Fortunately or unfortunately, we are not referring to the Pharrell Williams song when we say Blurred Lines.

The lines that get blurred when working from home are the ones that divide our work life from our personal life. When there are no longer clearly defined spaces for each activity, it can be challenging to keep a balance. This works both ways.

Since the beginning of March, in some countries affected by the COVID-19 outbreak such as Canada and Spain, the working day has been inadvertently extended by an average of two hours as more people work remotely.

By having your workstation at home, you may feel like you are expected to be available to work 24/7, and therefore work longer hours. Or you don’t have the home-time visual cues of colleagues packing up, so you don’t realize that it’s actually now 8pm. The result is stress from not being able to fully disconnect.

On the flip side, another problem can be that your own personal life (family, friends, pets…) is disrupting your work environment, decreasing productivity and again resulting in elevated stress levels.

Working in a full house is hard. Thankfully I live on a backroad, so I’m going to use my government-mandated exercise time to go for a walk at lunch, just to get some fresh air.

Gregory K, Developer at Pro-Sapien

Boundaries are key, and therefore it is important to keep work separated from personal life. It’s easier said than done, but try to allocate a particular space in your home exclusively for work. Keep any work-related business as far away from the bedroom as possible. Remember when your workday starts and ends and adhere to it as much as possible.

The biggest challenge is knowing when to stop working. I’m setting up my office in the spare room so I can close the door on it!

Andy G, Technical Director at Pro-Sapien.

You should also remember to take breaks when you usually would in the office. If you are still not respecting these boundaries, set up alarms or reminders.

Things To Look Forward To

The (Fairly Short) Commute

Apart from the obvious advantage of social distancing, there are many other benefits associated with remote work. Funnily enough, it has taken a global pandemic for many companies to consider them.

Time is the most valuable resource we have, so why do we use it so carelessly? Americans’ average commute is of 35 minutes daily. By working from home, commute times are drastically reduced to walking to your living room or study, meaning that if we continued to telework for the rest of the year we would be saving 6 days’ worth of travelling. Imagine everything you could do with that time (once social distancing is over)!

“For me it’s all about time. Working from home has meant I have had more time to dedicate to special projects, to exercise and even to start on some home improvements. Not to mention an extra 30 min lie-in!”

Dieter V, Senior Developer at Pro-Sapien.

But time is not the only thing affected by commuting. UK workers spend around £800 annually getting to and from work, with most travelling by car or public transport. I walk to the Pro-Sapien office so my commuting costs are nil anyway, but my wallet has certainly noticed the drop in takeaway lunches and coffees I am inclined to consume when working in town.

“I don’t miss travelling to work when the Scottish weather is playing up. I am saving time and money every day that I can spend with my family, and the best part is I get to avoid rush hour in Glasgow Central.”

Scott M, Developer at Pro-Sapien.

The comfort of working from home also avoids stressful situations we might encounter on our everyday commute, that although manageable, can become irritating over time. People that travel by public transport will be all too familiar with the crammed spaces, which can still be witnessed in the London Underground even after the UK introduced lockdown measures.

A Happy and Healthy Environment

Despite the mental health risks, it appears that people who work from home are, in fact, happier.

An American study found that remote workers were 57% more likely to be satisfied by their job than the average office worker, and 80% claimed they would turn down a job that didn’t offer flexible working. This is sometimes due to home workers spending more time with their family, which if managed correctly, results in a better work-life balance.

Believe it or not, and despite many employers’ concern that lack of supervision could result in less work getting done, home workers actually feel more productive. A cause or consequence of this trend could be the increased in hours when working from home that we discussed earlier.

The office environment is dynamic but can sometimes be distracting and noisy. When workers are given the tools to create their own workspace, their work performance and focus tends to improve.

So Is Working From Home Good or Bad For Me?

Overall, working from home is not all good or all bad, but there is a clear trend of companies becoming more open to the idea. The current crisis has forced employers to quickly adapt their workforce to remote working and, even after restrictions are relaxed, they may be more likely to continue promoting it.

In terms of demand, the number of workers that value the ability of working from home has risen, and 77% of businesses in the world are today using flexible workspace policies to attract and retain skilled workers.  

As we have seen, the home office must also be assessed for potential risks and these need to be addressed and carefully managed. Does this mean that it is worse than your regular workspace? Not at all.

Although you might not be as aware of it, your employer constantly assesses risk found in the office and is responsible for taking action to ensure it remains a safe and healthy space. When working from home, although responsibility for your wellbeing still lies with the employer, as workers we are simply expected to take a more proactive role in maintaining these standards.

At Pro-Sapien, a lot of our team members were already familiar with working from home before the pandemic started, but even we have had to adjust! I hope that by sharing these tips your home office, and those of your employees, is that little bit safer.

Icons To Make Your Own COVID-19 Resources

In addition to these tips, we have also created a new COVID-19 Safety Icons Pack to share with your team, to serve as a reminder of how to prevent the spread of the virus wherever they are working from.

COVID-19 Safety Icons Use icons to encourage hand washing and social distancing

Irene Zueco is the Marketing and Communications Executive at Pro-Sapien. Irene graduated from Strathclyde University with a Master’s in International Business and Modern Languages in 2018. She has lived in Spain and Italy, but 7 years ago decided to move to Scotland where she currently resides despite the weather. Outside of work she enjoys travelling and good food, preferably paired with a good wine too.

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