By Thierry Malleret, economist
Experts now predict that in wealthier nations, the future is at least partial working from home. “Remote-first” is fast gaining the upper hand because a) workers want it (people reject the wellbeing toll of commuting and want more agency over their work)–and b) research shows that it boosts productivity. But the work-from-home shift brings a new threat: always-on work and a further erosion of any line between “life” and work.
A new study from the World Health Organization shows that among the 2 million people that die from work-related causes a year, the biggest risk factor is long working hours–which is linked to a shocking 750,000 deaths. The remote work future will fundamentally change what “workplace wellness” means. It will be less about wellness perks such as yoga classes and gym facilities and more about meaningful employer policies and legislation restricting the number of working hours, passing laws that recognize a worker’s right not to be online all the time, and mandating paid leave. (See the new laws in Portugal below.)
In wealthier nations, as working from home becomes the norm, “remote-first” is gaining the upper hand. For instance, in February 2020, 5% of all US working hours were spent at home–this soared to 60% in May 2020 (during the lockdowns) and now stands at 40%. Figures are similar around the world, and most experts expect that in the future we’ll work from home for at least one to two days a week.
Over recent months, the assertions of those exhorting us not to do so, such as banks and governments, are less and less vehement. Working partially in a remote manner is inevitable for two reasons: 1) workers want it (an obligation to be back full-time in the office is perceived as the equivalent of a 5%+ salary cut) and 2) in the plethora of research on the subject, a consensus is emerging that working from home has a positive impact on productivity.
Companies will also benefit from decreased overheads, and those who don’t catch the “remote-first” trend will lose talent. The quest for improved daily wellbeing is a key driver of the “remote-first” idea. When possible, we want to work from home because it makes us feel better by reducing the need to commute (a wellbeing destroyer) and gives us more agency over how and when we work (on the condition that we are not being monitored via our computer by our employer–another wellbeing destroyer).
For many, the benefits of homeworking are indisputable, but they are not without contingent risks: an always on approach can mean no healthy delineation between work and home life. This is all the more relevant in light of a recent study from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) which concludes that almost 2 million people die from work-related causes each year. Shockingly, the occupational risk factor with the largest number of attributable deaths is the exposure to long working hours, linked to approximately 750,000 deaths per year (the WHO/ILO study considers long-working hours to be anything upwards of 55 hours).
Hopefully these findings will be a wake-up call that will eventually broaden the scope of what wellness at work means both in and out of the office. It will be less about wellness perks such as yoga, meditation, free meals, and gym facilities at work, and more about societal solutions like restricting the number of working hours, passing laws that recognize a worker’s right not to be online all the time, and mandating paid leave.