British Psychological Society – Written Evidence (LOL0044)
The British Psychological Society, incorporated by Royal Charter, is the learned and professional body for psychologists in the United Kingdom. We are a registered charity with a total membership of just over 60,000.
Under its Royal Charter, the objective of the British Psychological Society is "to promote the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of psychology pure and applied and especially to promote the efficiency and usefulness of members by setting up a high standard of professional education and knowledge". We are committed to providing and disseminating evidence-based expertise and advice, engaging with policy and decision makers, and promoting the highest standards in learning and teaching, professional practice and research.
The British Psychological Society is an examining body granting certificates and diplomas in specialist areas of professional applied psychology.
About this Response
The response was jointly led on behalf of the Society by the BPS Policy Team.
With contributions from: The BPS’s Cyberpsychology Section Committee, the Working Differently and Adaptations groups within the BPS’s Covid-19 Taskforce, the BPS’s Division of Occupational Psychology working groups on Work-Life Balance and Going Green, and a number of individual members working in this area.
Long-term increase in reliance on digital technology may improve access, however, those from low SES backgrounds or who choose not to invest in technology may be disadvantaged and face barriers when accessing health services (British Psychological Society, 2020a). Consideration is needed of those with additional complex needs, neurodiversity, younger children and others where access depends on family factors (British Psychological Society, 2020b). Adaptations and/ or support may also be needed to ensure vulnerable people have IT, internet and the skills needed to access services.
This may increase the gap between those who have their needs met and those who do not, further threatening health outcomes for those already disadvantaged. Some people may prefer ‘traditional’ methods of accessing certain services and be reluctant to use an alternative, leaving health concerns unaddressed.
For some people, physically attending an appointment may be the only time they have left their home. This may have an adverse impact if face to face options are not available. However, it may be easier to facilitate appointments as travel and consultation room(s) are not required. However, it may be challenging for clients to access private space In their homes for assessment and personal disclosures may be hampered- particularly if they are multi-occupancy and the health problem is sensitive (British Psychological Society, 2020a).
For some, technology may hinder their ability to trust and develop rapport with the assessor, while others may feel more comfortable being assessed remotely. However, this can mean clinicians feel they “must” offer digital services, even when it is not clinically appropriate. For example, in regard to psychological assessments specifically, it is worth noting that it can be difficult to judge the behaviours that help inform assessment – e.g. body language, breathing, personal hygiene, eye contact, self-harm scars. Some types of assessment have not been validated for digital use so cannot be conducted remotely (British Psychological Society, 2020c).
On the other hand, there is some evidence to suggest that some patients may be more honest when discussing medial needs and health conditions with physicians via a screen (Hordern et al 2011) - so this could positively impact on the ability health professionals to accurately diagnose some health conditions. There is also some evidence that telemedicine may foster increased patient trust in the physician (Ivy 2018)
Yes –some people may have difficulty accessing or using digital technology. Many communities are digitally excluded; these include the homeless, those living in poverty, asylum seeking people, others with insecure immigration status and the elderly.
There are many community based approaches and programmes that have provide useful case studies regarding how increasing access to digital technology can be done. For example, one group affected during the pandemic were older adults in the Jewish Community, many who were not familiar with how to use smart phones, iPads or computers. The Sussex Jewish Representative Council in coordination with Helping Hands ensured that as many people as possible were equipped with digital skills to engage with what was going on in the community by providing on the phone training and support (Gaber, 2020).
Furthermore, many asylum-seeking people and refugees have reported not having the means to access the Internet either because landlords would not provide Internet WIFI in rented accommodation and/or because of poverty. Many have had to face choosing between buying food or data bundles from their £35 a week. The impact of not being able to access the Internet meant that they could not keep up with the ever-changing health advice about Covid-19 (Doctors of the World, 2020).
As is outlined in following sections, homeworkers may struggle to separate work and home when there is no physical separation. They may not be able to manage work-related stress or may feel disconnected from colleagues. Some may have had to learn new strategies as they are unable to use customary ways of decompressing and boundary setting. Others may welcome the lack of commute and the flexibility. For those required to use digital technology for long periods at work, the additional use of technology in daily life may lead to technology ‘fatigue’.
In addition, emerging evidence also shows that digital access can exacerbate inequalities for some children and young people given that the home learning context highly dependent on digital technology to access learning as well as a stable/sufficient internet connection, with adequate data download allowances. While the Department for Education pledged to provide devices for pupils in Years 3 to 11 on free school meals who do not have laptops and pupils whose education is disrupted (lockdown/self-isolating / shielding), many pupils have struggled to gain access to learning where devises are shared or access to online is limited. There are examples being reported of a mobile phone being shared between parents and multiple children (Stelitano et al., 2020). It is also reported that the burden of home-schooling has also been disproportionately borne by women (Mayhew et al., 2020).
The introduction of the DfE’s statutory Temporary Direction requiring all schools to provide remote education for pupils who are unable to attend school is of concern since the infrastructure to support effective remote teaching and learning is simply not in place, particularly in rural/remote areas of the country (Ferri et al., 2020). Ofcom estimates that up to 1.78 million children in the UK have no access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home (Vibert, 2020). As a result, there is now a significant risk to children from impoverished and low-income communities of further serious educational disadvantage for the duration of the pandemic which can have a significant impact on both physical and mental health.
However, providing low cost/free opportunities to remain physically active. Signposting to activities that are low cost and possible to carry out even in times of restriction/lockdown, e.g. walking, practicing yoga at home. Considering other factors that influence fitness, such as nutrition, sleep, stress management, etc. all can help individuals navigate through this pandemic. Addressing barriers to digital technology is crucial.
Online classes offer opportunities to link with others. Using social media to share progress, motivate others and be motivated. Positive role models can encourage people to engage with health activities. Apps, fitness trackers, smart watches, etc to self-monitor and encourage the setting and achievement of goals. Moreover, to the degree that the pandemic has created more health anxiety (Taylor 2019), we can hope that there will also be increased health consciousness moving forward. Now would be an efficient and effective moment to promote healthy activity.
From an occupational perspective, there are concerns about the outsourcing of risk in relation to working from home. Organisational risk can be put on the individual, for example through zero hours contracts, fixed hours, agile working, split shifts. We saw the negative effect of this throughout the pandemic, where employees were making individual anxiety-inducing decisions based on global issues they had no control over (British Psychological Society 2020d).
We may see the gig economy concept spreading into workplaces, where the self-employed ‘portfolio’ worker is seen to be more cost effective. This will undoubtedly have negative impact on worker health and wellbeing, as anxiety increases. We also still aren’t sure how employers will be held accountable for the wellbeing of their employees, if people are not in the office. There is a trend towards fully remote working and it is likely that more immersive technology will enhance remote working in the future. This will continue to require organisations and individuals to stay more up-to-date with technological changes and to develop their digital skills. Lastly, there are also issues around how workloads will be monitored. Will the focus finally change to outputs rather than hours worked?
It is worth noting that three key drivers of job satisfaction are a) sense of autonomy, b) sense or relatedness (connectedness) and c) a sense of competence (Deci et al 2001). The area of positive computing (Calvo and Peters 2014) draws on this framework to develop digital solutions that promote job satisfaction and wellbeing in general by supporting these basic psychological needs. So the answer to the question of what impact these might have on job satisfaction depends on whether digital technologies are used to support autonomy, relatedness and competence or undermine them.
All the above means job satisfaction will vary based on the amount of control, the location and the individual’s need. We expect to see a more blended experience in future, with employees choosing where they want to work based on their specific needs. This should limit the negative impact of overreliance on digital technology we currently see (due to current necessity) whilst retaining the positives of greater flexibility. Further clarity and review will also be required for many to see how the duty of care of an employer works in the home. For example, risk assessments will need to be fit for purpose and include psychosocial risks as well as ergonomic.
Many will likely not need to live as close to where their work is based, especially if they are not required in the office every day. Many remote workers may as a result move out of cities to (relatively) cheaper areas in order to enhance their quality of life and save money.
This has strong potential to enhance economic wellbeing, both for individual workers and communities. Although, a flight from cities could have negative impacts on those cities set up for a commuter model, and there will likely be short term problems with an influx of workers into areas not set up to cater for a larger population. It is worth noting that there may also be negative consequences for the health and economic wellbeing of local communities (i.e. rising property prices).
This has strong potential to enhance economic wellbeing, both for individual workers and communities. Once more, the point must be made that investment in local services like broadband will be essential to delivering a digitally equal society.
Indeed, high speed broadband will be essential to support remote working in the longer term and having a good broadband connection could become a prerequisite for certain jobs. We are already seeing an increased demand for houses with a home office – likewise people will factor in local broadband speeds to their decision.
Digital technology is subject to very rapid change, so it will be essential for people to develop these skills as well as the confidence and flexibility required to embrace change. The importance of psychosocial skills as well as digital skills should not be overlooked (British Psychological Society 2020e). The need to have the skills and competencies required to work remotely in a healthy and sustainable manner can be overlooked (e.g. interpersonal skills, adaptability, resilience, self-confidence and mental wellness), so insight will be needed into how to develop these competencies among staff. It is essential to raise awareness among organisations that they are responsible for their home-working employees’ psychological health and safety as well as their physical health.
If the whole economy shifts more towards precarious work, we will see individuals needing to sort their own training, which may reduce opportunities for those who cannot pay for professional development. Local hubs and support networks will be vital in supporting workers to stay on top of changes.
Homeworking is only beneficial where people have choice and control over their patterns of work. The ability to ‘craft’ the role to support your lifestyle is especially important, and support is needed to achieve this (British Psychological Society, 2020e). Also important is the realisation that you cannot just move individuals to homeworking without careful planning and risk assessment.
The key point is that homeworking provides flexibility, so those with conditions that make it difficult to travel, to be around people, to sit at a desk for 7 hours without rest will see the barriers to their employment lifted. Flexibility is also important for those with caring responsibilities, who can now combine a job with the unpredictable nature of care responsibilities. This flexibility will only be beneficial if employers allow them choice and control over their working hours and patterns though. Employers who allow people to work from home, but who expect specific hours to be observed will not see a benefit.
However, work-life balance can be threatened when it is difficult to maintain physical and psychological boundaries between “work” and “personal life”. People may also work longer hours or revert to being ‘always on’. Job insecurity is also likely to exacerbate these problems as people work longer and harder to be seen as working exceptionally hard, which can lead to stress, anxiety and depression.
Currently, many are working in spaces that are unsuitable (e.g. bedrooms), particularly young workers in multiple occupancy households. This was manageable when workers were commuting but is less so when all workers are at home all day as well as all night. Long term there will be negative impacts to isolation or over-exposure to housemates and poor posture/working, living and sleeping in the same four walls.
We’re also seeing presenteeism issues as it’s easier to work at home when ill, which hinders recovery. There is also a strong risk that working at home may increase sedentary behaviour and reduce activity. There needs to be long term arrangements to support construction of healthy workspaces at home that take into account personal and specific needs and circumstances.
Evidence informed guidance is needed to help organisations support staff who are working at home, for example, building individual skills like boundary setting and ‘switching off’, with clear incentives and disincentives to do so. The notion of soldiering on needs to be looked at. This guidance should also make clear that social interaction is important, with flexibility in working hours to empower employees to go outside when it is light. Social interaction within the office can be replaced with more opportunity for social interaction with their families, communities or friends.
Taking control of social and economic wellbeing is important here (as well as understanding the anxiety both can cause). This was as important before the pandemic as it is now.
Opportunities for informal social interactions and information exchange can be provided online, but more awareness is needed of the importance of informal contact and how this can be done creatively (British Psychological Society, 2020e). A risk of online socialising is that people typically find extended online communication more tiring than face to face communication (so called zoom fatigue), so may resist this.
Younger workers and those who are starting new jobs may be particularly affected as opportunities for informal learning and social bonding online are limited. Some employees will now have been in post for eight months without setting foot in the office or meeting colleagues face to face.
But this may not necessarily impact on creativity. The blended approach of the future will allow people to meet up for creative discussions in the office, but the homeworking element will give people freedom and time to think, coming into the office with an uncluttered mind (British Psychological Society, 2020f). More research is required here – it is too early to tell whether creativity has been helped or hindered by technology. There is however a need to create a healthy balance between digital and real world. People need the opportunity to engage with nature, arts, physical exercise, involving all their senses. Digital working can be more efficient in undertaking tasks but there is a need to build in time for communication and sensory experiences in the real world as well.
As noted above, most major cities are planned around large numbers of commuters using public transport, spending money in city centres and using office space. Increased homeworking will have an adverse effect on this economic model. Instead, money will be spent local to the workers’ homes, so there could be a positive impact on declining local high streets though it is much too early to draw out conclusions at the current time. It is also likely that there will be an increased reliance on online shopping.
We don’t know the long term impact on the environment but lockdown has shown the psychological positives of engaging in nature (Mind, 2020). Many people have spoken of the mental health boost they got from engaging with green spaces. They are good for wellbeing and local councils should factor them in to future planning decisions under wellbeing commitments.
A reduction in commuting will have an impact on global carbon emissions. Less cars on the road is a good thing given the emerging link between vehicle emissions and mental health problems.
To some extent, digital technology companies are already starting to do this. For example, Twitter has started highlighting hateful or dubious tweets, while LinkedIn asks whether you want to post something, if it considers the content to be harmful.
The use of social media should be seen in the context of the what, the why and the how. What is being accessed, why are they accessing those issues, and how is it being interpreted? Many people use social media passively without it affecting their wellbeing. We have seen the growth of online communities, neighbourhood chat groups and online support groups that have positively improved lives. Many feel less inhibited online, so a more likely to open up. Equally, an intimidating in-person meeting may be less intimidating online.
Conversely, others will be affected negatively and may need help to identify when this is happening. Online abuse and cyberbullying has developed as lockdown made it harder to dissipate anger elsewhere (ITV, 2020). We have seen “zoom-bombing” of minority group meetings, while constantly looking at yourself in online meetings has been a struggle for those with eating disorders (The Conversation, 2020; Baenas et al, 2020).
It is this loss of control that is psychologically damaging. Modern society requires interaction through social media, as seen in lockdown, but whereas you have full control over your physical self, your online self (which is still very much part of your identity) is part controlled by a company. Issues of ownership or control tend to come out when something extreme has happened, for example when your data is used in a way you didn’t expect it to be used or when a relative dies. In these emotionally charged experiences there is likely to be a negative impact on wellbeing, as it becomes evident how much power has been passed to the company through the terms and conditions.
Other people, and in some cases, AI, are and will be making decisions on your data. This marketization of the self is already used for targeted advertising or behavioural insights, but also for more nefarious schemes, for example the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook data scandal. This is a real consideration for all of us, but especially those who share many aspects of their lives on social media, with every mistake or inappropriate comment risks being catalogued and stored. Regulation of the internet has simply not kept pace with technological changes. This requires global cooperation and standards to ensure people’s feelings or thoughts aren’t used to damage their wellbeing.
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10 December 2020