Professor Abigail Marks, Dr Oliver Mallett and Dr Danny Zschomler, Dr Lila Skountridaki – Written Evidence (LOL0070)

 

Executive Summary


 

  1. Physical Health

 

1.1.          How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology in our everyday lives affect our physical health?

 

1.1.1.  Our survey suggests that more than half of the respondents (54% of 1329 valid answers) felt that they had not exercised enough during the first lockdown.

 

1.1.2.  At the start of lockdown, many people took physical activity seriously and invested in running, cycling and walking. However, this has tailed off and it is possible that working from home in the longer term may have a detrimental impact on physical health. As has been reported elsewhere, many members of our interview participants reported weight gain due to increased snacking – many workers were based in the kitchen with easy access to food. Overall however, there was reporting of consuming higher quality and more locally produced food, rather than a reliance on ready meals.

 

 

1.1.3.  Over half of our interview participants mentioned musculoskeletal problems due to sitting for long periods of time in one position, often with an inappropriate workspace.

 

1.2.          Will homeworking affect the health of different groups – older people, children, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, home-workers – in different ways?

 

1.2.1.  We found no difference in terms of gender and physical activity, or any meaningful differences for minority groups. However parents of children under the age of five, whilst under lockdown conditions, were more likely to report that they were unable to exercise sufficiently.

 

1.3.          What steps can be taken to mitigate any negative consequences for physical activity and fitness?

 

1.3.1.  Given the likely prevalence of long-term homeworking, government guidance should be upgraded in terms of employer responsibilities for providing equipment - including larger equipment such as ergonomic chairs - as well as guidance on remaining active while homeworking

 

1.4.          What can be done by Government, employers and other organisations to mitigate any negative impact that an increased reliance on digital technology will have on physical health?

 

1.4.1.  Amendment of the HSE working safely with Display Screen Equipment needs to be developed for more widespread long-term homeworking and adhered to by organisations.

 

  1. Mental Health

 

2.1.          How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology affect mental health? And will any increasing reliance on digital technology affect the mental health of different groups – older people, children, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, home-workers – in different ways?

 

2.1.1.  Traditional homeworkers have similar levels of mental wellbeing to those who are office based[i]. Our data suggests however, at the start of lockdown, for the new homeworkers, mental health declined but has improved over time with adaptation to the ‘new normal’. We have seen another drop in mental health with the onset of winter. Mental wellbeing during lockdown was poorer for those new homeworkers with children under 11. There is currently insufficient data on mass longer term homeworking to make absolute conclusions but what evidence is available, suggests some decrease in mental health for women in particular

Our research suggests that during June-July 2020:

 

                                                                      60% of our survey respondents did not believe that their personal life had a negative impact on their working life when working from home. Nonetheless, 28% of our participants felt that their personal responsibilities put strain on their ability to work. 

 

2.1.2.  Overall, parents report higher life to work conflict than those without children. Parents of children under 11 report higher life to work conflict than parents of older children. There is some evidence that home crowdedness increases life to work conflict.

 

2.2.          What steps can be taken to mitigate some of the negative consequences of any increasing reliance on digital technology on mental health?

 

2.2.1.  Government needs to recommend maximum ‘screen time’ for employees without taking a break.

 

2.2.2.  For employees who live on their own, extra attention needs to be paid to the provision of adequate opportunities for interaction with colleagues both in person, and online.

 

  1. Social Interaction

 

3.1.          How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology affect relationships and social interactions? How will it affect the social interactions between individuals and how will it affect social cohesion in communities and wider society? What are likely to be the effects on existing relationships, on nascent relationships, and on those seeking to form relationships?

 

3.1.1.  From our research, a lack of social interaction as a result of homeworking, appears to be a major area for concern and is likely to impact on mental health. Our interview participants very clearly miss the informal interactions at work. Based on the results of our survey, nearly half the participants were concerned about the absence of the social aspects of work. Indeed, there is an established body of work looking at the mitigating role of the social element of work on strain[ii]. What we have found is that it is not as simple as the mere absence of the social nature of work, it is the social aspect of work as a part of a complex buffering system forming part of the ebb and flow of the working day which is absent or less prominent when homeworking.

 

3.2.          What steps need to be taken to ensure that this does not lead to a long-term increase in loneliness, isolation and mental health issues?

 

3.2.1.  Post-COVID, there will be a need for individuals and organisations to ensure an workable balance of work from the office, home and other remote locations to allow effective collaboration and productivity but also to mitigate the dangers of social isolation and loneliness?

 

3.3.          Will any increasing reliance on digital technology affect the social interactions for homeworkers?

 

3.3.1.  Overall, 46% of homeworkers either agree or strongly agree that teamwork and camaraderie suffer as a result of homeworking. The result of our interviews indicate that this is particularly the case for young workers, who are more reliant on their peer groups for socialisation and social integration at work and are thus suffering more from the isolation of homeworking.

 

3.4.          What role could digital technology play in increasing opportunities for social interactions? Does an increase in reliance on digital technology provide an opportunity to develop more innovative ways of developing relationships and interacting? Is it also an opportunity to reach out to those who have been left lonely and isolated by more traditional methods of social interaction?

 

3.4.1.  For the majority, digital technology cannot substitute for face-to-face interaction. Certainly from a work perspective, when working at home, some opportunity for face-to-face interaction is important. However, when this is not possible, employees should have space to interact with colleagues on a more informal basis online.

 

3.5.          What can be done by Government, employers and other organisations to mitigate any negative impact that an increased reliance on digital technology will have on social interaction?

 

3.5.1.  Organisations must avoid the pressure for ‘digital presenteeism’ for workers.

 

3.5.2.  Government must provide clear recommendations for the maximum ‘online’ time that is expected by employees during a working day.

 

3.5.3.  Managers must be trained to support and manage employees who are working remotely and to recognise the sign of ‘Zoom fatigue’ in workers.

 

  1. Quality of Working Life

 

4.1.          How will any long-term trend towards increased reliance on digital technology affect job opportunities and working conditions? What sectors are likely to see the biggest changes? What impact might these changes have on job satisfaction?

 

4.1.1.  Job opportunities are likely to be biased towards professional and office-based workers. To maximise opportunities for all, Government needs to ensure that good quality technical education is available across the board and should look to the German and Swiss systems of technical education.

 

4.2.          Will different parts of the UK be affected differently? Does an increased reliance on digital technology offer opportunities to improve economic wellbeing in different parts of the UK?

 

4.2.1.  We found no statistically significant differences in terms of satisfaction between urban and rural households regarding access to internet at home. Overall, 18% reported that they were dissatisfied with access to the internet at home and 78% reported that they were satisfied, with 9% reporting to be slightly satisfied, 33% reporting to be moderately satisfied and 36% reporting to be extremely satisfied. It should be noted that due to the profile of the current homeworking population, most households could afford enhanced home internet.

 

4.3.          Do workers have the digital skills that will be needed as jobs change? What additional training is required to ensure that the workforce is equipped with digital skills?

 

4.3.1.  See 4.1.1

 

4.4.          In order to maximise the opportunities offered by an increasing reliance on digital technology, is there a case for greater investment and faster roll-out of broadband?

 

4.4.1.  We would suggest either universal free broadband or free 5G provision to support those in lower socio-economic groups. This allows maximum opportunities across all socio-economic groups.

 

4.5.          How will any long-term increase in working from home affect both social and economic wellbeing? How will it affect individuals and how will it affect communities and wider society? What do we know about how working from home can affect our physical and mental health, and what do employers and Government need to do to protect workers?

 

4.5.1.  The opportunity to work remotely is predominantly limited to white collar professional workers which could increase already existing inequalities in the labour market. Employees in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have jobs that prevent home working. YouGov notes that among C2DE[iii], 40% say that they are not working at home at all (compared to 16% of ABC1 workers). This profile of predominantly professional groups being homeworkers matches the profile of our participants.

 

4.5.2.  Whilst homeworking under COVID-Measures, our survey suggests that people’s work performance was good. However, overall, our survey suggested that the increase in work demands was reported as high to very high by 61% of our participants. The increase in work demands for women was 8% higher compared to men. This data was collected in June/July 2020, but interviews towards the end of 2020 also indicate that whilst homeworking, demands are still higher than normal.

 

4.5.3.  For women in particular, there is a fine line between advantages and disadvantages of homebased work. Women appreciate the flexibility of homeworking but as women still take most of the responsibility for unpaid labour, women working from home - particularly when a partner and children are at home - means an increased domestic burden. Women are less likely to have dedicated workspace and more likely to share a workspace than men, with 51% of women reporting that they have a dedicated room compared to 65% of men.

 

4.5.4.  Overall, we found that most organisations were able to provide an appropriate infrastructure for homeworking but there were still 38% of organisations that did not support a good homeworking environment and 14% that did not keep up to date with IT provision.

 

4.5.5.  The majority of our participants want to continue working from home for a significant portion of the week after the end of COVID-19 measures. About 50% of our participants going forward, want to work from home between 50 and 100% of the time.

 

4.5.6.  For the time that people are working at home, the increased financial burden on individual employees needs to be considered. Employees will have to pay for additional energy costs, provision of a homeworking space and possible IT equipment. Moreover, there have been calls for increased taxation for those who work at home. For example, Deutsche Bank economists suggests a tax of 5% of a worker's salary if workers choose to work from home when they are not forced to by the current pandemic. This would mean that there is a double penalty for homeworkers.

 

4.5.7.  Homeworkers should not be financially penalised for homeworking and there should be more precise regulation on homeworking allowances.

 

4.5.8.  Organisations such as the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) and TUC (Trades Union Congress) should provide guidance and policy recommendations to support employers developing homeworking plans.

 

4.5.9.  Organisations should proactively mitigate against direct and indirect forms of discrimination as well as steps to effectively supervise those working from home and to ensure flexibility.

 

4.5.10.Organisations must be aware of the specific needs and impact of homeworking on women, disabled groups and BAME workers.

 

4.6.          Will a reliance on digital interactions and home-working impact on informal interactions and exchanges of information and, in turn, impact on innovation and creativity?

 

4.6.1.  Nearly two thirds of our sample stated that they were creative or very creative when working at home. However, this leaves over a third of participants who did not feel creative.

 

4.7.          Who will be disadvantaged by any long-term trend towards home working? How will it affect people without adequate broadband or people who lack an appropriate workspace at home?

 

4.7.1.  There is significant evidence that lower socio-economic groups are disadvantaged by homeworking.  Lower socio-economic groups (e.g. C2DE) are less likely to have appropriate technology at home as well as less likely to have adequate broadband provision[iv]. As previously noted however, lower socio-economic groups are less likely to be working from home. Both under COVID measures and under more typical scenarios, those who earn higher hourly wages are most likely to be able to work from home. The median earnings of those most likely to be able to work from home is £19.01 an hour with the UK average in 2020 being £15.60.

 

4.7.2.  Homeworkers are most likely to be professional workers (e.g. accountants, managers and administrators) and least likely to be those that require limited face-to-face contact, physical activity or the use of specialist tools/equipment.

 

4.8.          To what extent could home-working enable access to job opportunities for people currently excluded from the workplace (or from certain jobs)?

 

4.8.1.  Data collected by Unison suggests that 50% of disabled workers worked from home throughout the Covid-19 pandemic so far and that 73% of disabled workers report being more, or equally productive whilst working from home due to better pain management and ability to adjust working times to better suit their lives. Working from home seems to have led to reduced sickness absence for disabled workers due to improved ability to manage their conditions. Interestingly, those that were least productive frequently cited lack of provision of appropriate IT equipment.

 

4.9.          If more people continue to work from home in the long-term, what will the impact of reduced commuter numbers be on the environment and on the provision of public transport? How would businesses based in town and city centres be affected? And what consequential impacts might this have on our wellbeing?

 

4.9.1.  Our data shows that 90% of our survey respondents are happy with the reduction in commute.

 

4.9.2.  Our interview participants noted that they faced increased heating and electricity bills due to homeworking: this has a negative impact on workers’ financial position and ambivalent outcomes for the environment. It depends on whether households at an aggregate level, are less efficient in the consumption of energy than employer facilities (is it more efficient to heat UK households or organisations at an aggregate level?). Research from the consultancy WSP UK, shows that remote work in the UK may only be more environmentally friendly in the summer. The need to heat individual workers’ homes versus one office building increases the overall environmental burden. As a result of the current absence of air conditioning in the UK, it is currently more carbon efficient to work at home in the summer.

 

4.9.3.  When working from home there is less consumption of plastic due to the reduced temptation to consume take away coffees and premade packed sandwhiches from supermarkets. Remote worker will use a mug for coffee and washable plates and utensils for food.

 

4.9.4.  Detailed assessment of the environmental impact of widespread homeworking is needed

 

  1. Feel free to include comments in your response that sit outside of these areas:

 

5.1.          Impact of Collaborative Software and Video Conferencing Technology on Workers

 

5.1.1.  If we look at video conferencing software e.g., Zoom, it is not Zoom itself that people are finding difficult, rather the intensity of back-to-back Zoom meetings. In a typical (office-based) workday, there are emotional and material buffers between meetings, for example, the informal debrief in the corridor, quick catch up before the meeting.

 

5.1.2.  Workers are missing a range of ‘buffer’ activities associated with work, including the commute. It is these activities which form a key part of the natural change of pace during the day, that mitigate to some extent, overload and intensification. The efficiencies of conference and collaborative software were not underestimated by our participants but the absence of a variation of pace of work.

 

5.1.3.  Low cost or state supported homeworking hubs may mitigate problems of social isolation and work intensity

                                                                                                                                                          10 December 2020


[i] https://archive.acas.org.uk/media/3898/Home-is-where-the-work-is-A-new-study-of-homeworking-in-Acas--and-beyond/pdf/Home-is-where-the-work-is-a-new-study-of-homeworking-in-Acas_and-beyond.pdf

 

[ii] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02678370110086768

[iii] http://www.nrs.co.uk/nrs-print/lifestyle-and-classification-data/social-grade/

[iv] Gerli, Paolo; Marco, Julio Navio; Whalley, Jason (2019) : Does the multilevel governance of state aid encourage broadband diffusion? Evidence from three European countries, 30th European Conference of the International Telecommunications Society (ITS): "Towards a Connected and Automated Society", Helsinki, Finland, 16th-19th June, 2019, International Telecommunications Society (ITS), Calgary