A tricky balance

Ella Rhodes reports from a British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology and Society of Occupational Medicine conference on remote and flexible working.

Technology has changed how people work across the world – from remote workers whose homes are also their offices, to people working flexibly and those working under zero-hours contracts or in the gig economy world for the likes of Uber or Deliveroo. Held in London’s Mansion House and organised by the British Psychological Society’s Division of Occupational Psychology and Society of Occupational Medicine, a recent conference saw discussions of the future of work and the psychological needs of these growing workforces. 

Peter Estlin, Lord Mayor of the City of London, opened the day’s talks emphasising the importance of digital intelligence and rapidly-changing modern working conditions and their impact on mental health and work-life balance. Business Psychologist Alan Bradshaw had personal experience of many of the issues discussed at the event – working remotely and flexibly as a self-employed workplace mental health consultant. After starting his career as a social worker in the 1980s, Bradshaw became interested in work-related stress and now works with large companies helping them to reduce and prevent stress risks. For those working remotely, or under precarious employment contracts, stress can be a major issue but Bradshaw also pointed out that these workers can also experience isolation, financial problems, unsafe working and presenteeism (working while ill).   

Bradshaw worked with a client which had offices throughout the UK to examine stress among its remote and lone-working employees. He assessed which potentially stressful situations were faced by the company’s staff, and developed plans for helping them cope with these issues in the future. His work resulted in a prioritised list of stressful situations, from those with the most negative impact to the least. The first issue on the list was IT-related issues: remote workers are particularly reliant on technology and struggle to work when things go awry. Second on the list was isolation; third was working time, including work-life balance and hours worked without breaks; and the fourth was travel, particularly employees needing to visit remote areas then feeling they had to travel back home the same night. 

In trying to tackle some of these issues, Bradshaw said communication with managers was key. Feeding back some of the above problems led managers to realise that employees had made some assumptions about their work that were adding to their stress. Managers confirmed, for example, that employees weren’t expected to travel home late at night and could find a hotel for the evening instead. 

Some of the potential health implications of remote workers’ reliance on technology were outlined in a talk written by Professor Gail Kinman (University of Bedfordshire) and delivered in her absence by Occupational Psychologist Dr Roxane Gervais. While increasing numbers of people work remotely – the number in 2015 was 2.4 million in the UK – research on these employees is still sparse. Although there are certainly benefits to working from home (including lower operating costs for companies, increased productivity, and lower sickness absence), remote employees have little or no health and safety support and tend to work longer hours. 

There is also a tricky balance for those whose offices are their homes in achieving good balance between their work and home lives. Many organisations do not offer training on using technology in a healthy way, and some expect their employees to be available for phone or email contact even outside of contracted hours. Kinman has proposed a need for e-resilience among employers and employees, suggesting that remote working is expected to become the norm and a systemic approach is necessary to build e-resilience. She wrote that in building e-resilience, organisations should be aware of their duty of care towards employees, examine their email culture and what expectations are placed on remote workers, and look into whether employees could benefit from time management training. 

For employees and other remote-working individuals Kinman said they should not let technology manage them. She advises reflection on habits, appreciating professional boundaries and using relaxation and mindfulness techniques to help cope with technology-related stress. She concluded that more research is needed along with a multidisciplinary approach, with a vision to create an e-resilience competency framework. 

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