November 4, 2021

EU Study Reviews Health Risks Associated with Telework During COVID-19 Pandemic

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) published a report in late October on occupational health and safety issues associated with telework during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report focuses on the possibility that increased teleworking puts workers at greater risk for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and mental health problems. While the report finds evidence that increased teleworking may be associated with negative musculoskeletal and psychosocial health effects, these impacts are varied, and most employees and employers expressed a preference to continue teleworking regularly.

The study’s authors address questions concerning the state of knowledge on musculoskeletal and psychosocial effects associated with teleworking, the health effects of increased teleworking during the pandemic, changes in telework patterns and teleworking populations, and new regulatory and policy developments in countries in the European Union.

While extensive research exists on telework and psychosocial risks, few studies have focused on telework and MSDs, possibly because telework was mostly an occasional practice before the COVID-19 pandemic. The literature suggests that both employees’ and managers’ perceptions of teleworking have improved greatly since the start of the pandemic but that monitoring performance and ensuring collaboration are challenging.

Based on interviews with workers in Italy, Spain, and France conducted from February to May 2021, the study’s authors state that the shift to long-term teleworking “required considerable efforts to adjust but has resulted in better-than-expected outcomes.” Employees in occupations requiring face-to-face interaction, such as teachers and social workers, experienced increased workloads and stress. Nonetheless, most companies planned to extend teleworking and most employees preferred teleworking or hybrid arrangements.

While psychosocial effects were the most significant health effects associated with teleworking, the study’s authors state that the extended and prolonged teleworking experience “calls for a reassessment of the traditional assumptions about telework, psychosocial risks, and well-being.” For most employees, stress brought on by increased workload and periods of irregular or extended work abated after the initial period of adjustment. Employees generally reported a loss of quality interpersonal communication and collaboration, but some “medium-skilled” workers felt they received more recognition while teleworking. In some cases, working mothers with school-aged children at home due to school closures experienced stress, anxiety, and guilt, but most employees reported that they adapted to the new situation. The study found that work-life conflict experiences were affected by job characteristics and socioeconomic status. Employees also self-reported MSDs and other physical issues such as neck pain and eye strain associated with increased sedentarism and poor ergonomic conditions at home.

The report’s authors state that the negative health effects associated with telework can be counterbalanced by increased work autonomy; improved organizational support, such as providing employees with ergonomic equipment; and better dialogue and collective bargaining between employees and organizations. The authors conclude that teleworking is likely to remain a prominent work feature after the COVID-19 pandemic and recommend hybrid work arrangements to provide a balance between telework flexibility and face-to-face interaction.

More information on the study as well as access to a PDF of the report can be found on EU-OSHA’s highlights and executive summary webpages.