Employees’ own responsibility for maintaining work ability and health increases in remote work—common ground rules and supervisor support are needed

According to a recent study, the most significant health threat detected in remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic was not getting enough sleep. Stress eating was also common. With regard to work ability, the lack of recovery and sense of community during the working day was significant. Workplaces are now responsible for developing new ways to support health-related behaviour and to observe and maintain employees’ work ability even when working remotely.
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Virpi Ruohomäki
Virpi Ruohomäki
Jaana Laitinen
Jaana Laitinen

Finnish Institute of Occupational Health media release 28 March 2023

With the transition to remote work, the routines, operating methods and practices that supported the health of workplaces were disrupted. Support from the work community decreased, the work environment changed, physical activity through commuting and at the workplace stopped, cafeterias closed and work became more intense.

“Now that remote work and hybrid work are well established in many organizations, it is important for organizations to identify those organization and work community-related practices that support health and work ability. We need common rules and guidance on how to build new routines for remote work,” says Research Professor Jaana Laitinen from the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health.

The challenge is to identify the teleworkers whose health-related behaviour and work ability are deteriorating at an early stage. The study on remote work and work ability identified factors that were linked to either sleep, stress eating or changes in health-related behaviour:

  • difficulty balancing remote work and other aspects of life
  • dissatisfaction with the remote work environment and poor performance of remote work
  • experience of insufficient access to information or support or isolation
  • simultaneous presence of several stress factors

“Studying these factors at workplaces makes it possible to identify employees who can benefit from health and work ability support measures,” says Jaana Laitinen.

More than half of employees follow a good lifestyle

On average, the lifestyles of those who worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic were at a fairly good level.  The use of alcohol, meal rhythms, exercise habits and sleep of more than half of employees were at a good level with regard to health and work ability.

However, the proportion of people who slept less than six hours per night was higher than usual, and uncertainties related to remote work were associated with insufficient sleep. The participants were as physically active as employees on average, but one in four were less physically active after starting remote work. More than half of the participants had a regular meal rhythm. A third reported snacking associated with stress eating.

In terms of alcohol consumption, it seems that there are no more high-risk employees among those working remotely than the average. People who work remotely drink more often than average, but they don't drink much at once. This drinking habit is not related to remote work, but it is typical for highly educated people, which the experts studied were.

Recovery during the working day weakened when working remotely

Nearly half of the employees working remotely experienced difficulties with work-life balance.

“In the study, a third estimated that they work longer hours than they do at the office. Technology-mediated remote work was intense and taking breaks was challenging. The general experience was that recovery during the working day declined after the transition to remote work. Therefore, the workload during remote work should be limited and working time should be followed,” says Senior Researcher Virpi Ruohomäki, and continues:

Solitude and lack of community were also challenges. One in five reported being isolated at work. This can make it difficult to perform tasks and weaken well-being.  Many people need a sense community and personal interaction.”

Ruohomäki emphasizes that the organizations studied developed successful remote work practices during the COVID-19 pandemic, with health and well-being the key aspects:

  • New and old operating methods were quickly developed and applied to support health and work ability in remote work.
  • Efforts were made to ensure that factors that support work ability were also present at home.
  • The activity of the work community was improved.
  • Information was provided to support individuals' positive health-related behaviour and functioning services were provided.
  • Managers supported measures to promote health and work ability, and the supervisors' capabilities for remote management were strengthened.
  • The operational models of the organization's work ability support were adapted to the needs of remote work.

“During the COVID-19 pandemic, well-being at work while working remotely was discussed more than ever before,” said one of the experts interviewed for the study.

The link between the health-related behaviour of those working remotely and remote work and work ability has not been studied much before in Finland or internationally.

Learn more

Further information

  • Senior Researcher Virpi Ruohomäki, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, virpi.ruohomaki [at] ttl.fi (virpi[dot]ruohomaki[at]ttl[dot]fi), tel. +358 (0)30 474 2941
  • Research Professor Jaana Laitinen, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, jaana.laitinen [at] ttl.fi (jaana[dot]laitinen[at]ttl[dot]fi), tel. +358 (0)30 474 6006

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