The World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization have both asked for policies to protect workers’ health while they are working from home.

The two UN agencies have released a new technical brief on healthy and safe teleworking, which outlines the health benefits and risks of teleworking, as well as the changes that will be required to accommodate the shift toward various forms of remote work arrangements brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the digital transformation of work.

Also read: When should one opt for cancer screening? WHO reveals

Improved work–life balance, chances for flexible working hours and physical activity, reduced traffic and commuting time, and a reduction in air pollution are among the benefits, according to the paper, all of which can boost physical and mental health and social welfare. For many businesses, teleworking can result in increased productivity and cheaper operating costs.

However, the report warns that without sufficient planning and organisation, as well as health and safety support, teleworking can have a major negative impact on workers’ physical and mental health, as well as their social well-being. Isolation, burnout, depression, domestic violence, musculoskeletal and other ailments, eye strain, increased smoking and alcohol use, prolonged sitting and screen time, and unhealthy weight gain are all possible consequences.

Also read: Omicron BA. 2 now in 57 countries, makes up half of all sequences

The paper explains the roles that governments, businesses, employees, and workplace health services should play in promoting and preserving teleworker health and safety.

“The pandemic has led to a surge of teleworking, effectively changing the nature of work practically overnight for many workers”, said Dr Maria Neira, Director, Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, World Health Organization. “In the nearly two years since the start of the pandemic, it’s become very clear that teleworking can as easily bring health benefits, and it can also have dire impact. Which way the pendulum swings depends entirely on whether governments, employers and workers work together and whether there are agile and inventive occupational health services to put in place policies and practices that benefit both workers and the work.”

Also read: COVID-19: Variants of the novel coronavirus, explained

Employers should ensure that employees have adequate equipment to complete job tasks; provide relevant information, guidelines, and training to reduce the psychosocial and mental health effects of teleworking; train managers in effective risk management, distance leadership, and workplace health promotion; and establish the “right to disconnect” and adequate rest days. According to the paper, occupational health services should be able to provide teleworkers with ergonomic, mental health, and psychosocial assistance using digital telehealth technology.

“Teleworking and particularly hybrid working are here to stay and will likely increase after the pandemic, as both companies and individuals alike have experienced its feasibility and benefits,” said Vera Paquete-Perdigão, Director of the ILO Governance and Tripartism Department. “As we move away from this ‘holding pattern’ to settle into a new normal, we have the opportunity to embed new supportive policies, practices and norms to ensure millions of teleworkers have healthy, happy, productive and decent work.”

Also read: Explained: What is Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS)?

The paper includes practical telework organisation solutions that fulfil the demands of both workers and businesses. Discussing and developing individual teleworking work plans and clarifying priorities; being clear about timelines and expected results; agreeing on a common system for signalling availability for work; and ensuring that managers and colleagues respect the system are just a few of the items on the list.

Businesses with teleworkers should create teleworking-specific programmes that combine measures for work and performance management with information and communication technologies and appropriate equipment, as well as occupational health services for general health, ergonomics, and psychosocial support.