The underappreciated health benefits of office working

Business Express - 1 August 2023
Niki Fuchs
1 min read
Published: 8 Aug 2023 3:18

Proponents of this hybrid working life champion the benefits of a reduced commute and increased productivity. Indeed, a recent survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggested that 44% of UK employees now work on a hybrid model. 

For all its merits, however, this move towards a hybrid work model has hidden costs that are often overlooked. Most alarming is the impact of home working on the physical wellbeing of employees. In 2022, an estimated 185.6 million working days were lost to illness in the UK, or about 6 days per person, which is the highest number of recorded absences due to illness since 2004. While it is easy to dismiss this spike as a consequence of the pandemic, it is also a consequence of the ways home working has influenced employee’s lifestyles. More than half of remote employees struggle to switch off after work, causing increased stress that damages their sleep schedules and exacerbates health issues. 

On the other hand, modern, well-equipped offices have been designed with comfort and health in mind. Before launching into a hybrid lifestyle, it’s important for both employees and businesses to fully consider the impact that remote working might have on their health and wellbeing.

The change in lifestyle

The UK workforce has always been disproportionally affected by workers taking sick leave, even before Covid-19 reshaped the approach to taking time off by encouraging people to self-isolate and avoid interaction with co-workers while ill. The average number of absences taken due to sick leave rose to about 133 days per company last year, which has been perceived as a result of the shift in mentality caused by Covid 19. However, there is a continuous trend towards a less healthy workforce generally, with workers taking an average of 92 sick days in 2019 and 102 in 2021. As health issues become more prevalent among the workforce, greater scrutiny is needed over how working from home is affecting employees. 

A global shift towards home working for professionals has ignited a transition away from in-person interactions in favour of digital communication, which has significant consequences on how employees engage with their colleagues. What becomes immediately apparent is that employees are spending much more time in front of their screens. Indeed, home workers have begun to report greater levels of eyestrain because of increased screen time. Eyestrain is far from the only impact of this shift to digital communication – it has also isolated employees. Around 40% of office workers have lamented the reduced time with co-workers and increasing loneliness. A greater emphasis on digital communication limits workers face-to-face interaction with their colleagues, which increasingly encourages anti-social and unhealthy behaviours.

It is clear that home working, in some cases, is causing employees to create habits that may lead to an unhealthy lifestyle. Particularly concerning in this regard is the survey by the Royal Society of Public Health which reveals that 46% of home workers exercised less than their office counterparts. Working from home removes the activity of commuting to work, walking to the shops for lunch or even walking to a meeting. Equally, the portability of home working provisions, such as laptops, encourage employees to work in below par conditions – during lockdown 17% of people reported sitting on the floor during work hours, and another 50% working from the bed or sofa. Such behaviours encourage physical deficiencies – with the Guardian noting that over 62,000 workers had left the workforce last year due to developing neck and back problems. 

The health benefits of the office

Offices, by design, are fit for function – with modern workspaces specifically designed for employee comfort and safety, as well as team building and collaboration. For instance, the offices of today are equipped with ergonomic desks and chairs that can be adjustable to minimise back and eye strain. Additionally, many offices are equipped with air conditioning, ensuring comfortable working conditions during sudden heat waves or cold snaps. During 2022’s summer heatwave, in-office attendance reached a peak of 42%, the highest that year, due to air conditioning affording a more comfortable working environment. Offices can thus take subtle measures to create better working spaces for employees – for instance, adjustable or “standing desks” that promote good circulation and posture, or breakout spaces that have couches or ‘phone booths’ to give employees the option to move around throughout the day.

Moreover, beyond the infrastructure of the office, the atmosphere inherent in communal workplaces encourages conversation and collaboration. It also provides a refuge against feelings of isolation or loneliness, which according to recent studies, over 43% of home workers suffer from. The subtle impacts that an office environment can have upon mood, motivation and happiness need to be recognised. 

Over time, engaging in full-time remote work will amplify health problems for employees. The small amenities and quirks of the office, such as the ergonomic desk and chair or even the experience of commuting to work, may seem trivial but is unique and valuable to the office experience. 

A hybrid approach must be taken with caution and careful thought for employees and their well-being. While remote working has become increasingly ubiquitous and has clear benefits, this does not mean we should reject the unique advantages of the office environment. In fact, we should make the office appealing again. Adapting to ongoing developments in the way people want to work and as well as recognising the ways in which people should work will be crucial to keeping people well.

Read the article on Business Express here