This study led by Public Health Wales was supported by the National Centre for Population Health & Wellbeing Research.
The emergence of the Coronavirus Pandemic has had a global effect on ways of working. Numerous administrations have implemented strict home-working requirements to slow the spread of the virus – this has led to one of the most striking societal transformations of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Working from home has become the new norm for many people across the world. Estimations from early in the pandemic suggested that around 50% of Europeans worked from home to some extent because of the pandemic, compared to only 12% before its onset. With working from home also reducing carbon emissions, maintaining this more remote way or working is likely to be a key consideration for governments across the globe. While brought about by the Coronavirus Pandemic, this transformative shift in the way people work could provide insights for developing a more sustainable economy as we transition to net zero. As such, studying the transition to home-working and people’s preferences for the future is vital.
A nationally-representative household survey was undertaken across Wales (Public Health Wales’ COVID-19, Employment and Health in Wales study). Cross-sectional data on home-working was collected between November 2020 and January 2021 from 615 employed working-age adults in Wales (63.7% female, 32.7% aged 50-59). Respondents were questioned on their ability to work from home, their perceptions of its impact on their health and their preferences for time spent home-working in future.
Findings from the study
- Over 50% were able to work from home. However, some groups were less likely to be able to participate in home-working, including those:
- living in the most deprived areas
- in atypical employment
- experiencing financial insecurity
- with limiting pre-existing health conditions
- Of those that could work from home, over 40% reported that it worsened their mental wellbeing and loneliness, with younger people and those with already low mental well-being particularly vulnerable. For people in poorer health, home-working negatively impacted their diet, physical activity, smoking and alcohol use. Younger workers were also more likely to say that working from home worsened their diet and levels of physical activity.
- Over 50% showed a preference towards home-working to some capacity, with 40% wanting a hybrid approach, splitting their time between the home and an office/base. Over a third wished to work from home at least half the time.
- Some groups were more reluctant to engage in a wider shift to home-working:
- People aged 30-39 were less likely to want to work from home full-time
- Those who lived alone and those living in the most deprived areas were more likely to want to avoid home-working entirely
The inequity in the ability to work from home reflects underlying inequalities in Wales, with those facing the most insecurity (e.g. those living in most deprived areas, those with more precarious work or financial circumstances and those facing health challenges) being less able to participate in home-working.
Working from home offers greater flexibility, reduces the financial and time costs of commuting, and protects individuals from exposure to transmissible diseases. However, working from home presents an enormous challenge to protecting the mental wellbeing of the workforce, particularly for younger individuals and those with low mental well-being. Younger respondents and those in poorer health who could work from home were more likely to report reducing their engagement in health-protective behaviours such as eating well and being active, with those in poorer health also reporting that working from home increased their engagement in health-harming behaviours (e.g. smoking, alcohol consumption).
In terms of the future, providing pathways for accessing work from home arrangements, integrating hybrid models, and preparing targeted health support for at-risk groups may best suit the working population’s preferences and needs within a longer-term transition to home-working.
Melda Lois Griffiths, Senior Public Health Research Officer at Public Health Wales and the National Centre for Population Health & Wellbeing Research said:
“While working from home can offer benefits both at an individual and societal level, our work sheds light on the potential harms of home-working, both in terms of widening inequalities and worsening population health. People facing the most insecurity within their working lives are at a greater risk of being left behind in a more permanent shift to working from home. Urgent action is also needed to protect homeworker well-being and minimise social isolation. Workers in Wales prefer a hybrid approach – supporting employers in providing a combination of home and place-based work and targeted health support could help protect against the potential harms to health reported here.”
Read the complete preprint here: Exploring the health impacts and inequalities of the new way of working: findings from a cross-sectional study | medRxiv
The National Centre for Population Health and Wellbeing Research is funded by the Welsh Government through Health and Care Research Wales.