The Covid-19 pandemic has created a lot of challenges but also some opportunities for workers. The challenges are numerous. For example, many workers had to adapt to new ways of interacting with clients, their own daily routines and family lives overnight.
With the unceasing lockdowns, travel, socialising, shopping and entertaining all became extraordinary activities that required some degree of meticulous planning. So, to a large degree, routine stuff that had been taken for granted, demanded more effort.
In terms of opportunities, we have seen the flexibility afforded to some workers to do their jobs from home. This undoubtedly saved them time on travel as well as giving them more time to spend with families. It was believed that the pandemic would be over within a short period of time (perhaps weeks or just a few months). Thus, workers contemplated the extra time spent with families in return for working a bit longer in the comfort of their home with their own resources.
However, as the pandemic became a bit more protracted and the prospects of returning to a traditional workplace became more of a dream than a reality, working from home continued with limited employer support for some. Many home workers I spoke to said they had to incur cost in the service of their employer, without being reimbursed or compensated.
Some workers had to upgrade their internet subscriptions at their own expense to accommodate the increasingly sophisticated level work they are required to carry out by their company; while others saw their electricity bill go up due to additional use of lighting and heating when home working. Some also criticised the employers’ for not providing a small amount of coffee as it would be if they were in the office. One even told me that even the water bill has gone up due to the additional amount of flushes.
So clearly, working from home is costing employees financially. In addition to being out of pocket due to the extra expenses employees incur for their companies, some told me that because they were working from home, being sick was not recognised by their employers, thus they were working even when they were unwell.
There were also reports of poor management support, with some managers never checking on how the employees are doing at home. All they are interested in is the relentless workloads and demand. This is more acute for university lecturers, who now almost exclusively operate from home, where they have to teach some classes at night. Coupled with poor mental health and emotional support from employers, home working is leading workers to burnout and depression. According to Insight, the number of calls to suicide helplines in the UK and to mental health helplines has increased.
In total, Covid has not just been a nightmare for workers’ physical wellbeing, but also for their financial and mental health. Thus, the massive increase in home working because of the pandemic, as opposed to being the myriad opportunities and flexibility dreamed of by many, has become a mirage for the British workforce. It is not unrealistic to liken the unresponsiveness of many employers to exploitation.
When the pandemic is over, it is clear that many workers will rethink home working and perhaps seek guarantees before accepting. This means that companies will need to learn from the emerging evidence about the negative impact of homeworking and put adequate policy in place to ensure they have a healthy workforce.
Dr Dieu Hack-Polay is associate professor at Lincoln International Business School