Craig JacksonBy Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology

The tabloids have been quick to label as “skivers” those ten thousand civil servants who have been given permission to work from home when suitable over the Olympic and Paralympic games. Can our understanding of human behaviour in the workplace help us to predict what may happen to Londoners who have been advised to work from home over the Olympics to avoid travel chaos and those extra three million journeys that will be made? What will be the downside to this natural experiment?

Civil servants are one group who have been given dispensation to work from home from July 21st (6 days before the Olympics started) until the Paralympics end on September 9th. May have criticised the decision – complaining there will be a backlog of public sector work for up 7 weeks. However, when we’re not working within the confines of an office, does our behaviour change differently when we’re working at home, on our own, and could there be longer-term implications to follow?

Herein would lie the basis of a wonderful natural experiment, involving thousands of workers, where those civil servants who worked from home could be compared with those who chose not to do so, on a variety of health measures, including blood pressure, lung-capacity, body mass index, weight gain/loss, wellbeing, stress, happiness, and job satisfaction. I hope an academic somewhere in London has had the foresight to get this off the ground in good time.

Apart from avoiding the acute stresses of the daily commute, the resultant air pollution and increased risk of accidents on busier than usual trains, buses and tubes, are there other hidden benefits that the stay-at-home workers may experience? They may avoid attending those unnecessary, time-consuming meetings that contribute towards chronic stress. And they may also avoid the greatest source of both acute and chronic stress in that sector – contact with the public and with other colleagues.

Benefits to the organisations involved will obviously include savings on office costs (approximately £850 per employee over the 7 weeks by my calculations); a reduced carbon footprint; increased productivity of the worker (between 10-40%); reduced sickness absence (approximately 23% down for this time of year); and in the longer term, those workers who viewed the 7 week period of flexibility as something positive will be more likely to stay with their employer. The individual workers themselves will no doubt benefit from transport savings; subsistence reductions; and greater flexibility – particularly around childcare in the summer holidays. A reliable study of home-working personnel found that workers on the whole are more happy when they have the freedom to decide to work from home.

There will be some interesting negative side-effects to this home working experiment that may not have been anticipated. Firstly, without the peer pressure of colleagues around us, or with the potential for “enforced” healthy eating while in the company of others removed, many will resort to their bad dietary habits and over indulgence. Too many coffee breaks and too many biscuits are a common behavioural symptom among home workers, and over a 7 week period, the effects may start to show. The same is true of smokers. For some workers, their only exercise is the commute to work – and without that small element of physical activity present for 7 weeks, weight gain will no doubt follow. When that occurs, we can also expect musculoskeletal problems to follow on, resulting from changes in body shape and posture, as well as the effects of sitting on the kitchen chairs or in a makeshift study at home.

Some workers, mostly men in this case, will also feel a little isolated and withdrawn when away from the office. Despite protestations about the office, office politics and all that goes with it, for many workers, the office is a symbol of security, and even a comforting reminder of power and authority. Traditionally, anecdotal evidence suggests that males miss the “alpha” male activities of the workplace – while females seem to be able to cope better away from the workplace. Then there will be the domestic aspect and the new and enforced arrangements of a spouse working away at the kitchen table or in the living room for 7 weeks over the school holidays can lead to potential marital and domestic discord! Finally, an insidious habit is that of time-slippage, where many workers may find themselves working excessive hours or unconventional hours, as a way of “compensating” for not being present in the office. It is not uncommon to find many home-workers sending emails in the very small hours, or sitting in front of their laptop for excessively long periods of time to “make amends” for not being in the office.

The occupational health departments of such organisations should take an active interest in those workers over the summer – perhaps the occasional email to remind the workers to get out and do some exercise, or to check on their own weight could help. This should be done as a pro-active effort, before the damage is done. Without being too jovial, the end of the Paralympics in September could see the return to work of a whole swathe of civil servants who have smoked too much, drunk too much tea and coffee, eaten too many biscuits, and who have not been active at all. Then the Occupational Health departments really will have a struggle on their hands. Hopefully an increase in occupational ill-health will not be one of the legacies of London 2012.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University