Working better while working from home

Research into working at home unearths some surprising discoveries.

Dr Jodi Oakman is an Associate Professor at La Trobe’s School of Psychology and Public Health. Her research is focused how employee health is affected by work.

With additional support from a 2020 Medibank and Optus grant to promote COVID-related research projects, Dr Oakman is continuing her research on the mental and physical impacts of working from home.

Dr Oakman’s team wanted to survey people about their working at home – their physical environments, organisational structures, work or family conflict issues, and physical and mental health.

Initially, the team did a review of literature about people working from home. “One of the problems,” Dr Oakman notes, ‘is much of the research pre-COVID was in organisations where it wasn’t mandatory to work from home. Then COVID hit, and all the guidelines were based around choice, and now we don’t have any choice.”

In a post-COVID world, the research could not have been better timed.

Three surveys for this project have already been completed by people across Australia. A fourth survey will be undertaken in 2022. Survey questions focus on a person’s physical work environment, work and family conflicts, and physical and mental health.

A key strength of the data is the Victorian focus of the sample. Victoria has experienced the longest period of lockdown in the world.

“We have this unique sample of people who have been at home for nearly 20 months,” explains Dr Oakman. “Managing competing demands at home has been extremely challenging. The surveys have given us some important insights into planning working environments at home to optimise employee health and wellbeing.”

“What we know very clearly from our data is that interruptions matter a lot to people’s stress levels and their pain reporting. If you have more interruptions, you’re more likely to have back pain or neck pain in particular.”

The survey also highlighted some long-standing gender differences between men and women.

“For example, men and work-family conflict: it’s actually worse for men than women. Generally speaking, women are more used to the juggle. But for men, all of a sudden having to work at home and deal with the additional chaos was new. It’ll be interesting to observe that relationship over time.”

As Dr Oakman notes, the team is focused on highlighting the important role employers play in creating good working conditions, and how that affects employees. Many opportunities exist for the development of resources to support supervisors in developing their skills to manage employees working remotely.

“A supervisor’s management skills are really important here, and really make a difference to people’s physical and mental health and their ability to work productively. The different ways we get that information out, the better it is for employees.”