Health and occupational health management in times of increasing digitalisation

More than a year ago, a new disease emerged that the WHO named Covid-19 based on to the virus that underlies it. As we all know, this disease has spread worldwide and has fundamentally changed all our lives. However, our working world has been particularly affected by this pandemic. Most workers in Germany have had to completely reorganise their lives very quickly. They had to come to terms with new digital work processes, homeschooling, restricted private lives and the challenges that come with it.

“Corona accelerates the digital transformation of the corporate working world.”

To contain the spread of the virus and protect workers, organisations were looking for new approaches and working models. Locally flexible working, enabled by digital workflows and the corresponding programmes, was implemented where possible. Thus, the digitalisation of the work environment was initiated and implemented on a large scale almost overnight. Digitalisation, something that many employers were rather hesitant about, had to be implemented in a rush. But how are those affected now, after more than a year? What positive and negative effects does remote working, often from home, have on our health? And perhaps even more important – what possibilities are there to positively influence the health of individual employees, managers and teams in this new working reality and to use this change as an opportunity?

The different aspects of health and the healthy employee

Health is a multi-dimensional term which, according to the WHO definition, refers to a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being”. Health is therefore not the mere absence of disease, but rather a positive state anchored in various areas of life that leads us to feel good about ourselves as human beings. In other words, only when we as individuals feel good in our bodies and minds and at the same time are in a (social) environment that gives us a sense of social connection, do we really feel healthy.

In terms of the working environment, this means that a healthy employee feels supported in both his or her personal physical and mental health and is supported in maintaining it. At the same time, the working environment is designed in such a way that a positive social exchange is possible. Furthermore, a healthy employee is defined by the fact that he or she is able to translate his or her areas of competence into active action, i.e. doing. In this way, he combines his professional competence, consisting of his knowledge and experience, with his methodological competence, i.e. knowledge of the right tools and instruments, and his social competence, i.e. the ability to behave and communicate in his environment, in his actions. In the best case, the employee is challenged and supported in all these areas through his or her work in a company and is thus active and capable of acting. This healthy balance in the important areas of competence leads to a feeling of equilibrium in one’s professional life and thus supports the overall health of the individual.

Lost in the Home Office – Does the changed work situation make us ill?

According to the study social health @work by Barmer in cooperation with the University of St. Gallen, respondents work an average of 35.7 hours per week on the move due to the Corona pandemic instead of the previous average of 15.9 hours. The study examines the effects of the digitalisation of the working world on the health of employees in Germany and focuses on people’s social health. This refers to a “state of social well-being in the work context, in which individuals develop and use healthy behaviours and work relationships to successfully and healthily manage the conflicting demands of accessibility and disconnection, autonomy and inclusion, and productivity and recovery.”

With the rapid shift in most organisations to work from home and the associated changes in work infrastructure, there is a risk that many employees could become unbalanced professionally and ultimately in terms of their health. This is a process that affects the individual employees, the teams and the whole organisational structure; change takes place and resolves existing conflicts and creates new ones.

For many employees, mobile working means more freedom and enables them to manage their time individually. In the best case, they take more time for their personal health or create time to really focus on their work tasks. By the way, good time management supports healthy remote working.

In the negative case, however, they have to work in a very confined space at the same time, fulfil family obligations, deal with new digital tools they are not yet familiar with or feel completely isolated socially and lonely. In addition, new conflicts can develop in the team, especially when it comes to accessibility and separation but also reliability and trust. Leadership of a digital team, if not previously present, must also be learned and some leadership styles will prove to be no longer practicable.

Digitalisation as an opportunity for more health in the world of work

In addition to the possible negative effects of a shift towards a digital world of work, however, it is evident that the benefits of mobile work are clear. For example, the participants in the Barmer study stated that they rate their productivity during mobile work as 4.2% higher than before the pandemic at their workplace, and their job satisfaction also increases by 5.0%.2 The fact that the perception of stress also increases by 2.9% and insecurity increases by 3.3% is a clear sign that a change is taking place, but not that working outside an office and based on digital structures does not work and makes people ill.

It is crucial that employees and managers are equipped with the right tools and instruments to be able to contribute their knowledge and experience in a changed working environment and also have the possibility to communicate appropriately with their colleagues and bosses. If these conditions are met, mobile working can even promote health. This is also confirmed by the respondents of the Barmer study who have a high level of digital competence and have already worked remotely for a longer period of time. Their mental capacity to work increased by 16.5% during the pandemic, their stress was reduced by 6.4% and their productivity increased by 13.9% compared to mobile workers with low digital competence.

One thing is clearly emerging: digitalisation in the context of Workplace 4.0 was accelerated by the pandemic and it is to be expected that some changes will persist in our everyday working lives even after Covid-19. The opportunities for a fairer world of work, which can also respond to the individual circumstances and needs of employees, are clearly recognisable in this more flexible form of working. If leaders implement a company health management system that takes digitalisation into account, especially with regard to promoting and maintaining the health of employees, a positive change can take place. Because the future of work has begun and requires a special form of change management from us – in the best case, one that focuses on the mental, physical and social health of all employees in an organisation.

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