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Home office – blessing or stress trap?

Jul 7, 2020.

The coronavirus pandemic has brought home to companies the advantages of working from a home office. But what at first seems to be the ideal solution in many respects can lead to back pain, stress or even burnout in the long run. As part of our “Protect employees” issue of the month, we spoke to Hansjörg Huwiler and Gina Auf der Maur from our prevention partner AEH Corporate Health Experts. They outline the reasons and give some tips about how to avoid home-office-related ailments.

Hello Ms Auf der Mauer and Mr Huwiler. Where are you now exactly?

 
Gina Auf der Maur: We are both currently in our home offices.
 

What are the advantages of working from home for you personally?

Gina Auf der Maur: The biggest advantage is obvious: no more commuting. For example, I gain an entire hour that I would otherwise have spent travelling in the mornings and evenings. What’s more, I have two small children aged four and seven. I can naturally devote a lot more time to them now.
Hansjörg Huwiler: It’s pretty much the same for me. I have a bit more time and get up later. In good weather, I can take a break on my balcony between business calls and e-mails, drink a cup of coffee and sit back and relax for a few minutes. I then enjoy my beautiful surroundings – unlike in the office in town, where all I can see out of the window is the street. But it can be difficult to really switch off in the evening. With a home office, you are always one step away from the end of your working day. There is no clear end to it like there is at the end of a long commute.

 

Is it generally more difficult to switch off in a home office?

Gina Auf der Maur: You sometimes need to adopt a little ritual: For example, at the end of my working day in the evening, I first of all switch off all my devices and close the door to my home office before I go and make dinner. Then I make a conscious effort to stay away from my desk.
 

Generali employees have also been working from home. What did your health consultation with us and with home office workers at other companies reveal?

Hansjörg Huwiler: The first question for anyone suddenly finding they could only work from home because of coronavirus was: where exactly at home should I work? When Covid-19 broke out, not everyone had a separate room that they could start using immediately as an office. A lot of people had to first of all figure out whether they had a suitable place to use at home before setting it up accordingly. It shouldn't be a storage room where you sit gazing at coat hangers, but a reasonably bright, quiet and well-ventilated room.


Are there other factors that are important for staying healthy while working from home?

Hansjörg Huwiler: Take the furniture and set-up, for example: will I be spending eight hours sitting on a kitchen chair or at a table that is far too high for my needs? That won’t work. Or, to look at things another way: do I have enough working and storage space? What is also important: anyone who sits working at a desktop for eight hours a day needs a sufficiently large monitor along with an ergonomic keyboard and mouse. A poor Internet connection and insufficient data security can also lead to stress.
Gina Auf der Maur: I was lucky. My husband is an IT project manager who often works from home, which is why we already had good infrastructure. But those who didn’t already have a home office set-up often took some time to get organised, especially at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Many companies have since started to provide their employees with technical support. This has eased the situation somewhat, and hopefully most of those who continue to work from a home office now have the appropriate set-up.

“Juggling a home office and a family in the next room can be a challenge. You need joint agreements and rules, not to mention mutual consideration, to make it work.”

Gina Auf der Maur, psychologist lic. phil. / Occupational health management specialist, AEH

Generali tip: Beware of IT security gaps in your home office!

In the “IT security – How do I protect my SME from cyber attacks” webinar, you will learn how to protect your employees and IT infrastructure from hacker attacks. (In German only)

Can you always juggle work and family at home?

Gina Auf der Maur: My husband used to be at home more often than I was. It took a bit of getting used to – my children weren’t able to simply interrupt me, even though I was at home, because I was in the middle of a video conference with customers or had to concentrate on my work. And I also had to learn to stop checking on my children when they were noisy or simply having fun – as my husband was at home and could keep an eye on them. You have to learn to deal with it. Everyone’s needs should be met – but you shouldn’t neglect your work of course. It is not always easy.
 

How can you avoid conflicts between work and family?

Gina Auf der Maur: It is worthwhile making some clear agreements. Hanging a sign on the door saying “Do not disturb!” can work miracles. If you take it down, your partner and children can interpret this as meaning: “I am allowed to knock”. There are people who work in television who have even brought a red light home from the studio and mounted it in front of their home office to let each of their family members know right away: “I need some peace and quiet!” It is also a good idea to set times to all have lunch together.

 

Are some people just natural home office workers?”

Gina Auf der Maur: Anyone who is well organised and can structure their working day will definitely be at an advantage. You should also not be easily distracted. It also depends on how you interact with your social contacts. If you only have a very small social network and thus rely on your colleagues for social interaction, you will find it difficult to work from home. There is obviously always the phone; and you can also use MS Teams and WhatsApp. But this is not the same as meeting someone in your open-plan office, in the corridor, kitchen, at a meeting or at lunch. In contrast, those who have a good social network outside of the office and are used to maintaining it virtually will find working from
home more enjoyable.

 

Who might find a home office a stress trap?

Gina Auf der Maur: Primarily people who are not sufficiently skilled at working with the necessary technology. But also people who do not achieve so much without the direct supervision of their line manager. And of course anyone who has suffered from burnout and thus needs a lot of support in structuring their day. Or anyone who has an addiction problem. There is  insufficient social control for such people if they work from home.
Hansjörg Huwiler: It also has a lot to do with motivation. If I only do a job because I am paid for it and otherwise don’t see much sense in it, a home office is certainly not a good idea. This is where line managers can make all the difference. For example, when it comes to assigning tasks, employees should know what contribution they are making to a project and what the whole point of the exercise is. Managers should remain accessible to employees working from home and place sufficient trust in them. Structuring your day, getting motivated and achieving your goals – all this can be learned.
 

How do I find out whether working from home is suitable for me?

Gina Auf der Maur: Everyone should first ask themselves how important the social environment at work is for them. Who do I want to see every day?
Hansjörg Huwiler: ... or who would I rather not have around me all day long? There are also many partnerships that only work if the partners keep a certain distance and, for example, just meet after work. Even such personal things can lead to stress in a home office.
 

Can you do all jobs from a home office?

Hansjörg Huwiler: It always depends on the tasks you have to do: anyone who is on the road a lot as a project manager and is therefore used to working flexibly will certainly not have any problems. You should have a job that does not rely on getting constant feedback and instructions from others. If you prefer to always work according to instructions, have a particular workload and are tied to working fixed times in a home office, you need to set some limits.

«A home office needs structure, both for the employee and for the line manager. Structuring your daily routine, getting motivated and achieving your goals – all this can be learned.»

Hansjörg Huwiler, ergonomist Eur.Erg. / Head of Corporate Health, AEH

When can a home office harm my health?

Hansjörg Huwiler: If you only ever work on your laptop’s relatively small screen, especially while adopting an unergonomic posture, you will probably experience eye problems, neck-shoulder syndrome or headaches in the long run. You may also experience some psychological effects. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of people working from home had to cope with fears of infection or of losing their job. This type of stress can lead to insomnia, lack of concentration and depression.
Gina Auf der Maur: Such burnout symptoms are not uncommon. Especially when there are no clear rules between you and the company about your own working hours and the time you have to be available. In such cases, the working day often has no end and you feel burned out at some point.
Hansjörg Huwiler: Switching to a home office is particularly difficult for people who have had an alcohol problem and who have always found working in a team to be a major source of support. Suddenly finding themselves alone in a home office often makes it unfortunately easy for them to reach for the bottle. Anyone who has such problems or other serious problems should definitely talk to the company doctor or their GP.
 

What do you advise companies to do to ensure that a home office doesn’t become a stress trap for their employees?

Hansjörg Huwiler: Einstein’s quote of there being great opportunity in the midst of every crisis also applies here. Many companies underwent a steep learning curve during the first big coronavirus wave: they had to reorganise their work, use different communication technology and often adopt a new management style. Companies should seize this opportunity and evaluate the experience their employees have had with a home office and use it for the future. Support and training programmes that help participants to cope with new work set-ups could be a first step in this direction.
Gina Auf der Maur: Our children are already streets ahead of us in this regard, as they learn to work independently at school from an early age. It will probably be easier for this generation to later assume personal responsibility and to organise themselves. For our children, working from home will one day be part and parcel of everyday life, at least in professions where it already works well today.
 

Thank you for your time!

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