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Telework and health risks in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic
Telework is a phenomenon that is gaining momentum in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including Romanian companies, the percentage of those who worked in telework in Romania exceeding 20% in 2020, according to figures recently presented by the confederation employer Concordia. There are also sectors of activity where companies have completely switched to telework, such as IT.
According to art. 2 of Law no. 81/2018, telework is the form of work organization through which the employee, regularly and voluntarily, fulfills his duties specific to the position, occupation, or profession he holds, from another place than the workplace organized by the employer, using information technology and communications.
The telework activity is based on the agreement of will of the parties and is expressly provided in the individual employment contract together with its conclusion for the newly hired staff or by an addendum to the existing individual employment contract which, apart from the elements provided in art. 17 para. (3) of Law no. 53/2003, must include the following aspects:
a) the express specification that the employee works in telework regime;
b) the period and/or the days in which the teleworker carries out his activity at a job organized by the employer;
c) the program within which the employer is entitled to verify the activity of the teleworker and the concrete way of performing the control;
d) the manner of highlighting the working hours provided by the teleworker;
e) the responsibilities of the agreed parties according to the place/places of carrying out the telework activity, including the responsibilities in the field of safety and health at work in accordance with the provisions of art. 7 and 8;
f) the obligation of the employer to ensure the transport to and from the place of development of the telework activity of the materials that the teleworker uses in his activity, as the case may be;
g) the obligation of the employer to inform the employee regarding the provisions of the legal regulations, of the applicable collective labor agreement and / or the internal regulation, regarding the protection of personal data, as well as the employee's obligation to comply with these provisions;
h) the measures taken by the employer so that the teleworker is not isolated from the rest of the employees and which ensures him the possibility to meet with colleagues regularly;
i) the conditions under which the employer bears the expenses related to the telework activity.
Practically, this type of job can be supported by any person who works "remotely", from home or from another place organized by the employer, using the phone, laptop, tablet, computer, or any other device of information and communication technology.
This flexibility in working remotely has helped professionals grow and survive the COVID-19 pandemic, but, as we will see, it has exposed employees to a higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders and mental health.
A new report coordinated by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work explores the health and safety risks associated with teleworking. This report contains in-depth interviews with workers and employers and analyzes in particular the risks of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and psychosocial problems among remote workers.
In order to systematize the results of the literature review, the main risk areas in which telework has produced well-documented effects and which are relevant in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic have been identified:
1. The first set of risk factors is associated with the intensification of the work done by employees, including their overwork with responsibilities related to their work, they make a great effort to achieve long and irregular working hours, overloading information and constant availability which must be demonstrated by telework.
2. The second set of risk factors refers to the relational aspects of telework, regarding social isolation, the challenges of collaboration in a virtual team, and the reluctance of management on the reasons for losing control over the work performed by employees.
3. The third set of risk factors considers the risk of increased conflict between the aspects of private and family life and that of professional life, due to the blurring of the boundaries between them, the work being at the same time merging with the place of private life.
The extension of teleworking at home as overtime or as work done beyond normal working hours and their impact on health has been addressed by several professionals in the field. It has been found that overtime indicators are defined by how often workers are contacted in their spare time to perform overtime in response to requests.
The extension of teleworking at home as overtime or as work done beyond normal working hours and their impact on health have been addressed by several professionals in the field. It has been found that overtime indicators are defined by how often workers are contacted in their spare time to perform overtime in response to employers' requests. It was found that more than a quarter of the total population surveyed say they often work on weekends and in the evenings. The significant increase in the frequency of overtime work is associated with an increased risk in reporting work-related health problems, especially problems related to sleep loss, stress, and other psychological disorders. Another study conducted in 2016 by Henke and colleagues found that remote workers who work more than 8 hours a day had a higher risk of stress and depression during the 2 years that this study was conducted.
Regarding the factor of social isolation, the latter phenomenon has been identified as one of the main psychosocial risks of telework. The support of colleagues, in combination with decision-making processes and autonomy in terms of work responsibilities, are of major importance for the well-being of employees, as determinants in lowering the level of emotional over-excitement and stress. However, there is also a positive impact of telework on employee performance, thus reducing the risk of interruptions and unforeseen and immediate requests from colleagues, thus reducing mental exhaustion, while also gaining time for employees. they spent on the road, on the way back and forth from the office.
Regarding the risks of musculoskeletal symptoms, they are mainly associated with the increased duration of exposure to working in front of a computer. These results are further supported by experimental studies which confirm that the neck and shoulder area is also very sensitive to psychosocial factors (stress caused by work, its volume, and lack of control over the work done). For women, for example, the association between time spent in front of a computer and musculoskeletal symptoms increased significantly in the presence of emotionally demanding work and was also influenced by other factors such as low job appreciation, duties, and tasks. contradictory and little support for the supervision of hierarchical superiors.
The report also contains examples of good OSH practices adopted by companies in Europe to support teleworkers during the pandemic.
Many researchers have discussed this phenomenon, and it has been debated that the problems that arise in the field of telework are more related to leadership and organizational support than to the technical support provided by employers. The literature encourages the adaptation of traditional managerial methods and the change of attitude towards telework, thus overcoming reluctance and blockages, developing new skills aimed at establishing working relationships based on trust and autonomy. Effective managerial strategies in the context of teleworking should address both the physical and mental needs of teleworkers and at the same time promote strategies to comply with national and European standards on Occupational Safety and Health, through interactions between employees and superiors. Organizations should ensure compliance with these standards by developing social and communication skills through which managers can implement solutions to problems in the context of long-term telework.
Even if this report exposes situations encountered at the European level, in accordance with the Romanian legal provisions governing the telework regime in Romania, in particular Law 81/2018 on the regulation of telework, it is well known that Romanian employers, by virtue of telework contracts on who conclude them, have the obligation to provide for the measures they take so that telemarketers are not isolated from the rest of the employees and which ensure them the opportunity to meet with colleagues on a regular basis. Moreover, the employer has an obligation to ensure conditions for the employee to receive sufficient and adequate training in the field of occupational safety and health, or all the issues mentioned in the above report relate to these very aspects of safety and health at work. the work.
We find that the Romanian legislator has not remained indifferent to the stress and risks to which employees can be exposed during an extended period of telework and it is only a matter of time before the Romanian legislator will align with European standards in Occupational Safety and Health, especially in this context generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which can only be beneficial, both for the physical and mental health of employees and for the companies in which they are employed, in terms of efficiency and employee productivity.
Author: Attorney at law Elena Manea, Law Office Grecu & Partners.
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