Telework May Be Harmful to their Health

Telework has been taking its share of hits lately. And I’m not referring to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer or Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly and their well-reported decisions to either end or limit telecommuting at their companies.

139246933 -- tired teleworkerI’m talking about research conducted awhile back — and recently reported on — by Timothy Golden, associate professor at the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. His study of 316 adult employees at a large computer company found working from home can enhance feelings of physical and mental fatigue in people who are already having a hard time balancing their personal and professional lives.

So, basically, working at home might not be so good for you. Tell that to the employees trying to convince you otherwise. Or the work/life experts telling you the same.

As noted in a piece on the Springer website, Golden’s work-at-home (or primarily work-at-home) participants were asked to answer questions about the levels of work-to-family conflict they experienced, including whether work kept them from family activities more than they would have liked, and whether they were too stressed to do the things they enjoy at home due to pressures of work. Golden also looked at levels of family-to-work conflict, such as time spent on family responsibilities interfering with work responsibilities, and difficulties concentrating on work because of stress from family responsibilities. Levels of work exhaustion and the extent and timing of telework were also assessed.

Golden and his crew found the more work and family demands conflicted, the more people suffered from exhaustion. Those with already high levels of work-family conflicts suffered higher exhaustion when they spent extensive time working from home, irrespective of whether they worked during traditional or non-traditional work hours. However, those who had lower levels of work-family conflicts suffered less exhaustion, which was further reduced by teleworking during either traditional or non-traditional work hours.

As this piece about Golden’s research in Parade magazine says:

You’d think with more time at home, and no commute, in most cases, that things would be easier. But when you work at home, there are constant reminders of the work/family conflict, such as laundry and dirty dishes — not to mention interruptions by children and other family members. This actually raises stress levels, and is why having a dedicated work space and boundaries is your best bet if you want to leave the world of cubicles. Then, when you add on things like possible poor posture, lack of exercise and bad eating … well, you can see why working at home may not be so ideal.”

In this piece from Science Newsline, Golden adds this comment:

Whereas individuals may adopt telework as a means to enhance their quality of life and reduce exhaustion, those with low levels of conflict between work and family seem able to benefit more from telework than those individuals who have high levels of conflict between their work and home.”

Specific though they may be to teleworkers’ stress, exhaustion and family conflicts, Golden’s findings do help underscore — or, at the very least, suggest — a general retreat from the glory days of flexible work and home offices. In fact, this piece in Slate features a much-more-recent study, the 2014 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute, showing that overall, there’s less support among U.S. employers today for a flexible-work culture than there was in 2008.

This certainly flies in the face of the rhetoric out there, that employers better brace for the telecommuting/flexible-work revolution.

On the contrary, based on a recent study from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., which I wrote about in this April 7 news analysis, it appears employers are hardly making strides to ready themselves for any such revolution, let alone ensure that their flexible work is even working. That study shows flexible arrangements aren’t being offered to most employees, and employers’ flexible-work options are too limited in scope and type to be effective.

As Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center, told me then, “the take-home message here is ‘our work isn’t done.’ ”

Indeed.