Employee Health In The Digital Age – What Do Companies Need To Do?

The first few weeks of working from home during MCO and doing everything online were stressful for some. However, many people actually enjoyed the flexible working arrangements and being at home.  Now we’re living in the post-pandemic world, the novelty has worn off and we have a much better understanding of how work will be in the digital age.  We are all more aware of the threats to health and well-being that can come as work intensifies, constant connectivity means permanent availability, the boundaries between work and private time become blurred, and social relationships become more difficult to maintain. 

People are the most important resource of any company and that’s why the most successful companies are prioritising employee health and well-being to protect profits. Malaysia is fast becoming an ageing population, which means that there will be increasing competition for young, educated, and digitally literate workers.  These are exactly the employees who are quickest to leave if they feel a workplace or job role has become unhealthy.  Companies in the digital age must recognise that employee health is a key part of retaining the best workers, and that means developing a strategic approach to managing job parameters and social relationships.

When and how people work is changing dramatically and this has health implications.  Computers allow us to do more, but in many jobs, the amount of work expected has intensified and this can obviously increase stress.  In the industrial age, we had fixed starting and finishing times on particular days of the week, but in the digital age this is no longer true and there has been a gradual tendency to work longer hours, leading to tiredness or even burnout.  Working at a computer most of the time means people are taking less exercise and becoming less fit.  It’s also possible to do many jobs from anywhere in the world which means people may not form the social relationships so important for psychological health. 

Companies need to give staff the autonomy to be flexible about job parameters so they can decide how best to carry out their tasks. This means embracing changes in organisational culture, work processes and operational systems so that employees can plan their work to maximise efficiency and reduce stress.  The research evidence is clear that giving employees control of their work helps them manage their workloads and makes them happier, healthier and more productive.

In many jobs, simply expecting employees to work at fixed times is no longer sustainable and in the digital age workers will want to work at times which are best for them.  Some people may want to work a regular day, others in the evening or over the weekend, but that is entirely up to them providing they complete what is required by the agreed deadline.  However, just because one person works late it doesn’t mean that everybody should have to respond to emails at midnight, so companies should have clear policies about when employees are expected to be available.  By setting some clear parameters companies will ensure employees can have enough private time to rest, live their own lives and stay healthy.

As well as rest, everybody needs exercise, but fast-paced digital work can actually mean sitting down for long hours.  Companies can encourage employees to take more exercise by providing wearable fitness tracking devices and organising regular competitions between individuals and work teams.  Recognition of who can walk the most steps, use the stairs, improve their heart rate, or reduce their weight, etc can be effective at promoting healthy behaviours even when staff are not in the office. 

Individual autonomy and working outside the office do not come without psychological costs and the digital age has disrupted many of the social patterns associated with work.  If everybody is working from different locations at different times, it can be almost impossible to build a sense of shared purpose and team spirit, and this can lead to unhappiness and even depression.  People who are socially connected are happier, healthier and live longer, so companies need to prevent the negative impacts on health and performance that come with isolation.  Some companies encourage social bonding by setting specific times, perhaps one afternoon a week when all colleagues need to be available for team meetings, briefings, individual consultations, etc, whether that is online or onsite.  It can also be a good idea to set particular days of the month when colleagues should be physically present in the office because this will strengthen relationships across the workplace and enable a lot of informal social contact which is impossible online.  Regular face-to-face contact helps to make people happier and is good for both employees and the bottom line, so even in the digital age the old-fashioned office still has a role in maintaining healthy staff and profits.

 

Professor Hew Gill
Associate Provost
Email: hewg@sunway.edu.my

This article was first published in Business Today, 10 September 2022.