With two lockdowns and teleworking imposed for the better part of the year, 2020 forced companies to revolutionize their work organization. Difficulties to disconnect from work, isolation, sleep trouble… Clinical business psychologist Brigitte Vaudolon, assesses this year like no other, details the psychosocial risks related to remote work to better prevent them.
For more than 20 years, Brigitte Vaudolon has been working in companies on issues related to well-being in the workplace. A clinical psychologist and EMCC-certified coach, she’s witnessed the emergence of psychosocial risks for several years now. Her practice Be Positive assists employees and companies to prevent and respond to them. Finally, she’s a counselor in psychosocial risks certified by the DIRECCTE, a governmental structure whose main role is to ensure compliance with labor law and to promote health and safety at work.
What are the psychosocial risks?
Brigitte Vaudolon reminds us that psychosocial risks (PSR) are located at the interface between individuals and their work environment. “They designate what touches the psyche of the individual and his social environment. This includes the organization of one’s work, the way in which one lives one’s work, etc.,” the psychologist explains. “They are by definition difficult to apprehend for the employer, because each employee perceives his environment and lives things in a new light.”
The French National Research and Safety Institute has defined the main psychosocial risks and their possible consequences on this infographics. “Burn out, bore out, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and addictions can all be linked to difficult working conditions, to the fact of being put in a closet or harassed,” adds Brigitte Vaudolon.
“Before the lockdowns, there was much less damage associated with teleworking,” explains Brigitte Vaudolon. “Indeed, remote work was often an option employees were offered. They could take advantage of it if they found the need, and with no obligations. As long as there is freedom of choice, the psychosocial risks are minimal.”
Volunteering was the norm in most companies, and teleworking was a modality that provided flexibility to those who needed it. If it wasn’t convenient for an employee, he could decide to give it up or to use it only seldomly. However, the clinical psychologist emphasizes a point of vigilance on the issue of balance with private life, and reminds us that the right to disconnect is an inherent issue in the implementation of telework. “Even if his work tools are available, no employee is supposed to be available 24 hours a day.”
The impacts of forced remote work in 2020
Throughout 2020—and even toward the end of 2019—with the French transport strikes that favored the implementation of remote work, this organization became mandatory for companies and employees from one day to the next. Companies that already had a culture of teleworking implemented it fairly easily, but many encountered difficulties.
Positive impacts for some…
“Companies that are less advanced in terms of digital tools and new ways of working, or opposed to teleworking for reasons of principle, have had to evolve,” notes Brigitte Vaudolon. “Confinement has forced them to modernize and move on. In my opinion, this is an interesting opportunity for these companies.”
On the employee side, the widespread use of remote work beyond confinement has also made it easier for employees to reconcile their personal and professional constraints, without harming their productivity in general.
… but negative impacts for many employees
Forced telework has also created difficult and unprecedented situations. “In the same working conditions, employees don’t necessarily experience things in the same way,” explains the psychosocial risks expert. “Some have had to telecommute with their children at home, share their workspace with their spouse, or stay locked up in their studio for several weeks… This leads to very different experiences.”
If we add to this the media pressure that conveys an omnipresent fear, we arrive at a multiplication of stressful individual situations. “The psychological hotlines have seen a very significant increase in calls from the first confinement. And we’ve noticed an intensification of difficult situations throughout 2020,” Vaudolon explains.
Anxiety, sleeping problems, difficulty disconnecting from work due to lack of occupation, isolation for single people, difficulties with children and/or spouse, aggressiveness, complexity in juggling between meetings, meals, homework… all this generated a lot of distress.
Companies that don’t always listen to their employees
Another pitfall encountered by many employees is the gap between the company’s expectations and their working environment. “Some companies that are well-equipped in terms of tools have switched to full remote, with a denial of the specific nature of the situation. An employee teleworking isn’t in the same conditions as in the office— especially during a lockdown.
He does not always have a suitable workspace, a high-performance connection, a good telephone network, etc. Some companies have not taken these situations into account and have asked employees to work the same as before. Some have compensated by working longer hours to show their commitment, and have pulled the rope….”
A difficult return to normal
Beginning in May, some companies encouraged their employees to return to the office, and forced telecommuting was reduced. “Finding flexibility helped reduce risks,” stresses Brigitte Vaudolon.
But new challenges have emerged. “Some employees were afraid to come back and had to choose between remote work—which wasn’t necessarily convenient for them—and returning to the office, which was a source of anxiety in terms of health, especially for those who had to take transport again.” A lot of companies didn’t know how to deal with these new situations.
Changes that will last
“Once the health crisis is behind us, we should see the implementation of a hybrid work rhythm combining teleworking and presence at the office, with a dosage specific to each company and employee,” explains the expert in psychosocial risks. This new organization should help companies to be more resilient, especially if they learn from previous teleworking episodes.
These adjustments will have to be guided by the dissemination of best practices, training in teleworking and remote management. “We don’t talk much about the difficulties encountered by managers who are far from their teams, and yet they do exist. Very few were prepared to switch to this way of working, and that was clearly felt.”
“Some employees who called us felt abandoned, with no work to do and no instructions to occupy their days. Others felt “poked and prodded” along by a manager who lacked confidence. In either case, it wasn’t easy! This shows the importance of supporting managers confronted by these new work formats.”
Thanks to the lessons learned from this extraordinary year, Brigitte Vaudolon has a positive view of the future of teleworking. “Employees and companies have everything to gain from it, provided that it is implemented in an organized and thoughtful manner to limit psychosocial risks! »
In her book Develop Resilience on a Daily Basis (Mango, 2019), Brigitte Vaudolon invites everyone to explore their capacity for resilience in the face of life’s difficulties and to draw some positives from the trials and tribulations that confront us every day. This book couldn’t be more appropriate for our times!
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