UNISON’s annual equalities survey found that most UNISON members continued working during the pandemic with 45% working from their usual workplace and 40% from home.
For those working from home, over 6 in 10 members felt there were no risks to their health, safety and wellbeing. As one member said: “I’d like to continue working from home as much as possible, I have zero desire to ever go back into an office again.”
Many members felt more productive working from home, including one person who summarised: “I get more done without all the distractions of being in a noisy, open-plan office.” However, this was not the case across the board, and 49% of respondents said that they had a lack of suitable equipment to be able to fulfil their work duties from home.
Technical equipment and communications
For numerous people, working from home has highlighted the flaws and failures in IT systems. As one member stated: “Although expected to work from home, I did not have suitable equipment and was not provided with any by work. I had to buy myself a new laptop, but still did not have access to three essential work IT systems.
“Working from home had an adverse affect on my mental health as I felt under pressure because I was classed as working from home, but could not be productive as I couldn’t access all work systems.”
For a number of members, there was inequity in access to IT and communications equipment. One member described: “At home I could not access my work emails. Managers assumed we could, as they have work laptops, and already work from home.
“Higher-paid staff were much better informed and were having Microsoft Teams meetings.”
Health and wellbeing
Some UNISON members believed working from home to be healthier in general, both for the environment and individuals. One member stated: “It’s much less stressful and a better working environment from home. I get so much more done.
“I don’t have to use my car and deal with traffic congestion, so it’s helping the environment. I also don’t have to work in an open-plan office with no opening windows, no temperature control (we sit with coats on in winter), and use dirty desks, kitchens and toilets.”
This was supported from a managerial perspective: “As a manager I have not received any staff reporting colds, flu, headaches or stomach upsets during the past four months and therefore believe staff are healthier at home.”
However, mental health, which is harder to measure, has suffered for many members.
Psychological pressures and abuse at home
Over a quarter of respondents (27%) felt working from home brought risks to their health, safety and wellbeing. One member living with an abusive partner said: “Before lockdown, I was just about coping as long as I was going into the office. But being kept at home and my children spending even more time with their abuser has almost broken me.”
Nearly 4% of respondents said that they, or someone they know had been experiencing domestic abuse during lockdown. But even when women are not managing and surviving abuse at home, lockdown has proven exhausting.
Over half (59%) of workers said their mental health had been slightly or seriously affected by lockdown, rising to 70% among LGBT+ and young workers. Social isolation and loneliness was a driving factor. As one member described: “I live alone in a studio flat, so this period has been extremely miserable for me”. Another said: “I feel invisible. My office is being shut down and I feel suicidal.”
Care is a gendered issue, and care responsibilities over lockdown is no exception. Lockdown has radically changed women’s working conditions and caring responsibilities.
Over 40% of women said their caring responsibilities have changed as a result of lockdown, whether for children or adults in their care. Over a quarter of respondents reported difficulties balancing their caring responsibilities and work.
One member said: “Home schooling two children whilst working has meant having to fit my working day in between 6am and 12 noon and feeling exhausted. Managers don’t care as long as work was done; people with grown up children just don’t understand the impact.”
On the other hand, reduced travel time has meant that some women have more energy to give to their children. One mother said: “Working from home has been fantastic. If I could do that every so often it would be a big help.
“I spend almost four hours travelling to and from work on buses, so before lockdown my days were 12 hours long and I was too tired to have any kind of life, or energy for my family.”
1 in 10 members reported a lack, or removal of, reasonable adjustments when working from home. This meant that disabled women members faced a double burden whilst trying to work from home, especially those who have children.
One disabled member felt completely forgotten by her workplace: “I felt very much that my work hadn’t considered how my disability might affect me given the chance in circumstances.
“I have my children at home full time, with none of my usual support structure or childcare, and my husband is a key worker who has been working outside of the house. I’ve ended up extremely unwell with stress-related illnesses.
“I worked from home covering shifts on a call centre to help people with COVID-19 related problems. I was set up with a laptop and mouse but wasn’t given any training. I suffer from a back problem and got sciatica on my first shift because I sat for almost six hours with only a 15-minute break. We were all required to fill out DSE assessments, but this should have been done at the beginning.”
Life after lockdown
Whether working from home is appropriate depends on each individual’s circumstances, but choice is the most important factor.
Though a substantial majority of the respondents to the survey said they would like to continue working from home with the related flexibility when things return to ‘normal’, this does not mean that offices should remain closed.
Over half of members responding (51%) said that they would like to see changes in their workplace following the COVID-19 crisis of the changes suggested. Within that, support for home working was very high.
UNISON national officer Josie Irwin said: “For many women, working from home during lockdown has meant flexibility and a better work-life balance.
“However, for others, it has been exhausting, stressful, isolating and miserable. As lockdown restrictions gradually lift, we must be very careful not to assume, as some commentators have, that working from home is great for everyone. For some it’s hell. Choice about what flexibility looks like is key.”