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Yet Another “Reason” to Return to the Office

The Australian Financial Review, like its US counterpart the Wall Street Journal, tends to take the side of unfettered capitalism in every matter. Last week they published an opinion piece by Nick Coatsworth (“Nine’s Network Medical Expert and is completing a doctoral thesis on the first seventy days of Australia’s COVID 19 crisis response. He is the former Deputy Chief Health Office of Australia.”) titled Why WFH is likely to be bad for your health with the subhead “Instead of offering a holy grail of flexibility and work-life balance, what if WFH [work from home] might lead us to an early grave by actually increasing stress and decreasing our fitness?”

Oh dear oh dear oh dear.

I wrote to the AFR’s editors and opinions editors, so far have not heard back from them. So I’ll use my own tiny platform here to publish my response:

Dear Mr Coatsworth,

I have been grimly amused to see corporations and the media tie themselves into knots to coax, threaten, and harass workers back to the office. Your article manages to be one of the most egregious of the pieces attacking WFH. 

For a public health professional, your approach in this article is shockingly unscientific. “It seems to me that WFH presents a series of probable adverse health outcomes that are rarely stated or considered in this debate.” Where is your evidence, beyond your own feelings? 

Let’s discuss your claims:

  • “the benefits of interaction with peers and colleagues in the workforce.” – While this may be true for some, face-to-face interaction is not beneficial to all. For the neurodivergent, it can be sheer torture. For people with compromised immune systems, it can be dangerous. The pandemic brought more disabled people into work because they could WFH more easily and safely than in an office.
  • “Authors have found that WFH blurs the distinction between work and home life.” – That blur occurred long ago, largely due to mobile phones which made it easy for bosses to reach us at all hours, even if we’d already been in an office all day. 
  • For those who have large responsibilities at home, the blur can be useful. Household chores can get done in and around meetings and the “lost” time made up for later, after the kids are in bed. 
  • Lack of exercise – Removing the commute from each end of the workday leaves us with MORE time for personal activities such as exercise. We can break up a stressful day with a quick workout or walk, which may make us more alert and fresh to tackle the rest of the day. We could even take a phone meeting during a walk. Not all workplaces have built-in opportunities for ad hoc exercise.
  • Commuting is not often a healthy activity. Unless an office has facilities for showering and changing clothes, cycling to work is likely to make us unfit for face-to-face interaction. Most of us don’t have time to walk 30 minutes and then take the train. Sitting or standing on the bus is not exercise, but it is stressful, and exposes us to disease.
  • “It seems to me more plausible that our health will benefit from most time in the workplace with occasional days at home.” This “hybrid” work option benefits companies who need to justify real estate investments and those who own real estate near the office, but as I have written elsewhere, it is not a great boon to the rest of us.

You lead with: “the evidence underpinning the health benefits of working from home is sketchy and conflicting.” Your own article fails to provide anything other than personal opinion to the contrary. As a scientist and a journalist, you should be embarrassed. 

Best regards,

Deirdré Straughan

One thought on “Yet Another “Reason” to Return to the Office”

  1. “We could even take a phone meeting during a walk.”

    I have attended many such meetings during my walks after lunch and in the afternoon at my local park. Few people with whom I have one on one meetings regularly also used this meeting time for walks. WFH has done wonders for me and I don’t see any plans of going into an office.

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