Jorge Merida Puga
Director General
Advisory Network for Wellbeing
Expert Contributor

Telework and Mental Health: Sighting of New Regulations

By Jorge Merida Puga | Fri, 09/02/2022 - 09:00

The home office allowed knowledge workers to cope with the threat of contracting an unknown and risky disease while the operations of many businesses continued in 2020. Homes became sanctuaries at the beginning of the pandemic but the continuation of telework throughout the following years poses risks to people’s health. This is what the new Mexican official standard draft, NOM-037-STPS-2022, for safety and health conditions in telework addresses.

Telework as a medicine for companies in danger of death, was implemented in an improvised and poorly understood way. Between 15 and 25 percent of the workforce in the country worked from home in 2020. Later, we would learn that only 10 percent of the job profiles in Mexico were actually suitable for teleworking.

For employees, an absence of training in telework skills (only 8 percent of home office workers received this kind of training) and a decrease in their paycheck became the usual situation. This phenomenon was observed around the world, too. According to the International Labor Organization, the loss of workers' income in 2020, amounted to 4.4 percent of the world’s GDP in 2019 (US$3.7 trillion).

For some people, long working hours, strict and permanent supervision by their supervisors, physical fatigue due to inadequate spaces and stress from isolation were also increased. In addition to these factors, teleworkers experienced stress from getting COVID, adopted a sedentary lifestyle and incurred substance abuse. To make matters worse, they also worked under the burden of coping with loss of friends and relatives, savings, status and opportunities.

In Mexico, before the COVID pandemic, women were already spending up to 50 hours per week in unpaid domestic chores, as compared to 19 hours spent by men. The female population was the most affected by the pandemic crisis, according to UN Women. This was mainly because they were in the first line of care for COVID patients in hospitals and at their own homes (the caregiver role is typically played by women in Mexico).

By 2021, 20 percent of Mexican women were experiencing depression, while severe anxiety affected 23.2 percent. Meanwhile, Mexican men only reported 10.5 and 15 percent, respectively. This should not be read as greater resilience on the part of men since, unlike women, in 2020, 6,452 suicides were reported by men versus 1,436 by women (according to INEGI data).

The pandemic took a toll on workers' health and gave way to more complicated scenarios; for example, the emergence of another silent pandemic, consisting of a variety of mental health problems. There are several hypotheses that explain the increase of these problems. In the global economic crisis of 2009, it was documented that in periods of economic stress the prevalence of mental disorders increases, generating a rise in suicides among male managers aged 40-60. Moreover, research findings in the medical field realized that SARS-Cov-2 infection generates particular damage to mental health. During and after the disease, the presence of anxious feeling, depressive mood, insomnia and low concentration symptoms occurred in up to a third of the total cases. In addition to that, social isolation, confinement in small places and exposure to traumatic events should be the causes of the occurrence of the mental health crisis.

What does teleworking have to do with all this? The answer is linked to the social determinants of health. On the one hand, it is recognized by Mexican labor law that work environments trigger, perpetuate or magnify mental health problems in the workforce. Therefore, diligent management of psychosocial risk factors in companies has become more necessary than ever. On the other hand, it has been proved that favorable organizational environments preserve and improve workers’ mental health. Adopting good practices related to the prevention and promotion of occupational mental health has positive effects on both the health of workers and corporate finances.

Among our clients, we observed that their business continuity plans and well-being programs required adjustments to support this work modality since their current design proved to be insufficient and thus, inadequate. We also found that widely available employee assistance programs (regularly referred to as PAEs) no longer met healthcare needs as, perhaps, they did before.

Our observations were confirmed by the validated experience of occupational health professionals. Preliminary results of the First Survey on Mental Health at Work (designed by ADN-Wellbeing and facilitated by several business associations and occupational physician organizations) show that more than half of occupational health professionals have observed a considerable increase in mental health cases among workers. Data shows an increase from 20 to 80 percent when compared with pre-pandemic case numbers. Almost 70 percent of occupational physicians consider that the corporations they work for have deployed special measures to protect workers’ mental health. Among these, the most recurrent action is referring patients to a public-health institution where they face long wait times, low availability of specialized professionals and frequent interruption of outpatient services.

So, what adjustments are needed to protect and restore the teleworkers’ mental health? These must include immediate, effective and sustainable access to mental health services, aligned to both safety and quality standards. In addition, prevention of risk factors is also advisable. The increase in mental health cases also justifies enlisting a trusted specialized provider that may add extra capacity to the already overwhelmed in-house medical services.   All in all, a lack of response to the increasing demand for such services under the “new normality” may bring a series of undesired consequences, ranging from regulatory fines to higher employee turnover and accident rates.

In Mexico, only one out of four people with mental disorders has access to mental health services. They only seek help four to 20 years after the first symptoms appear. From our experience, providing specialized medical care programs in the workplace (such as ADN Wellbeing’s own Ruta Segura) has proven effective when organizations seek to complement and fully support measures aimed at protecting and restoring workers’ mental health. These programs lower the barriers for workers seeking to receive mental healthcare, making them available to all departments and pay grades. Once employees get familiar with the program, stigma and high-cost medical fees due to late treatment begin to recede.

For its part, the Mexican government has introduced policies intended to protect workers’ right to health and well-being. Policies include procedures to prevent psychosocial risk factors as those observed in the recommendations for return to work issued by IMSS. In addition, the Federal Labor Law in Mexico was reformed to include telework as a new form of work organization; also, the Ministry of Labor published an official standard draft that established employers' obligations with regard to telework safety and health (PROY-NOM-037-STPS-2022, Teleworking Safety and Health Conditions).

We are not yet aware of the full extent of the pandemic’s toll across all aspects of our lives; nevertheless, some relevant concepts have emerged, such as viewing organizations as living beings with an unsuspected resilience. It is also evident that the survival mechanisms displayed by organizations, such as telework, exposed employee mental health to significant risks and wear. Today, businesses and organizations have an opportunity to improve existing practices and measures so all stakeholders, including employees, can leverage the advantages of remote work with no detriment to any party.

Photo by:   Jorge Merida Puga