Managing people

Managing work risk and wellbeing in a digital world

Business leadership that promotes the health and wellbeing of employees in the digital workplace is the way forward in today’s working environment, according to a new study.

7 August 2023


In many occupations, the traditional focus of health and safety concerns has evolved into one where key risks include the expectation of constant availability, the blurring of work and leisure time and the frequent need to adapt to digital changes and learn new digital tools.

Employers must be able to react adequately to these changes in order to minimise the potential adverse effects on individuals and teams, such as stress, loss of engagement and poor performance. The speed at which digitalisation has transformed the way we work means solutions are needed quickly, to enable businesses to prepare their workers for the newly emerging forms of work and help them cope.

Risk factors and leadership in a digitalized world

The workplace has morphed from a physical space to a connected environment where more and more of us communicate, collaborate and carry out our tasks in the virtual sphere. Health and safety issues have undergone a corresponding evolution for many workers.

Gone are the days when WHS risks were thought of largely in terms of physical, chemical, and biological hazards – over the past few decades psychosocial hazards such as bullying, excessive workloads, conflicting demands, fatigue and poorly managed organisational change have been gaining prominence, and now with the COVID-19 pandemic having pushed large sectors of the workforce into remote working using online technology, the hazards of the digital world are increasingly in the spotlight.

The WHS risks focused on in the study – ‘Risk Factors and Leadership in a Digitalized Working World and Their Effects on Employees’ Stress and Resources: Web-Based Questionnaire Study’ – are:

  • working in virtual teams
  • mobile working (that is, from any location)
  • expectations of being constantly available, and
  • the need for support in adapting and learning new digital tools.

The authors observed that these changes to working life can pose risks that might harm the well-being of employees. Their conclusion was that managers can support the well-being of their employees by protecting and replenishing their resources to cope with critical work demands.

The study had two aims. First, the researchers wanted to identify risk factors arising from the increasing digitalisation of work processes and investigate the possibility that these risk factors could impair workers’ wellbeing. Second, they wanted to investigate whether the health-impairing effects of the risk factors could be reduced by ‘health-promoting leadership’.

The research was based on the responses of more than 1400 workers to questions in an online questionnaire asking them about their perceived work-related risks, their bosses’ health-promoting behaviours, their levels of work-related stress and the resources available to help them cope.

The results of their analysis showed that all four of their identified risk factors of digital work (working in virtual teams, mobile work, constant availability, and inadequate technical support) were related to higher levels of work-related stress. In addition, virtual teamwork could be problematic due to inadequate technical support resources.

Controlling the risks of a digital working world

The study found that an adequate level of technical support with digital work requirements provided a buffer between the risks and employee wellbeing. Leaders providing better support opportunities for learning and using digital tools helped to minimise the potential for work stress.

As for the other risk factors, the physical distance between managers and workers in virtual teamwork or mobile work can make health-promoting leadership more difficult, so employers might need to adopt a different leadership style and consciously pursue new strategies to manage their workers’ work-related health and wellbeing.

The results of the study strongly support the importance of investigating risk factors associated with an increase in digitalisation at the workplace, as well as traditional WHS risk factors. Business leaders need to meet the challenge by recognising and rising to the challenges of a digital workplace, and ramping up relevant resources if need be, in order to avoid detrimental effects on work performance, reduce employee stress and realise the potential benefits and advantages of new ways of working.

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