OPINION - Working from home is worsening Britain's class and health divides

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Some time ago there was a BBC programme about the terrible things that broken sleep does to a person. A friend who worked on the Radio 4 Today programme was rattled; she had to start at about 3.30am, and it turned out irregular sleep reduces your immune levels.

Now a UCL study of a cohort of more than 25,000 people over five years proves the point. People working 55 hours a week or more have the poorest sleep, as do those with broken sleep — waking up in the middle of the night or early in the morning. The same was true of shift or weekend workers. And you know what bad sleep means? It means a greater risk of diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke.

But there’s an important aspect of this that bears on the great working from home debate. Although my BBC friend shows that the middle classes too sometimes work shifts and rise early — in the City, not-sleeping was once a thing — it’s mostly true of lower paid and manual workers. Factory workers — they exist — have to do shift and night work; so do the people who clean and maintain the buildings that the professionals use by day. Transport maintenance teams, street cleaners who have to start early, lorry drivers in cities ... what do they all have in common? The answer is they all do jobs that cannot be done from home. You cannot clean City offices from your own home; you cannot man a reception desk remotely; you cannot pick up other people’s rubbish except on the streets.

In other words, these indispensable workers are on the wrong side of the working from home divide. They cannot log on for their jobs at 7.30am from the kitchen like the Civil Service, or do the odd Zoom call. They have to be there. Not only do they have the health consequences of putting in the hours, they cannot simply take Fridays off.

In other words, the working from home issue is a class issue and, to an extent, a race issue. That’s one reason it’s so divisive. Like night work or shift work, it only applies to a certain category of worker. And on the whole, it’s those who are paid less and work harder who can’t WFH. That seems... unjust.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist