Mental health - The impact of enforced working from home

Mental health - The impact of enforced working from home
Published: 26 March 2020

Mental health and well-being have been at the top of the agenda for the majority of organisations, particularly in the last two years. Different sectors have undergone large changes and, as a result, the challenges and demands placed on their employees have been huge. Many businesses had already begun some adoption of flexible or home working patterns to allow colleagues to meet their professional and personal needs, which has been well received.

But what happens when you are told that, not only do you ‘have’ to work from home, but you must ‘stay’ at home? However valid and necessary the reason, as demonstrated by COVID-19, there will no doubt be varying degrees of impact on the mental health and well-being of a number of people.

Issues

The order by the government to stay at home for the foreseeable future came about quickly. Companies and individuals had to act swiftly, meaning many businesses and employees were not mentally or emotionally geared up for this way of ‘virtual working’. This fear is also compounded by a lack of clarity on timescales. Following a number of conversations with our senior leadership community, some key concerns dominate the agenda:

  • Feelings of isolation and disconnection
  • Sudden lack of boundaries between work and home life
  • Fear of being judged when not visible by managers
  • Lack of exercise or other activities that would normally help manage stress
  • The danger of watching too much news leading to constant worry/anxiety
  • Maintaining a strong and positive culture in a shift to a virtual office
  • Existing mental health issues could be exacerbated and go unnoticed

What can businesses and individuals do?

  • The immediate and salient issue is likely to be the lack of interaction that employees will now have. Less socialising and a feeling of loneliness can have serious consequences on people’s mental health. Maintaining open communications between teams and other colleagues is vitally important. Using Zoom, Microsoft Teams and even just picking up the phone to each other will help to create a sense of community.
  • With more time at home, we wondered whether people are able to separate work and home life. People need to ensure that they can still switch off and, importantly, take breaks. Will people worry that they are being judged on their output when they are not visible? Will this mean that individuals feel obliged to work longer hours and be online when they wouldn’t usually be? By schools closing and people caring for others, this will complicate the situation further. HR and Managers should be supporting and understanding of people’s different home pressures. If expectations and boundaries are set around hours and output, whilst demonstrating empathy around circumstance, this should help to alleviate any extra stress for the employee. If people feel their organisation is pressuring them, this is likely to have a severe impact on their ability to cope.  
  • With gyms closed around the country, our ability to exercise (which has proven benefits to our mental well-being) is also a cause for concern. If you are able and allowed, do get outside and get some sunlight, even if for a short walk. There are many ‘at home’ exercises that people can do and gyms have started posting workouts online for people who can’t get out. Following on from this, it is important that people eat healthily. Being stuck at home does (for most people) result in them eating more than usual! Following a healthy diet and exercising when possible will result in a healthier mind.
  • Watching and reading the news too much and scrolling through social media can definitely have a negative impact. We would suggest limiting the amount of time people spend reading or watching things which aren't making them feel better. There is also a lot of misinformation going around and so people should stay informed by sticking to trusted sources of information.
  • Trying to maintain a sense of culture when everyone is working remotely will be hard. How do organisations go about this? By using technology, they could look at hosting coffee breaks together or Friday afternoon drinks, for example. Also, when people are holding virtual meetings, a little bit of light relief with a funny story could make someone’s day.
  • Encourage colleagues to be kinder, more patient and more understanding. Everyone will have their own issues, but by acknowledging this in an open forum it removes any fears or anxiety.

There is no doubt that enforced home working, along with a period of ‘lock down’, will affect us all in different ways. Ultimately, what keeps people engaged, positive and productive is a sense of belonging; both at home and work. By appreciating this, and building on it through clear, honest and regular communication, colleagues can support each other during this very challenging time!

Tips

For more information on anything discussed in this article please contact Amelia Black, Consultant in the Human Resources Practice or Alka Gandhi, the Head of our Retail & Leisure Practice.

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