From the challenges of enforced isolation and difficulty switching off caused by working from home, to the anxiety and uncertainty about future income caused by furlough – the effects of the pandemic have taken a toll on workers’ mental health. According to the Office for National Statistics, the rate of depression in adults doubled during June 2021compared to at the start of lockdown. Other surveys warn of the risk of burnout due to pressure to be more productive at home whilst juggling work-schedules, video calls, household chores and parenting.
Meanwhile, Job board, Totaljobs found that almost half (46%) of UK workers experienced loneliness during lockdown with younger workers especially struggling. Even with constant virtual meetings over Zoom, the endless screen-time and online interaction replacing face-to-face can take its toll, because we’re interacting with half the number of people we’d ordinarily interact with in an office setting, and virtual rather than face-to-face makes it more challenging to develop trust, empathy and connection.
So how can employers support team members at home, whether they are working from home or furloughed at home?
Give staff autonomy. Remote working when it’s our own choice can feel more positive an experience than the enforced WFH of the pandemic that has now become more prevalent, even after the easing of lockdown. When working from home is something we’ve chosen, we are more likely to see the benefits (the enhanced creativity from reduced distraction; the comfort of wearing lounge-wear all day and the flexibility of more family time and/or leisure time that can replace the time spent commuting). So, enable your staff to set their own hours and a start/finish at a time that suits them, with the clear understanding that the work required to be done is completed. This structured autonomy will help them see the benefits of working from home more readily. That said, recommend they stop work at a reasonable time, with no weekend-working, so they have enough downtime before bed.
Encourage staff to set routines and work/home boundaries. When they came into work the transitional car or rail journeys may have helped them mentally prepare for the day. Now those transitional journeys are gone, suggest they establish firm routines around what they do before work to mentally prepare and after work to switch off. For example, perhaps they could go for a run or do a workout before work and, after work, pack work tools away out of sight before going for a walk, swim or cycle. It’s important to set up clear work/home space and to pack everything away at the end of the day.
Recommend feel-good activities to schedule in. Send your team a fun pick ‘n’ mix ‘to-do’ list containing non-work feel-good activities to choose and schedule in to their days. From performing a random act of kindness or writing a thank you card to keeping a list of gratitude, tuning in to a comedy show or podcast during their lunch break, or doing something fun with a friend. Positive emotion is important to foster during challenging times as it improves our cognitive functioning and ability to problem solve, so can bolster productivity rather than diminish it. Organise an informal end of month ‘coffee break’ chat over Zoom where work-talk is off the agenda and you simply invite feedback about which activities they’ve chosen and how that felt? Maybe they could include these activities as new habits to maintain good mental health in future?
Suggest (or make it a new ‘Rule of Conduct’) that staff get outdoors and get active at least once per day. Perhaps they could go out somewhere for lunch (ideally with a colleague to maintain working relationships) or go for a mid-day bike ride? They could even sign-up to a remote yoga class or fitness challenge together with fellow work colleagues? Or perhaps break up the day by going for a walk in nature in the morning, a quick walk round the block at lunchtime and a trip out in the car to the beach or park at the end of the working day? If their work is such that they can work from anywhere with a web connection, give staff permission to hit the road occasionally and work from a coffee shop, a library, anywhere they’re not alone. Just escaping the confines of home can make a big difference.
Provide staff with a list of mental health resources. From Public Health England Every Mind Matters website developed in collaboration with the Mental Health Foundation (www.nhs.uk/every-mind-matters/) to the Samaritans who are available to listen by calling 116 123 at any time, you might even include https://soundofcolleagues.com/ on that list of resources for those who miss the buzz of working in an office. This office soundtrack is a Spotify playlist of workplace sounds, such keyboards, printers, chatter and coffee machines. It was initially created as a joke by Swedish music studio Red Pip, but soon took off as over a million people tuned in over lockdown.
Check in with your employees midweek – whether via email, in a chat room or over a phone or web chat call. The check-ins could come from you or designated mental-health first-aiders. You might want to introduce a buddy-system to give those uncomfortable with sharing their struggles with management the chance to share challenges with their peers instead. Ensure those checking in with people ask whether they’re okay, if they need anything and practice active listening – give the speaker their undivided attention; nod, smile and offer feedback. Invite everyone to check in with themselves regularly too by asking themselves what they might need to nourish themselves – To stretch and take some deep breaths? To get some fresh air? To put some music on and dance round the kitchen (something they only get to do when working solo from the comfort of their own homes).
Organise fun activities for staff to enjoy. For example, you could set up optional virtual ‘happy hour’ meetups with fun activities such as quizzes or talent competitions or virtual singing workshops, cooking, yoga or meditation classes. Permit employees to keep their cameras off if they prefer and invite staff to make suggestions for activity ideas. As lockdown is eased, take these group activities offline. Organise outdoor meetups for 30 people or less or groups of six for indoor gatherings.
Avoid a blanket approach to supporting your team members at home. With the Furlough scheme extended until September 2021, some staff working from home may feel they are too busy, while those on furlough are likely to feel anxious about the future security of their jobs and feel like they’re ‘not busy enough’. Adapt your support accordingly. For instance, those furloughed might benefit from doing some voluntary work to keep them busy and purposeful. So connect those team members to volunteering opportunities and community support schemes. Meanwhile, be honest and open about what is happening and find out which support mechanism would best suit each person. Remind your team that they’re not alone and that you’re all in this together.
By Cheryl Rickman is a positive psychology practitioner and author of new book Navigating Loneliness: How to connect with yourself and others, Welbeck, £8.99