The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated remote working to an unprecedented scale and has caused an influx of mental health concerns. Here, Sue Lingard, a director of Cezanne HR, highlights several steps that employers can take to build mental resilience among a remote workforce
Remote working has been on the rise in recent years alongside the digitisation of business. But now the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the trend to an unprecedented scale, as organisations are forced to implement working from home – in many cases for the first time ever.
Employers shouldn’t panic. Remote working has for several years proved beneficial for countless industries and their workforces; from supporting neurodiversity and improving employee engagement to raising productivity. It does, however, come with a number of challenges – the most difficult being managing employee mental wellbeing, and mitigating the dangers of isolation and burnout.
Until recently, the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service recommended that only suitable workers be offered the choice of regular remote work. Yet now, tens of thousands of workers who have had no experience of working from home for prolonged periods will be expected to continue operations while social distancing. Sue Lingard, a director of Cezanne HR says: ‘Employers, just as in the office, need to be aware and take responsibility for the mental health of their employees while they’re at home.’
Thankfully, there are several steps that employees can take to protect their mental wellbeing, and there are many powerful initiatives that employers can take to support them.
Maintaining relationships a top priority
Relationships are critical to work performance as well as emotional and mental wellness. Working from home provides difficult circumstances for many people, as most people are inherently social, and the prospect of prolonged isolation is a daunting one. Communication is the most effective method of coping with isolation. Employees should strive to make regular contact with their teammates, and where possible, their friends and family.
Employers should encourage regular online communication, to keep team members in touch. It need not just be in the form of emailing or instant messaging, but could include online calling applications such as Skype, Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, and other video meeting services. Some employers might also consider encouraging social breaks on company time to alleviate isolation, and boost employee relations.
Sue advises: ‘Managers need to take the lead in bringing employees into the conversation. Not every team member is confident engaging with senior colleagues, so it’s important to create opportunities for them to speak – and give them confidence that their input is valued. Active listening, being valued and feedback is important in preserving the mental wellbeing of your staff, and will have a long term positive impact on your whole team.
Breaks are essential as they give your body and mind time to relax. Breaking down prolonged, drawn out attention to projects and tasks helps restore motivation, and boosts productivity and engagement, while combating stress and exhaustion.
Regardless of the setting, whether it’s spending five minutes in another room, or stepping outside for some fresh air, workers should take the time to get up out of their workspaces and move to a different setting. Employers should aim to be as flexible as possible, communicating clearly the importance of regular breaks to avoid burnout.
Building mental barriers
Maintaining a line between one’s private and professional space is fundamental to making remote working work. Home working can blur the line between personal and work life. This can lead to conflict, frustration, stress, and disorientation, so it’s very important to stay disciplined.
Employees should strive to set a designated area of work. You don’t need a dedicated office or a study, you could simply have a desk, a particular seated area or chair.
Furthermore, employers should communicate the importance of setting a schedule and sticking to it, as well as learning when to ‘switch off’, turning away from the screen, and disabling email and instant messaging notifications after hours. Doing so will prevent the professional lives of your workforce spilling into their personal lives and vice-versa.
Thanks to cutting out commutes, working from home can actually enable people to get on top of being active better than their otherwise long workdays would allow. Exercise is hugely important for mental and physical wellness.
You don’t need a gym membership, a garden, or even equipment. Make use of the thousands of online exercise videos on YouTube, or other online resources. Our partners at Perkbox for instance, are offering free online exercise classes for all their customers. Yoga, Pilates, HIIT classes, kickboxing – online has it all!
Tune down the noise
It’s important in this difficult period for employees to try to avoid becoming consumed by the news. Trawling through COVID-19 updates online might be tempting, but it can make you vulnerable to falling down a rabbit hole filled with misinformation, mass panic, and hysteria.
Sue suggests: ‘Employers should act as a beacon and provide clarity to their employees, as well as guidance, as they navigate their teams through uncertainty. You can’t control what your employees are watching, but communicating clearly about the situation, what it means for your business and workforce, as well as staying positive, might be helpful for everyone.’
UK businesses will face enormous challenges in the road ahead, as they contend with this global pandemic. Hundreds of thousands of workers will be working from home for a prolonged period and for the first time, threatening mental health across industries. But by implementing some of the steps above, employees and their employers will find managing and building mental resilience a little easier in these difficult times.
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