Dealing with the dark side of working from home
Posted on 15th January 2021 at 14:57
A number of issues have surfaced for employees which many employers have realised need thought and attention and new policies. In this blog we have shared some of the areas for consideration for employers.
Working from home is the new normal.
We are all aware that the world of work has changed since a global pandemic forced us into the first lockdown back in March 2020. For many, no commuting, saving money on travel, coffees and lunches and having the flexibility to manage days less rigidly, has made working from home a welcome enhancement to working life. However, working from home has exacerbated pre-existing issues or created new ones.
Managers have new challenges in supporting their teams when most, if not all, are working remotely. It is easy to stay in touch with your people when they are with you in an office every day. Monitoring their workload and productivity is relatively straightforward, and changes in behaviour are more noticeable when right in front of you.
That changes when your team works from home and has a screen to hide behind. Your opportunities for informal chats or unscheduled contacts in the canteen or by the coffee machine are taken away too.
Despite those challenges, now more than ever, it is essential that managers stay close to their teams, checking in regularly and monitoring for signs of stress or depression. The fact is that several worrying trends have emerged as working from home has become increasingly common during the pandemic.
Below we discuss four areas that are taking a toll on many employees and suggest some strategies that may allow you to support them more effectively.
Mental Health decline
Studies have clearly shown that most people working from home in the last twelve months suffer from mental health issues. A recent study conducted by Nuffield Health shows that 80% of British workers think that working from home has harmed their mental health. Symptoms include general anxiety, sleep disruption, feeling that they must always be working and isolation from colleagues, family and friends. 34% of respondents found that this put strain on relationships, whilst one in five felt pressure to look good and perform well in video calls and meetings.
The Institute of Employment Studies also found mass dissatisfaction, with 50% of respondents unhappy with their work/life balance, 60% feeling more fatigued and 21% harbouring severe concerns about job security.
Loneliness is a crucial issue, a sense of isolation being reported by many workers across the country, cut off from colleagues and struggling to articulate their feelings. This can sometimes make people appear unapproachable simply because they fear rejection more than usual.
Managing Mental Health Issues
Schedule one-to-ones with each of your team at least once a week. Check how your people are feeling and what challenges they are facing.
Set up team meetings online once a week to discuss work goals and progress and share stories about what has helped people working from home
Have at least one online social team meeting a month. Ask the team for ideas, so everybody participates and has some fun. From quizzes to cocktail making, there are many ways you can get people engaged even if you cannot be physically together.
If you notice emails being sent very early or late at night, gently remind that person that they are not expected to be working throughout their waking hours because they are working from home. Try and identify why they are working at such times.
Set up a buddy system in your team or within the business so that your people can support each other through tough times.
Make sure your team know of resources available for dealing with anxiety. Click here for a list of helplines and websites, from The Mental Health Foundation to the Samaritans that could help people who need additional support.
Work with other managers to create a culture of positive mental health. All employees need to know it is OK not to be OK and that as a business, you are open to helping them.
Set up communication channels that allow people to share their issues. Slack, Teams or even WhatsApp are great ways to allow your team to support each other and feel a greater sense of connection around topics other than work.
Consider what you can do to help people with specific needs such as parents with young children, workers in the vulnerable health category or those living alone.
Survey your staff to understand their concerns and what they need from you.
For more ideas and information, take some time to read the advice from the CIPD.
The Threat of Burnout
Burnout is a threat that is increasing significantly through lockdown for those working from home.
Workers report feeling pressure to be always available; otherwise, they will lose their employer’s trust. This is known as ‘Availability Guilt’. Worryingly, a survey shows that employees are working on average, an extra 28 hours a month. The survey organised by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation found that 56% of homeworkers feel more anxious and stressed, and 47% have exaggerated their workload to justify their employment.
Burnout can occur when chronic workplace stress continues to increase without management intervention. With 25% of workers feeling they must respond to messages quicker than usual and more people log on before 7 am, and after 7 pm, this issue is becoming a serious one for workers and managers alike. Indeed, many of those managers are suffering from the same symptoms. The results are likely to be lower productivity, less employee engagement and most importantly, damage to employee mental and physical health.
Set clear expectations for your team, including the need for multiple breaks during the day, acceptable working hours, agreed response times to emails and phone messages and set realistic deadlines for tasks or projects.
Help employees create a daily routine. Those who have a structure to their day are more likely to experience better work/life balance, get more done and feel more engaged.
Share health and wellness ideas. Ensure people are getting some exercise and fresh air during the day and provide resources so staff can try mindfulness, yoga or ways to make their workspace more relaxing.
Ensure your business has a process for communicating updates to teams and your whole workforce. A monthly ‘Town Hall’ session with the CEO or other senior Directors is a great way to keep everybody informed about how the business is doing and ask any questions. For those with anxiety issues, it is important that you allow the facility to send in questions anonymously and open the floor during the session itself. If employees are more informed about the state of the business, they are likely to feel more control over their anxieties.
Help your people deal with failure. Many take failures hard leading to worries about job security or ongoing performance issues. Take the time to schedule a one-to-one with an employee who has had a tough time and help reframe the situation. This is very different from actual poor performance which should be managed professionally, following a structured process.
Give people time off to recharge their batteries, demonstrating your support when they feel overwhelmed.
For more help identifying and managing burnout, click here to find a series of articles from mental health and wellbeing training organisation Calmer.
Increase of Physical Health Issues
Just as mental health is suffering as people work almost exclusively from home, so is physical health. The Institute for Employment Studies research quoted above also found serious physical health issues. Musculoskeletal complaints have increased significantly with over half of workers suffering from neck, back or shoulder problems. One in five is drinking more alcohol, a third eats more unhealthily, and 60% are exercising less.
Some of these issues are linked to those discussed above, but it is also important to remember that a home workspace is often not ergonomically planned the way an office is. Many workers do not have adjustable chairs, work off a table in the kitchen or living room and do not have screens, keyboards and mouses set up to reduce the risk of physical complaints.
Make sure that either your employee has a suitably adjustable chair that ensures their feet are flat to the floor with their thighs parallel to the ground and with proper lumbar support. At the very least, provide back wedges and lumbar rolls to improve the support and positioning whilst seated in a regular chair.
Give all your employees a template to show how to set up their chair, desk, screen, keyboard and mouse. This resource from the Health and Safety Executive is a good starting point.
Put in place as much of the advice we have shared above as possible. This will influence alcohol consumption and diet.
Create opportunities for everyone to cook the same nutritious recipe and share photos and videos online.
Encourage exercise, perhaps incentivising people to do more. Think about how you can set up competitions within teams – miles walked, run, cycled and so on. Fastest 5k or 10k. See if you can find online workout programmes that you could provide subscriptions to for your people.
Encourage staff to go out at least once a day for a walk or a run. Importantly, not only is this good for the mind and body, but it will also increase exposure to Vitamin D. Your team are likely to be deficient in this vital vitamin at present, so provide some information that may motivate them to take a daily supplement. Remember, boosting Vitamin D levels improves the immune system, fatigue, depression, muscle weakness and ageing.
Domestic Abuse Intensifying
This is perhaps the darkest issue of all but one that is essential to monitor. A study commissioned by abuse charity Women’s Aid found that 61% of women living with their abuser during lockdown have seen abuse increase. Those with children are suffering even more, and 78% said it is now more difficult to escape their abuser.
Women report that abusers show no regard for the virus, exploit lack of additional support, are likely to be drinking more, leading to more abuse and that opportunities to find refuge have reduced. Whilst it is difficult for any manager to intervene directly, looking for the signs and having resources available that may help is essential.
Women’s Aid provides free rail travel for anyone and their families needing to remove themselves from an abusive home while also trying to find refuge accommodation. The National Domestic Abuse helpline took over 40,000 calls in the first three months of lockdown in 2020. There are ways to support victims, so here are some ideas:
Managing Domestic Abuse Against Your Staff
Provide helpline information to all staff. Hopefully, none will ever need it, but having the numbers of organisations that can help is vital for anyone suffering abuse. Here is a list of several organisations that provide support services:
National Domestic Abuse Helpline - freephone, 24-hour - 0808 2000 247
Solace Women’s Aid Helpline – freephone, 24 hour - 0808 802 5565
If you do not have one, your business should formulate a domestic abuse policy and support framework.
Create an open culture that encourages people to talk to you about severe issues like domestic abuse.
Look for changes in behaviour or poor-quality work from usually reliable workers. Write to them to reach out to check if all is OK and offer the opportunity to either schedule a call or provide appropriate resources. If you have an HR department or provider, they should take responsibility for supporting the employee and activating any agreed policies.
For more information on managing domestic abuse, the CIPD offers useful advice and has produced a guide to managing employees experiencing domestic abuse in conjunction with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Click here to read.
As a responsible employer- take action
The reality is that working from home is likely to become an established way of working even after Covid-19 has passed. Therefore, every business must ensure it increases the skills, tools, and processes available to managers to ensure its people’s ongoing wellbeing.
The reward will be improved productivity, more robust employee engagement and lower staff turnover. Bear in mind, availability of working from home and how it is managed will become a key consideration for people when job hunting. If you want to recruit strong talent for the future, you will need to get this right.
You can contact us for advice and support.
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