From a technical perspective, working from home has worked out surprisingly well for most during the pandemic. The picture is likely to look less positive from a mental health perspective. Businesses should address potential issues as part of their duty of care to staff.
The mental health of employees became a hot topic long before the pandemic, driven by public campaigns by charities and celebrities which questioned some of the stigma around it. The effect of the confinement has added more topicality to the issue.
A review of the psychological impact of quarantine recently published in the medical journal The Lancet noted that potential negative effects include post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger. Stressors included longer quarantine duration, infection fears, frustration, boredom, inadequate supplies, inadequate information, financial loss, and stigma. The research also found indications of long lasting effects. Most of the adverse psychological effects come from the imposition of a restriction of liberty, according to the research.
While isolated at home, workers may feel threatened by the news about the health risk the virus represents for themselves and their families and the devastating effect the lockdown is inflicting on the global economy. More people are likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety as a result. The impact this may have on each individual will largely depend on their particular situation at home. It is important for employers to offer help where appropriate, not least because of the lasting effect this can have on employees’ performance and productivity.
Parents working from home
Many parents are working from home and caring for children at the same time because schools are closed and nannies are staying at home. The problem is compounded if both parents have to work from home or if the employee is a single parent. Employers need to consider what effect this might have on an employee’s mental health and their ability to complete their normal duties.
Challenges include working within a confined space or managing the stresses which come with maintaining a family routine in these unusual times.
In these cases, the employer should consider offering some flexibility for example by relaxing working hours and enabling employees to complete tasks when children are attending online lessons or are asleep. Businesses need to communicate this clearly and encourage line managers to take steps to identify affected employees and to set up a strategy that suits all parties involved.
Conflicts at home
The lockdown may cause or aggravate conflicts at home which can also affect employees’ mental health. A company should therefore consider offering voluntary, anonymous mental health consultations via a third party provider. Video call tools can enable sessions with mental health specialists in the same way as they can create a feeling of normality in team meetings. Maintaining employee social events remotely can also help preventing feelings of isolation and may ease the mental health issues employees may feel as a result of conflicts at home.
At the same time as having a full house when trying to work from home can cause stress and affect individuals’ mental state, being constantly at home alone during several weeks can have similarly damaging psychological effects.
Line managers should keep particularly good communication with employees that live on their own and may consider providing e-learning lone worker training, support and guidance. Further, daily ‘check-in’ procedures can help ensure the wellbeing of staff on a daily basis.
SUPPORTING LONE AND REMOTE WORKERS DURING THE PANDEMIC
- Maintain a good communication system and formal means of contact with remote workers to minimise feelings of isolation
- Use existing technology to provide advice on the proactive measures employees can take to maintain and improve their mental health
- Encourage daily exercise, sunlight and fresh air
- Promote socialising events via video conferencing
- Try to identify lone workers since they can be exposed to additional risks and encourage more communication between them and their line manager
- Consider workers who are vulnerable as a result of disability, existing medical conditions, or pregnancy in a similar manner as lone workers
- Encourage employees to create and maintain a reasonable routine, which takes mental health into account, to create a healthy work-life balance
- Share resources and guidance which helps employees stay active. There are many online fitness services those working at home can use to stay active
- Promote sleeping resources, apps and services which can help to improve sleep habits
It is important to note that anxieties triggered by issues around mental health, income and family situations can impact their physical health, wellbeing and, consequently, work output.
Developing an effective strategy to tackle mental health issues in the workforce during lockdown comes with its own challenges as it needs to consider the legal environment such as employment, privacy, discrimination and health laws.
Businesses can start gauging the needs of their staff through an employee engagement survey to better understand the unique characteristics of their employees and the issues they face.
Chris Rofe is Senior Vice President, Employee Benefits at Lockton
Lockton is the world’s largest privately held, independent insurance broker, with 7,500 professionals and 52,000 clients