Whilst the immediate health benefits of avoiding common workspaces are obvious in the face of the current COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to consider the impact this crisis is having on people’s mental health as they adjust to a new remote way of working.
For many years, remote work has been high on the list of coveted employee benefits. Many employers will already be familiar with the solitude working remotely can often bring, and how to avoid this impacting their employees’ mental health. However, for those who are accustomed to a conventional “office life” and regular social interactions in the workplace, the shift to remote working may be an entirely new experience. This change coupled with the severity of the lockdown measures, may bring unanticipated mental health consequences. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of this new reality.
Acknowledgment of the impact on mental health
Working from home can be more challenging than it seems. Our homes are filled with distractions we simply don’t encounter at work, particularly if employees have other people living and working around them and children to support with schoolwork.
As a result, it’s essential to be as supportive as possible and be aware that each and every individual is facing their own personal challenges as they navigate their career and family needs at this time. Employees need time to adjust to the new normal, perhaps to rearrange their schedules and address how to work effectively from home.
Despite mental health awareness being at an all-time high, even before the lockdown our research showed that globally, workers find it hard to open up to colleagues or health professionals to seek support for stress-related issues. This is so prevalent that 90% of people, opt to deal with stress on their own, rather than seeking medical advice. Now more than ever, it’s important to understand the strain this new ‘normal’ can have on our mental health. We are all guilty of unintentionally spending more hours at our desk when working from home and especially when the lines between work and home become blurred.
Employees need to set clear boundaries to keep their working hours balanced, perhaps by introducing a separate workspace if possible. It’s also important to try and stay connected - virtual calls with colleagues, friends, mentors and line managers can be a vital source of support and advice during this period.
Even in this uncertain time, an employer should aim to manage their team in the same way by using digital tools to help them remain connected. Connecting regularly over the phone or via video meetings will hopefully encourage employees to open up to their colleagues and/or their employer, in the same way they normally would, about their workload and any concerns they have whether personal, health or work related.
As Peter Mills and Inge Schrever, doctors responsible for the Cigna Europe medical team, highlight, “additional care and support should be made available to help staff not only feel valued and supported, but also to ensure that they can handle the additional challenges that changes to their daily routine can bring. Employers should take extra time out their working day or week to listen to their staff and if required, offer access to counselling over the phone or a helpline for employees to use when they need it.”
Dr. Mills and Dr. Schrever share five ways to maintain staff morale and positive mental health in a remote work environment:
- Stay connected - When working remotely, employees need to know that their manager and senior leaders are still there for them should they have issues and need someone to help them. The key to staying connected while working remotely is to spend time with your staff. Although this may be virtually, it's about dedicating time just to them. If you already hold one-to-ones, you may benefit from making these more regular while working remotely.
- Recognition is key - When someone notices and appreciates your hard work, it’s a great boost for morale. This can have an even bigger impact when you’re working remotely. Never miss an opportunity to recognise your staff when they’ve done a good job. By also letting your staff know how their work fits into the bigger picture of the business, you let your people know just how valuable their work really is.
- Have some fun - Social activities should still be encouraged among remote teams. Most of what you do in the office can be done virtually. This means employees can be encouraged to meet up virtually to perhaps game online during lunch breaks, or you could introduce a video call slot to allow employees to chat about their day over a coffee.
- Show that you care - Show your employees that you still care while working remotely. You can host virtual birthday celebrations, or just make sure that any occasion is thoroughly celebrated through your internal communication channels. This way you can ensure that all employees, no matter where they’re based, feel cared for by their team.
- Consider virtual support groups - Everyone in the team will go through times where they need support or a shoulder to lean on. You can set up virtual support groups on instant messengers or video calls so the group can “meet”. This allows them to seek answers to questions and offer solutions, but also build closer relationships with each other in general.
It’s important for employees to know that their employer is still tuned into their physical and mental health requirements and that their overall well-being remains a top business priority.
Encourage employees to create a PLAN to See Stress Differently
Access to mental health support is important, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues with no end date in sight. One effective way employers can support their staff is to encourage them to See Stress Differently by creating their own unique Stress Care PLAN:
Individuals can better control their stress once they have a Stress Care PLAN in place. This includes finding a:
- Period of time to unwind: Set aside a designated time each day to slow down and relax.
- Location that is stress reducing: Designate a physical place to take a break -even if you can’t get out of your house, choose a room or a corner that is yours for your ‘me’ time every day.
- Activity to enjoy: Choose an activity but make sure it’s easily accessible, practical and affordable.
- Name of a person to talk to: Find someone you are comfortable talking to who will offer you support and guidance – this could be a friend, family member or a professional.
It goes without saying that we still don’t know how long the current situation will continue for. Looking at things in the long term, working environments will likely be quite different once we exit lockdown. In the meantime, simple strategies that offer support and appreciation to employees at this time will show that their health and well-being is a priority. Employers should offer reassurance to employees that their reactions are normal during an unprecedented time, and that they can rely on their employer to help them navigate through this challenging period.