Coronavirus has made us a nation of home workers. But what’s it doing to our mental health and what should employers be doing to support their staff during dark times?
If you’ve read Robinson Crusoe, you’ll know that isolation tests human beings. The mental frustrations the hero undergoes illustrate that being so much on our own isn’t necessarily a good thing. Isolation can disturb our mental health, wellbeing and stability.
Stress – already high
But how prepared mentally were we for home working before the virus struck anyway? Work-related stress was already high before the pandemic. HSE says that in 2019 stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 44 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and 54 per cent of all working days lost.
Research shows home workers are not exempt from those figures either. Working Any Time Anywhere, a 2017 report by Eurofound and the ILO, found that home working creates more potential for better work-life balance, but can also blur the boundaries between work and personal life, creating stress.
Kate Bishop, a performance coach and wellbeing strategist, explains that even the loss of the commute can be a trigger for poor mental health: “That period of travel was when we got into our work day and importantly at the other end, wound down from our work day.
"Now we are living and working and socialising all in the same place and that can be quite detrimental for people; their potential inability to switch off or maybe their inability to get into work mode.”
For many people, home working arrangements have been rushed. Most (75 per cent) workers told the Institute of Employment Studies that they’ve had no risk assessment of their home working stations, fuelling a sharp rise in back, shoulder and neck pain. Some people are struggling with personal issues, such as seeing plans altered, weddings delayed, or worse – family members taken ill. As Kate says: “We are not working from home, we are at home during a global pandemic, trying to work.”
Loneliness and isolation
Feelings of isolation are a key issue for many home workers and is common in research in this area. In the 2019 State of Remote Work report produced by Buffer, 19 per cent of home workers said they feel lonely.
Video conferencing tools, such as Zoom, have seen daily active users soar, and Kevin Daniels, Professor in Organizational Behaviour at Norwich Business School, believes that employers should be using these as much as possible to combat feelings of dislocation: “The more extensive video communication media will help considerably,” he says.
He advises employers that: “Communication needs to be empathic, address the concerns of workers and two-way – so that worker concerns are aired. Setting up worker support groups through online communities can help too.”
Yet, is it so straightforward? Anecdotal insights suggest that loneliness and isolation is a problem that can’t easily be fixed. Aaliyah, a charity worker who lives alone, says: “I can’t remember the last time I spoke to someone face to face – maybe last week to the Deliveroo driver? He dropped it on the doorstep and backed away slowly.”
Speaking on Radio 4’s programme Working from Home (broadcast 16 April) she says: “I think working from home for such a long time without seeing friends or family is really exacerbating mental health issues.”
Sarah, a copywriter at a creative agency, says home working has accented a lack of managerial support she always felt anyway: “My boss didn’t communicate with me much before the coronavirus, so this has made no difference. I never get performance feedback or encouragement. This bothers me more at this time because our jobs feel insecure.”
Jonathan Moore, who is a membership manager at the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), says on the other hand that his company organises remote social events, and he and his team maintain Friday afternoon pub meets, albeit via video link. “It’s not just about work, it’s checking how people are doing. People are trying to be as supportive as possible. My team also have a daily catch up – sometimes you can’t go to every one. But it’s quite nice, it’s about having that contact.”
The second recession
More broadly, there’s huge concern that we’re not equipped mentally for home working because any form of working is plagued with anxiety at the moment because of job insecurity. Cary Cooper, Professor of Organizational Psychology and Health at Manchester Business School, says employers are furloughing workers, teams are stretched with the extra workload and people are determined to show up in case they are laid off.
He predicts all the problems we saw in the last recession will emerge again: “There will be another recession, but it will be worse: it will be a depression. That could have a profound psychological effect on the health and wellbeing of working people."
He continues: "There will be major downsizings, increasing levels of job insecurity, fewer employees meaning heavier workloads, longer working hours, a more robust and bottom-line management style and work spilling over into people’s private lives creating work-life imbalance. For people who are furloughed, they will fear it’s the first step towards redundancy.”
Silver linings and tips for home workers
For employees struggling with home working or stress from work demands, there is however lots of advice and support out there. In fact, one of the silver linings of the coronavirus is that so many services – including the British Safety Council, which has made online mental health support free – are being made freely available.
Ella Mills, founder of Deliciously Ella, speaking on a podcast hosted by YuLife, says: “I’ve come to believe that in feeling good there needs to be a semblance of discipline. They sound like two polar opposites, and with isolated working, it falls on us to create a discipline.”
She advises getting up at the same time: “Have a shower, get dressed properly. A 20-minute walk first thing in the morning helps to create that sense in your mind it’s the start of the day.”
You can take your pick from podcasts, webinars and articles to see what works for you to nurture wellbeing and mental health while home working. Kate Bishop recommends starting the day with the Japanese philosophy ‘ikigai’. “That means what is the purpose of my life today?” she explains.
“Is that to do a fantastic job, or do a great meeting, or is my purpose to sit around and relax and look after myself? The other thing is to reflect on the three things that have gone well at the end of the day. It’s important to be positive.”
Are we ready for the home working revolution?
Home working has been a growing feature of our lives for many years. Without our readiness to adapt to it, and the IT tools at our command, it would have been much harder to keep the economy on life support as it is currently doing during coronavirus.
Yet have we got it right? Based on research and what people have told Safety Management, the technology might be in place to enable it, but managers are not all helping employees to stay mentally well and motivated. In the 2019 CIPD report Time to Take Ownership, six in ten (62 per cent) managers said they put the interests of their organisation above staff wellbeing “either sometimes or every day”.
As economic pressures bite, that skewing of priorities is only going to get worse. HSE, which has stopped short of advising employers they need to do DSE risk assessments for home workers during the lockdown, has effectively given the green light to companies to do nothing. As a result, musculoskeletal disorders have spiked.
Many commentators are saying that this crisis will see a seismic shift towards home working – if only to prepare for future pandemics or prevent the second wave of Covid-19. Home working offers exciting solutions to global crises from work equality, to reducing air pollution and cost savings.
For this to happen, however, much more needs to be done to manage the human dimension of working from home. Employers must show they value their people and follow the advice on how to protect their mental health. When you’re at home, the structures of office life are taken away, and that can leave people feeling very vulnerable indeed.
Coronavirus: Supporting yourself and your team
Mind guidance: bit.ly/3cCmtwY
Mental health awareness courses are free from the British Safety Council. More: here
By Iris Cepero, editor on 01 March 2013
Iris Cepero interviews Dr Christa Sedlatsche, director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).