Out of sight should never mean out of mind

Amy Owens

Written By AdviserPlus

9th December 2020

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As 2020 draws to a close and we celebrate the potentially life-saving effects of a mass vaccination programme, you’d be forgiven for believing that an end to COVID-19 disruption is in sight.  But 2021 promises to bring its own challenges:  job losses, austerity and, for many, mental health issues.

The UK’s Centre for Mental Health estimates that at least half a million more people will experience poor mental health, characterised by heightened stress and anxiety levels, compared to a normal (pre COVID) year.

For many, home working or a hybrid arrangement, with some days at home and others in the office, looks like a longer-term prospect.  Take HSBC, based in London’s Canary Wharf, occupying an office capable of accommodating 10,000 employees but with around 350 only in the office for the last few months.  Their current thinking is that working from home is inevitable with the potential for “two or three days at home, two or three days in the office”.

While many people have embraced remote working, for some it brings a number of challenges:

  • Isolation: a lack of physical connection can leave people feeling they have nowhere to turn to when they feel stressed or anxious.  This is particularly the case for a single person household in times of restricted social gatherings.  A strong support network is crucial for mental health.
  • The blurring of home and work life:  many have reported the feeling that they need to be “always on” when working at home and fail to take adequate breaks and/or work longer hours.  The failure to detach or “switch off” can lead to anxiety, stress and poor mental health.
  • Virtual meeting overload: while Zoom, MS Teams and other facilities have helped ensure that business continues, there does seem to be a sense that group calls are both overdone and ineffective. And for some participants the mere act of appearing on camera can push anxiety levels higher.
  • Lack of personal interaction in the workplace: often, we lose sight of the fact that informal, personal catch ups – gossip, laughing, bouncing ideas off people and general small talk, are an important part of working life.
  • Uncomfortable or inappropriate workstations:  it’s easy to make the assumption that workers have a desk and chair in a quiet area to do their work and take part in video calls.  For some, that’s a pipe dream and for those younger people in flat shares quiet space and access to broadband can be issues.

While we may have trained our managers to spot the signs of deteriorating mental health in the workplace, remote working presents its own challenges.  How do you read reactions on a large video call?  Who is quiet and detached or anxious? What fears and concerns do people have?

Actions employers and managers should consider now:

  • Schedule one-to-one catch ups and stick to them.
  • Learn how to recognise changed behaviour and make a point of asking people how they are more often.
  • Build in time for personal interaction in the team and wider organisation. Examples include coffee get-togethers; virtual choir workshops (Linklaters); Zoom cooking classes (Goldman Sachs); online meditation workshops; access to counselling.
  • Consider a “buddy system” pairing people up to check in with each other.
  • Avoid scheduling back-to-back calls. Build in time for breaks both for yourself and participants.
  • Have clear cut-off points to the working day and lead by example in not emailing or contacting people outside core working hours.
  • Plan meetings effectively, sticking to the agenda and allocated times.
  • Consider a personal phone call rather than an email.
  • Help build an open culture of honesty by sharing your own challenges with the team/individuals.
  • Ensure that people have adequate furniture, seating and broadband connections.
  • Consider supporting those who want to take advantage of public working spaces by renting a desk in a shared office facility.

2021 will bring fresh, new challenges for businesses, leaders and employees and in tackling those challenges we need to put mental wellbeing front and centre.

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