This article is the second in a series reflecting on employee mental health challenges that employers will need to be aware of. It focuses on employee mental health and wellbeing in the context of homeworking.
We will look at how employers can continue to support employees working from home, taking into account the mental health and wellbeing aspects that many have felt throughout lockdown and through the shift to what is almost a permanent working from home scenario for some, especially in light of the second lockdown recently announced.
Prior to COVID-19, some employers already had flexible working practices in place that enabled employees to work from home. However, in March 2020 a lot of employers suddenly found themselves taking part in the national experiment of enforced homeworking. This provided employers with new challenges, especially those who unexpectedly had an entire workforce working remotely.
Amongst these challenges was ensuring that employees’ mental health and wellbeing was looked after from afar; a challenge which proved very difficult due to many employees given the variety of differing ‘home’ circumstances. Unfortunately for employers, there was and is ‘no size fits all’ approach that could or can be assumed for each employee working remotely.
How was employee mental health impacted by homeworking?
Some employees may have been delighted at the thought of permanently working from home, whereas others may have dreaded the thought of it - and given the duration of homeworking and the actual experiences of it in practice, some may have changed their viewpoint.
Employees that predominately worked in the office prior to lockdown were suddenly left ‘alone’ at home to carry out their role. For junior employees, this may have resulted in ‘imposter syndrome’ feelings and worry about the potential lack of easily accessible support or supervision that they once had face-to-face in the office – not just formal supervision but just being around colleagues to learn through observation. For senior employees or managers, working from home may have resulted in pressures of balancing customer/client demands against checking in and supporting their peers and junior reports.
The IES Working at Home Wellbeing Survey Interim Findings revealed that 33% of employees working from home frequently felt isolated and 34% worried that decisions were taken without their involvement. 29% of employees felt that their supervisor was not good at keeping in touch.
On a personal level, some employees during lockdown juggled working from home alongside full time childcare responsibilities and potentially other family related demands within their household. On the other hand, some employees who live alone, spent the entire time working from home on their own in isolation. The employees in both these scenarios were likely to have their mental health affected - but in different ways in response to different demands, demonstrating how difficult it is for employers to manage and effectively look after each individual employee’s wellbeing.
The rise of virtual or e-presenteeism
The Mental Health Foundation revealed that on average, people who are working from home are now clocking up to 28 hours of overtime per month, with 12% signing before 7am and 18% still working post 7pm. The switch to full working from home has resulted in employees feeling pressured to always be available and switched on – 25% feel pressured to respond more quickly than they normally would. This has resulted in a form of virtual or e-presenteeism, making employees feel that they should always be available, even when feeling unwell or when they are trying to enjoy some authorised downtime.
An increase in working time does not always correlate with an increase in productivity. The IES Working at Home Wellbeing Survey Interim Findings also revealed that 48% of employees are working long and irregular hours at home, with 48% feeling that they do not have enough time to get work done and with 36% feeling under too much work pressure. The result of this is burnout, which results in a decrease of productivity and severely affects employee mental health.
Employers may see employees leave as a consequence or signed off on long term sick leave, which in turn will affect the business of the employer. Employees also will be keeping a close eye on how prospective employers treat its workforce and how much focus is given to the mental health and wellbeing of its employees.
What can employers do?
Employers should reflect on how the current circumstances are impacting its employees’ mental health and wellbeing and consider what it did pre-pandemic to keep the workforce well. Consider whether the measures and considerations pre-pandemic can be adapted to work in the new working from home environment. Managing remote employees can be tricky so employers will need to consider what managers could put in place to support employees at home, while ensuring that managers themselves are also supported.
Working from home doesn’t mean that employers can’t reach out and support their employees. Managers could schedule regular phone calls or video chats with their direct reports and ensure 1-2-1 take place in respect of support and development. Depending on the level of current national or local restrictions, employers may be able to invite employees to a socially distanced face-to-face meet up to check in on how they are. Employers should also regularly remind employees of any available services they could use such as an Employee Assistance Programme or internal Mental Health and Wellbeing Champions or First Aiders.
Homeworking is definitely here to stay for the medium to long term. It is so important for employers to let employees know that they are there so that employees feel that they can reach out if they need to, regardless of how they are working. Communication will be the key to this and employers should continue talking to their workforce throughout to ensure that any mental health issues can be addressed early on – rather than it being too late.