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Home Working and Mental Health

In a recent article, we talked about how to look after your mental health during the coronavirus outbreak. As the situation develops, this continues to be an important consideration.

Following the announcement of the government’s stricter guidelines, which came into force on 23 March, our daily lives have altered significantly. The measures, aimed at preventing the spread of the virus, mean that people are required to stay at home, except for very limited purposes (i.e. for medical reasons or care needs, to exercise once a day and to travel to and from work where “absolutely necessary”).

As such, those of us that are able to will now be working from home. For many, this will mean adjusting to a ‘new normal’. Many will not have worked from home for such an extended period. They may find that they miss the routine that going into work provides as well as the social aspects of being in the office.

Given that no one knows how long these restrictions might last, how will an extended period of working from home affect our mental health and wellbeing?

New figures from the CIPD show that only 31% of managers are “thought to have the confidence to have sensitive discussions around mental health and signpost staff to expert sources of help.” With a large proportion of the UK workforce now working from home, this is a situation that may get worse. If managers are already underconfident about having discussions around mental health, how will they manage the wellbeing of their employees now they are ‘out of sight’?

Employers will need to be proactive to help their employees through this period. This is a stressful and uncertain time for all of us and it may be harder for employers to detect where employees may be suffering. Fears of illness, financial concerns and feelings of isolation may all impact on an individual’s mental health during this crisis.

Regular communication, whether by phone, email or video call, will help employers keep in touch with their staff and maintain some sense of normality. It may be helpful to share regular company updates so employees feel included. If employees know that they can contact someone, they may feel less alone and more likely to reach out if they have a problem.

From a practical perspective, employers need to ensure that staff have sufficient equipment and access to the relevant software when working from home – but there are other considerations too. Where employees aren’t used to home working, some tips to help them adjust might be useful.

Home working can lack structure so it may be helpful for employees to build routine into their day where possible – for example, taking a proper lunch break away from their desk or workstation.

Similarly, consideration should be given to workspaces. Working from home can blur the boundaries between our professional and personal lives. Living and working in the same place – particularly when we are so restricted in being able to get out and do other things – can begin to feel stressful or demotivating, with work overlapping into our private lives and vice versa. Therefore, it may be beneficial to set up a separate workspace, where possible, and avoid working from places where we would usually sleep or relax. Employees should be reminded to consider their posture just as they would in the office. Sitting in an unnatural position for a long period can result in back pain.

Differentiating between the working day and free time may be difficult, but it’s important to maintain that distinction and take time to unwind and ‘detach’ from work issues after work hours. Free time could be focused on hobbies, cooking, contacting friends and family, or just relaxing. Working beyond normal hours is likely to become overwhelming and may lead to burnout.

Employers are not to be expected to be experts in dealing with mental health issues, but simple steps like encouraging staff to practise self-care and encouraging open, two-way communication channels will go a long way in helping their employees through this difficult time.

The coronavirus situation continues to change rapidly, so it’s important for employers to keep up to date. Go here: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public for the latest government guidance on coronavirus.

About the author

Lisa Powell

Lisa joined RWA in 2014 as an e-Learning Assistant, designing training material for the Aviva Development Zone learning platform.

Her role as Professional Standards Manager involves the creation and review of e-learning content as well as providing proofreading, copywriting and standards support across the business.