It’s not Zoom that bugs us in lockdown, it’s mental stress.
Bigger than COVID, workplace wellbeing is highlighted by the virus response—which could turn out to be a good thing after all.
Among the COVID era’s lasting legacies, employee mental health looms large. But just as in normal times, it grabs fewer headlines than raw case numbers, mortality, and economic costs. Unlike GDP and productivity, it is not well tracked. Poorly understood and infrequently discussed it is a hidden cost that individually and collectively as a society we can be reluctant to admit.
But admit it we must, and more than seeking to address its impact, what we urgently need to do is to set about curbing its growth. Mental health challenges need not be an inevitable consequence of COVID, nor of work more generally, if we recognise them and take steps. In contrast to blunt lockdowns, or sick leave, we can adopt a wide range of measures as employers and employees to reduce the risks and lead healthier, happier lives.
The national lockdown response to galloping viral transmission has proved the only effective tool, but its unilateral imposition came as a revolution to work. While many of us have for long enjoyed some degree of flexibility in where and how we work, this sudden lurch away from the office in effect did away with flexibility.
Now we’re all either working at home, or in a very different and distanced workplace—the results are not great.
Figures from the ONS suggests home working may be having mixed implications for productivity: down 8% in the third quarter of 2020 reflecting the poor performance of recent years. “On the positive side, the time saved commuting may be lifting output for many workers,” says Howard Archer, chief economist at EY. “On the negative side, productivity may be affected by reduced social interaction and the building-up of experience from people being in the office.”
Recent research from the Nuffield Trust suggests that the mental impact has been equally immediate and widespread: as many as 80% of people in a recent survey reported a decline in mental health since pandemic working from home policies were introduced.
The range of issues people face is broad, encompassing job security, financial stresses, lack of structure and routine, pressure of childcare and home schooling, fear of infection, loss of human contact, caring for others and all the other crises that arise when a family spends too much time together.
But the good news is, we’re far from incapable of dealing with the potential mental impacts of such difficulties. While mental health still carries a debilitating stigma, the rate of employment of adults with a mental illness has almost doubled from 27% to 46% in recent years. That suggests as a working society we are becoming better able to accommodate a wider range of needs and assist one another.
COVID will be beaten, eventually, then we’ll carry on.
In view of the additional mental health impact of the last year, there needs to be thought into how the post-COVID workplace will prevent any escalation in mental health issues and support people’s performance. Health and wellbeing commentators agree that there is much that can be done to improve the workplace—even when it’s distributed to people’s homes—and aid workers’ health.
Meditation specialist Headspace identifies five steps that every organization can adopt to support mental health in the workplace.
Begin by identifying the trends that characterise the company—what affects your teams particularly? Use stress surveys and start conversations about the causes and impacts.
Ensure that mental health is a top-level issue. As leaders we could be more transparent, listen more, let employees know how valuable their contributions are, and display compassion and flexibility.
When problems surface, we need to be ready to act, not to brush them aside or assume they’ll settle naturally. Burnout is on the increase—more so in lockdown as job security tempts us to overwork. When work/home boundaries blur, we lose control over work. Companies should help every employee recognise the signs and be proactive to avoid any escalation.
Increasingly, the emphasis in employee wellbeing is on the whole person—that work must be seen in the context of an individual’s whole life and personality. That means identifying all the potential contributors to stress, understanding individuals as well as specific high-risk groups. A programme of regular checking on employee wellbeing will help.
Finally, if we all invest more in mental health, we will deal with it just as the investment in research has brought us COVID vaccines far more quickly than anyone thought possible. Target our support, make the resources available, improve communication, make it everyone’s responsibility (like health and safety) and think more creatively about the tools we can deploy to support each other.