A recent BBC survey showed that almost all of 50 of the UK’s biggest employers said they do not plan to bring staff back to the office full-time. 43 of the firms surveyed said they would embrace a mix of home and office working. Following internal staff surveys, this position is reflective of what the majority of our people want – to continue to work remotely, at least some of the time, even when it’s safe to return to the office.
A hybrid way of working will likely be adopted by many employers due to the numerous benefits this brings. Saving time and money on a daily commute, being more/just as productive, from home, having more time with loved ones and being able to do things that really matter outside of work to improve our health and wellbeing, are just a few examples.
However, although the flexibility to work remotely is sought by many, it raises other, very important, matters that organisations must be prepared to deal with. There might be less opportunity to collaborate with colleagues and clients, motivation levels may be lower than when working in an office, longer hours could be worked at home and feelings of isolation, loneliness and boredom are more likely to be prevalent in an out of office environment.
As Director of People and Development, I, along with my team, have been on the front line of our business helping employees to cope during the pandemic. We have championed, and continue to champion, employee wellbeing. We provide support and business continuity to a virtual workforce. We know all too well how the pandemic has, and continues to affect, the mental health of our people.
Paying attention to workplace mental health has never been more important and, in recent years, there has been a significant increase in awareness of the importance of it. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing workplace mental health challenges as well as adding a whole new dimension – looking after the workplace mental health of workers remotely.
Mental health is a sensitive topic and just as important as physical health. In a world where flexible/agile/hybrid working will largely now be the norm for those roles that can be performed in such a way, employers must be well-equipped to deal with employee mental health and wellbeing whether they are in the office or not.
Poor mental health can have a major impact on individuals, employers, and societies. A real, sustainable change is needed now more than ever to integrate mental health best practices into all elements of an organisation – it’s not just something that sits with HR teams.
Some things which my firm has found helpful in tackling this matter over the last 12 months or so are as follows:
1. Communicate your plans and the resources available
You might have the best Employee Assistance Programme but it’s of no use if your people don’t know about it. The importance of communicating what free and confidential support your organisation has in place should not be underestimated. Do not assume that your staff know what’s available. Tell them – and then tell them again. If you have a wellbeing platform, direct employees towards that. If you have Mental Health First Aiders, ensure everyone knows who they are and how they can be contacted.
During the pandemic, our firm has shared mental and physical health activities as well as training and resources around resilience, mindfulness and the importance of sleep to name a few. We have also injected fun into our communications wherever possible – Netflix recommendations, baking successes (and disasters!) as well as colouring in competitions for our staff’s young home schoolers have all taken place amongst the normal working day.
2. Get people moving during the work day
Physical exercise is known to have significant mental health benefits and we have actively encouraged our staff to take time for physical activity during the day, whether that is blocking time out for a run/walk/workout, taking a break to play with their children or having a ‘walk and talk’ meeting (a personal favourite!). We have run very successful online yoga and HIIT classes and engaged in a virtual firmwide charity initiative to cover the distance of the North Coast 500 – a little competition is a healthy and social way for teams to stay connected.
3. Take holidays
Taking regular annual leave is an incredibly important factor in supporting staff mental health and wellbeing. Although employees may not see the point in booking time off work when travel plans are still restricted to some extent, it’s vital to encourage they take a break. Whether it is a few days or a few weeks, the benefits of a rest away from work can be significant and help avoid burnout. This is particularly key when the lines between home life and work life have become increasingly blurred and an “always on” mentality seems to have developed. Many workers feel they must always be contactable and find it difficult to switch off.
Leaders and managers can set an example by making sure they are taking time off to recharge and communicate that openly to their teams.
4. Park the work chat
The pandemic has tested the strength of our social workplace connections. We are missing the random chats whilst waiting for the kettle to boil in the office or popping out with a colleague to get lunch from the shops. Social interactions while working remotely are important to the health and wellbeing of employees in order to combat feelings of isolation – conversations that are not just about work will likely be welcomed by your people.
So, where possible, build in some social time into your team’s schedule – whether it’s a chat with cake and coffee some mornings, a 4pm happy hour on a Friday or (say it quietly…) a Zoom quiz now and then, find out what works best for your team and have some fun!
5. The message must come from the top
Underpinning all of the above is the fact that leaders and line managers play a crucial role and must champion mental health as an organisational priority. When an employee hears their Managing Partner say ‘your health and wellbeing is important to me’ or a senior member of staff shares their own mental health story, it opens up the channels of communication and makes it easier for an employee to ask for help where needed. So, get your leaders involved.
Prioritising mental health for remote workers will create a better employee experience. It’s up to leaders to lead by example and create a culture where people know it’s not only okay to set boundaries, but that it’s essential.