As organisations worldwide optimise home working processes and cultures, many employers have decided that a return to ‘old normal’ office environments is now off the agenda.
Remote working, they may have discovered, offers a range of advantages only revealed by recent experience. Their worst fears, particularly that productivity and accountability would suffer, have largely evaporated thanks to the agility of their people and the effectiveness of supporting technologies.
However, a future dominated by remote or hybrid working is not a panacea for the historical shortcomings of office life. In particular, the go-to emphasis placed on the virtues of being ‘busy’ remains a constant source of stress and anxiety for millions of people around the world.
Remote working may have improved work/life balance for some, but instead of workloads being effectively managed and well balanced, being overworked and overburdened remains the foundation for working culture wherever you look.
For many people, 2020 has delivered the most sustained period of stress they’ve ever encountered, but if workplace mental health is to improve, employers have to take the lead in changing the conversation.
There’s no doubt change is necessary. Since the beginning of lockdown, there has been a spike in mental health problems - a trend likely to continue. New research from Samaritans, for instance, found that 42% of UK men said their mental health had been negatively affected by life in lockdown, and 56% said they feel worried or anxious as restrictions change.
A legal requirement
From the employer’s perspective, mental health and wellbeing at work isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s a legal requirement. UK legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992 and the Equality Act 2010, stipulate that employers have a duty of care for employees' health, safety and wellbeing whilst at work - including their mental health.
UK legislation requires employers to assess mental health work-related issues to measure the levels of risk to staff on an ongoing basis.
Yet, many employers operate a very informal approach to recognising the issues associated with mental wellbeing, while others still don’t address the topic at all. As the world begins looking towards a post-pandemic recovery, now is the ideal time for business leaders to put policies in place that make a genuine difference to the health and happiness of their teams.
It’s time for change
While it is promising to see more companies nominating health and wellbeing champions, trained by advisors and practitioners to help recognise and support employee wellbeing, more work needs to be done. Organisations should embrace and encourage positive mental health initiatives and be supporting employees as best they can - not just during our current lockdown situation, but at the most stressful times going forward.
For example, promoting socially distanced catch-ups and regular check-ins at work can go a long way towards increasing connectedness within any business setting. Companies who have regular video conferences are not only proven to be more productive, but can also have a positive effect on feelings of isolation, loneliness, and encourage open-conversations across the organisation. They don’t fall back on simply being busy as proof of effort and impact - instead, they focus on outcomes.
Take a break
Practical issues are important. Employers should encourage employees to continue to take their holiday leave during periods of lockdown and when travel abroad is less practical. This will help offset the risk of an influx of holiday requests later in the year, and will also help to avoid burnout and lulls in productivity.
While employees may be wary of taking their leave now, the government has implemented a scheme where holidays can be carried over to the next 2 years, so this could be worth considering along with any company policy on holiday carry over. However allowing holidays to be carried over should be carefully understood and managed.
In many European countries, the Working Time Directive means businesses can actually be fined if their employees are consistently working in excess of their working hours and not regularly taking their breaks.
This clearly shows the poor implications of overworking employees, and is guidance more countries should follow in order to prioritise wellbeing. Going forward, the UK’s direction of travel on this issue remains in doubt post-Brexit and employers will need to monitor how regulations change and whether any relaxation in rules meets their commitments to employee wellbeing.
On a more formal level, performance reviews can be extremely challenging for employees at the best of times, let alone in the context of a pandemic-induced lockdown. At present, the first port of call when it comes to reviewing performance should be understanding why there might be a dip in results. It’s a stressful time, and inevitably many employees are juggling child care, home schooling, caring for family members as well as their work responsibilities. As a result, it’s vital that employers work hard to create a positive culture where there can be an open dialogue between them and their workforce to help all parties understand any reasons for any lack of progress against expectations or perceptions about how busy people have been.
Employers need to practice patience and be understanding that this is a difficult time and it may be unrealistic to expect employees to hit the usual targets this year given current circumstances.
Being flexible and implementing slight alterations in deliverables may be advised, as unattainable targets could otherwise fuel anxiety, especially for commission-based work. By adjusting a regime which highlights what wasn’t achieved, employees can have time to breathe and focus on the task at hand.
This is a highly nuanced and challenging set of issues. Positive change will, to a large extent, depend on employers who abandon the idea that simply being busy is a virtue and proof of effectiveness. Instead, workplaces that can effectively match resourcing with workloads to improve workplace wellbeing will be ideally placed to attract and retain the best talent in the years to come.
Kathryn Barnes, Employment Counsel Europe
Kathryn has worked in the legal field for over 18 years. Since being called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2010 after successful completion of her legal studies, Kathryn started to practice in Employment Law. During practice, Kathryn has represented Employers and Employees in Employment Law matters in many different settings and understands the challenge supporting a workforce can bring for any business. Kathryn has worked within International Employment Law and HR for over 10 years, finding the excitement and diversity of International Employment Law not only a thrill but a welcome challenge.