What are the key issues surrounding mental health when employees are working from home?

In our latest interview with industry an industry expert we speak to Jodie Hill, Founder, Managing Partner and Employment Solicitor at Thrive Law about the issues surrounding mental health when employees are working from home.

Since March 2020 the UK government announced social distancing measures for everybody, including mandatory working from home. This was very difficult for so many people, we simply don’t know how long this may last or what the long term impact will be. No one has been in this situation before and with so much change, mass uncertainty and social isolation, it can be overwhelming and the statistics are already shows it has adversely impacted our mental health.  

Despite the restrictions being lifted and it no longer being mandatory to work from home, many people still work from home and some companies are keeping this as a permanent way of working.  Whilst this is a really positive step and something which I am a huge advocate for, there are also some negative impacts of home working, especially on mental health, if it’s not done correctly.

In many ways working from home prevents us from having our usual daily interactions, whether that be in the office, on a break or at lunch, on public transport or even seeing your family.  It throws out our routines and makes the home and work divide lines so blurred, it almost doesn’t exist for many, especially where people are working in their kitchens or livings rooms without a separate space to work or are trying to look after young children or even home school along side working and managing all domestic chores.

This is bound to have an impact on our mental health.

Employers may well notice a decline in employees motivation and productivity too, whether that is due to continued depressing effects of minimal interactions, lack of communication and face to face contact or problems which have arisen in their home life due to covid. The opposite can happen too, where employees are overworking due to being at home and with nothing much else to do and no real cut off point. They are tempted to stay online for extra working at night or even on the weekends, leading to exhaustion and even burnout, over time.

With working from home being the new norm, many people struggle to find a division between work and home life. With many effectively living at work, their kitchen table is now their office and mentally they cannot distinguish when work stops and home life begins. 

We are also spending so much more time on computer screens.  All meetings are on video calls now which in its self I s exhausting.

So want can you do, as employers, business owners or employees to look after our own or other mental health and wellbeing during this time? 

What can companies do to mitigate those risks?

Communication is key! Whilst at home many people can be feeling disconnected and isolated therefore it is important to stay connected.   Be innovative and change the way you communicate to meet your teams current needs.  This will evolve over time.  be flexible and be accommodating.  Think about how you do this, tone, and frequency.  It’s a fine line between good communication and micromanaging.

Employers should have regular catch-ups, whether that be meeting or just a message to ask if someone is doing okay. The key here is to ask at least 3 times how they are feeling, they might say they are fine but if you seem interested in their wellbeing by asking more than once, they may open up. As most of the time, people are worried about talking about their mental health or putting the burden on someone else so they would rather suffer in silence. Encourage conversation and be approachable. Be open to different ways of communicating whilst working remotely as not one size fits all.  

Employers should be conducting mental health risk assessments. This is important to ensure that you are aware of any adjustments a person may need to perform at their best in their role. We can’t see the physical signs of a mental health decline any more so we need to look at other ways of assessing the risk to our teams and identifying areas of support.   What these assessments do is give the employer responsibility over their own wellbeing and identify key areas for them to work on and also show the employer the main areas the whole team need support on.

Too often employers just assume what their staff need, wasting time and money without any impact.  Why not ask them?

Most mental health conditions are likely to satisfy the legal definition of disability under the Equality Act 2010, as such conditions have a substantial and long term impact on the individuals’ day-to-day life. This means that those with mental health conditions are likely to be protected from disability discrimination, and be entitled to reasonable adjustments from their employer. Read our blog here on employers obligations on employees mental health at work. 

Other top tips that have worked for us and our clients are:

  • Arranging walking meetings in person where possible
  • Arranging to do a call instead of video
  • Having a clearly defined routine
  • Encouraging staff to take breaks
  • Ensuring they have the correct equipment
  • Ensuring staff have a safe place to work
  • Arranging time to catch up that is none work related like a team quiz or games night
  • Allowing fully flexible working – home and office as they choose to suit them
  • Encourage a staps challenge or some kind of virtual activity to keep each other motivated
  • Create an office outside in the garden in a separate and safe workplace

As employers, managers or leaders, you should be leading by example, showing your team that you take breaks and that it is important to do so. That you do activities to practice self-care and practice wellbeing. This will also help you as employers to stay positive and look after yourself so you can look after your team. 

What happens if you don’t do anything? 

If employers do not do anything, this will lead to employees being less productive, less happy and more likely to leave the business to one which puts employees wellbeing at the top of the agenda. By encouraging positive acts of effective communication and practising self-care it will only benefit employers with better quality of work and an excellent employer reputation attracting the best employees for your business. 

From a compliance perspective, if employees work in an environment which deteriorates their mental health then this could lead to then being disabled as they could become depressed or suffer from anxiety which could lead to increased sickness absences, leaving their job, or worse – suicide.

Employers have a legal obligation to ensure the health and safety of their staff, this includes home working.  Many employers have forgotten this since march but the duties still arise to ensure it is a safe place to work. 

There are also risks of claims against companies where they fail in their legal obligations, which can be very costly to defend and damaging to their reputation.

The key to a successful business is to look after your people, and it starts now!

What’s the best piece of advice you could give to a business concerning this matter?

At Thrive we encourage communication as a key aspect of remote working. Having regular meetings or catch up gives the employee opportunity to raise any concerns they may have before it leads to more serious consequences. 

Conducting mental health risk assessments is something we have done a few times this year to support our employees and to help the business identify what areas they need to support their team and to target any investment. 

Every employee has a safe place to work and has the option to attend the office, which has its own wellbeing space, whenever they want to work alone or collaboratively.  Given people the choice and the option to work fully flexible is so important. 

The environment is everything, many people just aren’t set up to work from home adopting a fully flexible approach is much better. Allowing people to use the office as they need to, or to work collaboratively, ensuring the space they have at home is safe. 

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