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Coronavirus: Remote working and mental health

As many of us are now working from home due to the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, while also trying to juggle other responsibilities alongside increased anxiety, how can we make sure that we’re looking after our mental health?

The UK’s lockdown caused by the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak means we all have to stay at home, but due to the wonders of technology many people are able to carry on doing their jobs from home.

But whether working through the crisis is helping to take your mind off the uncertainty of this unusual situation, or if working feels like an additional stressor on top of anxieties caused by constant talk of coronavirus, everyone could do with looking after their mental health during this time.

“Work is more than a means to make a living – it’s an integral part of our lives, where we spend most of our days, and often where we do a lot of our socialising,” said Barbara Harvey, managing director for Accenture Research.

“But in this time of crisis, our working lives have changed almost beyond recognition, with remote working no longer a ‘nice to have’, but the new normal for many.

“This has brought many challenges to employee wellbeing and mental health, whether that’s by feeling isolated from their teams, sidelined in important decisions, or feeling a lack of worth in the wider company – and that’s not to mention heightened anxieties surrounding the pandemic itself.

“With this in mind, it’s imperative that businesses place as much focus on keeping their companies running from a logistical point of view, as well as helping to protect the mental health of their workers.”

Keep communicating

One piece of advice which appears in most resources, including the NHS Every Mind Matters website and mental health charity Mind, is to stay connected.

“Working from home for extended periods – especially under quarantine or self-isolation – can pose many challenges to our mental wellbeing – from increased feelings of loneliness through disconnection, to stress and anxiety amid the uncertainty,” said Ry Morgan, co-founder of workplace mental health platform Unmind.

“Companies should invest in digital platforms that enable employees to stay connected and maintain a high level of communication. Whether it’s an informal one-to-one check-in or regular video meetings, the ability to talk to and see teammates and form meaningful connections is critical to wellbeing.”

The NHS website recommends using technologies such messaging, video calls or social media to stay in touch with “people you trust”, as well as talking about worries or concerns.

Meanwhile, Mind advises line managers to find a an online tool that works for them and their business, and to schedule in a daily pre-agreed time to talk with their team to avoid anyone feeling isolated.

Lara Mott, CEO and co-founder at ImproveWell, told an Angel Academe webinar focused on handling the business issues posed by the current coronavirus crisis: “Communicate, communicate, communicate. We are over-communicating at the moment, with our team, with our stakeholders, as much as possible.

“Even if it feels like too much, we are taking the view that actually maybe people aren’t in the know and they need that bit extra because of isolation and working solo at home.”

It’s not only about communicating with each other, but making sure businesses are communicating with employees so they know where they stand – not everyone has been lucky enough to be able to carry on working, for example.

The NHS Every Mind Matters website advises talking with your employer about working from home, sick pay and benefits rights, as being clear on how the outbreak will affect you and your income may reduce anxiety by increasing certainty.

Accenture Research’s Harvey said: “Leaders need to be open and transparent with employees about business challenges and communicate any changes clearly and compassionately.

“Businesses should really be striving to maintain an open, supportive working environment which promotes employees of all levels to look after their mental health and support each other.”

Empathy and balance

Technology has definitely played a part in connecting people both in and outside of work, but with great power comes great responsibility, and those who work behind the scenes to make sure this technology is seamless now have to work even harder.

In many cases, IT teams are under more pressure – even before the current crisis, technology workers were worried about their mental health.

A 2020 Harvey Nash survey found that around half of tech professionals in the UK are concerned about their mental health due to work, with those working more than 50 hours a week being twice as likely to be concerned about their mental health.

Having appropriate work-life balance has been advised as a way to ensure wellbeing prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and it is a sentiment that has been re-iterated as being an important tool for looking after oneself during the outbreak.

Taking time out of your day to relax and continuing to do things you enjoy are both pieces of advice the NHS gives for looking after wellbeing, as well as establishing a new daily routine.

Five ways to manage mental health while working from home

  1. Keep communicating with your team.
  2. Try to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
  3. Establish a new daily routine.
  4. Have compassion for yourself and those around you.
  5. Try to keep your body healthy as well as your mind.

Mind also acknowledges that it’s easy to fall into the habit of working longer hours or taking shorter breaks when working from home, and encourages line managers to maintain a good work-life balance, as well as supporting their team to do the same.

Harvey said employees should be allowed to “completely switch off at the end of the working day”, while Rubi Kaur, solutions architect at Vodafone, who has been home working for around 20 years, told a BCS webinar on long-term home working that people need to build in time for breaks during the day.

Kaur said the working from home mindset often means people feel they have to “contribute all the time”, sometimes to make up for a lack of physical office presence.

“That can start to have a bit of a payload on us all the time. Our physical, our emotional and our mental wellbeing can start to suffer,” she said. “We can get over this by stepping away, by having those boundaries.”

There’s no doubt IT teams will have seen an increased pressure to make sure everyone who can work from home has the technology available to do so, and managing work-life balance during this time might feel out of reach for some.

Everyone will react differently to the current crisis, said Amber Coster, founder and CEO of Balpro, so employers and leaders should ensure the right measures are in place to look after employee wellbeing.  

“Through this period, it’s going to be tempting for businesses to blame remote working for burnout – but that would be misplaced. With thoughtful boundaries, clear objectives and strong leadership, remote working can be beneficial to employee wellbeing,” said Coster.

Through this period, it’s going to be tempting for businesses to blame remote working for burnout – but that would be misplaced
Amber Coster, Balpro

“The IT team are going to be the superheroes in ensuring the foundations are set to connect the workforce, but it’s up to the leadership to help employees adjust.”

To make sure everyone is looked after in the current situation, it’s important for everyone – not just leaders or employers – to be mindful, compassionate and empathetic towards others during a stressful time.

“It’s critical that leaders have compassionate conversations with their teams to know what each player is capable of, when emotions are volatile and where one person is ready to run into action, another will withdraw,” said Coster.

“This isn’t just remote working, this is remote working during a global pandemic. There’s nothing normal about the situation we’re in, and extra support is needed in all areas.”

Having empathy was front of mind for Improvewell founder Lara Mott when the outbreak started, who said “it’s OK not to be 100% perfect or 100% right” at the moment, even as a business leader.

Mott told the Angel Academe webinar: “The first thought that we had when this hit really was empathy – [especially] for my team, who I could see were getting increasingly anxious about the evolving situation watching the news.”

Some firms have been trying to find ways to show employees appreciation. For example, Yi Luo, fintech investor and Head of Strategy at Greensill, told the Angel Academe webinar that her company tried to make employees feel “looked after” by sending them a stationary pack for their home office.

“It’s not expensive, but it’s just a way of showing that we do care,” she added.

Many teams are also implementing virtual coffee breaks, video conference “pub” visits, or chat feeds to lighten people’s moods.

Routine and movement

But as much as connection is important, it isn’t only IT teams who are now feeling the “always on” nature technology can bring – not everyone is an extrovert and not everyone wants to do a virtual pub quiz every night.

In some cases, people might not even know how to use available technology. Robina Chatham, BCS author of The art of IT management, told a BCS webinar during a virtual meetup for a networking group that some members “were not comfortable with the technology, so we lost people, which was unfortunate, because they just couldn’t feel like they could cope with the technology of doing it online.”

She said that reaching out and asking people if they need help might be useful, especially if they “don’t have the support of a large organisation”.

Whether working in tech, using technology to work, or unfortunately not being able to work at all but having to make do with the current situation, there are a few things which can make people feel more grounded during this uncertain time.

Time away from technology to focus on physical wellbeing is one of these things – the NHS advises maintaining a proper sleeping pattern during this time, as well as keeping the mind and body active.

It’s important to follow current government guidelines to stay indoors unless absolutely necessary, so mental health charity Mind has some tips on how to keep active at home.

Jason Allen, group CEO of Harvey Nash Tech Recruitment, told an Angel Academe webinar that time away from a screen to think and focus on physical health often helps him with decision-making, as it’s important to ensure “it’s not just the mind that’s healthy, it’s the body as well”.

Allen has been encouraging employees to take breaks, saying: “I want to make sure people aren’t feeling isolated, so we make sure that there are moments in the day where there are breaks – we don’t call meetings, we just don’t get involved in a business conversation. We leave time for family, animals – whatever [staff need] – I don’t want to force it, it’s their time.”

Maintaining good mental health is always important, but the current climate makes it even more so. Staying connected, maintaining work-life balance, a regular sleep pattern and exercising are all ways to ensure overall wellbeing during this time.

There are resources available with advice on managing stress and other mental health-related issues during this very difficult time which might be also helpful until things are back to normal.

Read more about mental health and technology

  • UK universities turn to data analytics software to tackle student mental health. Are there duty of care lessons for other sectors?
  • Staff shortages, long hours and lack of flexibility are impacting the wellbeing of people in the sector, according to a Harvey Nash survey.
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