Supporting the Wellbeing of Remote Workers
The global pandemic has escalated remote working exponentially. In the UK, around 7% of employees regularly worked from home at the end of 2019; by April 2020 this was nearly half of the workforce. This enforced period of homeworking has continued for longer than many of us could have predicted when we first moved to our home offices, kitchen tables or dining rooms back in March – and it is likely that there are many months of home working still to come.
Employee wellbeing has been a critical topic for many organizations during this time. We already know that some people have found that their mental health has worsened during the pandemic, but there are others that are reporting a wellbeing boost.
Reduced commuting and increased flexibility has meant that some employees have found themselves with more time for hobbies, exercise and family. For others this time has been a source of stress, anxiety and reduced work-life balance.
From an organizational perspective, we cannot say with any certainty who will experience poor mental health or who will face wellbeing difficulties. We can however take steps to ensure the wellbeing of remote workers and support those that need our help. Here are just a few ideas:
One of the most important things that any manager can do is check in with the people that work for them on a regular basis.
Signals that someone isn’t okay are weakened by remote work and online communication. This doesn’t need to be a big task. Regular 1-2-1s and catch-ups should be part of every manager's diary – a regular question about how people are feeling and coping can be part of these meetings. Even if most of the time the reply is ‘I’m fine’, this ongoing dialogue can help to ensure that when employees do need help they feel able to say so.
Working from home means that the boundaries between work and home aspects of life are even more blurred than ever before. Some people are very comfortable with this integration and can easily switch between work tasks and home activities. Others find this much more difficult and this blurring of boundaries is having a negative impact on their wellbeing.
Having some boundaries between work and home can support wellbeing – and some employees may need help and support in achieving separation and transition from one element to another.
Boundaries can include having a different physical space for work and home, creating simple routines to signal that the working day has started or ended, or even going for a short walk before and after work. This can give employees that important ‘switch off’ space that our commutes used to provide. Boundaries might also be a promise to self, such as a commitment not to check work emails in the evening.
Senior leaders and managers at all levels, as well as Human Resource professionals, play a key role in enabling wellbeing. They can send a powerful message that it’s okay to talk about mental health, it’s okay to ask for help and it is most definitely okay to prioritize wellbeing at work.
This doesn’t mean that managers need to sign up for a 10K race or disclose personal matters, but they can demonstrate that they are having regular breaks, taking their annual leave and managing their own boundaries.
Avoiding weekend and late-night emails and meetings over lunch are all simple steps that a manager can take to role model concern for wellbeing.
Promote and signpost
Many organizations have sources of support for employees who are experiencing poor wellbeing or mental health. These may include Employee Assistance Programmes, occupational health or wellbeing activities and programmes.
Promoting these needs to be a continuous process. EAPs are often underused – employees need to be reminded regularly what they include and how they can help them. It’s also important to ensure that line managers have the information they need to signpost these options directly to employees.
Where organisations can afford to hold wellbeing activities and events, even if they are on Zoom for now, promote extensively and actively encourage attendance.
Support personalization of work
As well as working remotely many employees have also been undertaking schedule flexibility whilst working from home. Some of this has been forced as parents work around reduced childcare and home-schooling. For others, getting away from the 9-5 has meant that they can work at a time that better suits their personal rhythms and energies.
People are motivated by autonomy – and they are stressed by lack of control. Employee wellbeing can be supported by empowering people to work around their personal commitments and when they feel most productive. We don’t need to replicate the office with everyone sitting at their respective (home) desks at the same time. Whilst there are times to come together for an online meeting, much of the work that knowledge workers undertake can not only be done anywhere, but anywhen.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, for the immediate future and months to come employers must watch out for signs of burnout.
Burnout is not simply tiredness; it is a reaction that results from being under prolonged stress. It can lead to exhaustion as well as loss of motivation, feelings of cynicism or lack of self-confidence.
None of us have control over the primary stressor – the coronavirus itself. But we can take steps to reduce additional workplace stressors and encourage people to focus on their own health.
There has perhaps never been a more important time to focus on employee wellbeing than right now.