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Ditching the daily commute - is it really a boost for mental health?

Is the pandemic reshaping the way we work?

Earlier this month we shared an article on social media reporting on an internal survey conducted by Nationwide Building Society.

In the survey, 36% of office staff expressed their wish to have a 'blended work experience'. Just 6% of respondents said they wanted to return to their office environment once lockdown restrictions began easing. As a result, Nationwide has announced that all 13,000 office based staff will be offered the option to work remotely on a permanent basis.

Quoted in its press release, Nationwide’s chief executive Joe Garner said: “The last year has taught many of us that ‘how’ we do our jobs is much more important than ‘where’ we do them from. We have listened and learned, and we are now deciding to move forward, not back.”

One of the positive outcomes of the pandemic has been the re-evaluation of the need to commute to work. And, as a result, the impact of working from home for the majority of us has contributed to better mental health and wellbeing.

In this blog we look at the benefits of home working and offer practical advice to employers as we operate in this new era of remote working. 

How many are working from home during the pandemic?

Statistics published by Finder UK - Working from home statistics estimate that 60% of the UK's adult population are currently working from home (WFH) - that's around 23.9 million people. Compare these numbers with data from before the pandemic: just 1.54 million adults were WFH. Of those currently WFH, 26% plan to continue doing so once lockdown restrictions are lifted either on a permanent or adhoc basis.

The Canary Wharf complex has just 6,000 workers on site compared to 100,000 workers pre-pandemic.

Putting to one side the financial savings for individuals - the commuting, entertaining and eating out/take-out costs, there are emotional benefits to working from home - but are they sustainable? 

Will the emotional benefits outweigh the costs for home workers in the longer term? How easy is it for employers to remotely support their workers' mental wellbeing?

Home working - advice for a productive home office

Well we're not suggesting you instruct your teams to convert their homes into the new head office but there are some measures which can put in place to aid physical and mental wellbeing and you could start by discussing these suggestions.

There's an article on employeebenefits.co.uk which gives top tips to employees for a healthy home office environment. As an employer, it's a good idea to familiarise yourself with what constitutes a healthy office environment - we've highlighted the key characteristics:

1. Physical environment

Desk and seating position. Does your worker have a desk or is their duvet their co-worker? Ideally, the chair should be height-adjustable and the screen should be at eye-level. It's advisable to work using a desktop not a laptop (taking a laptop literally is not a good idea from an ergonomic sense). 

2. Environmental conditions

Does your worker have adequate lighting? One cause of visual fatigue is poor lighting or using desk lamps without an overhead light source. Working near a heat source can also impact on an individual's vision if they wear contact lenses - remind them to drink plenty of water throughout the working day. Air pollution can also impact energy levels and can have a negative effect on wellbeing. Good ventilation, avoiding log burners, scented candles and exposure to cleaning chemicals are just a few examples of how workers can improve the air quality in their home.

3. Emotional Wellbeing

Working from home inevitably means that the boundary between work and home merge. It's vitally important that home workers establish a routine to the working day - setting core hours is the first step and breaks throughout the day should be encouraged. Lunch breaks should be taken and this is where, as managers, you can lead by example - encourage your team to incorporate some degree of physical exercise or relaxation into the working day. Emphasise to your workers the importance of a routine and regular breaks. Everyone's mental wellbeing will be thankful for the downtime.

Being out of a busy office environment means that we're learning new ways to communicate with each other. One of the downsides to remote home working is that we no longer exchange behavioural cues or receive regular feedback (verbal and non-verbal) about how we're performing in our roles. This lack of communication may have a negative impact on the way we do our jobs - expectations can become distorted, we might overwork to compensate; distractions cannot be so easily managed. The end result is increased stress and anxiety.

These negative outcomes can be potentially avoided if leaders and managers communicate clearly about expectations and actively promote two-way interaction. Regular group calls will also enable positivity.

The remote employer - what can you do to support your home workers?

As an employer, you are now armed with information to discuss the importance of good home working practices with your employees.

Abi Frederick, managing associate and Paul Norris, trainee solicitor at Lewis Silkin advise employers that there is a duty to take steps to ensure the health, safety and welfare of homeworkers. Writing on the employeebenefits.co.uk website, their article 'Employers have a duty to support home workers' looks at the key responsibilities of the employer to the homeworker and what steps can be put in place to protect their mental wellbeing.

Employers should encourage discussion to assess each worker's individual circumstances and assess what, if any, additional measures need to be put in place in order for them to carry out their work. 

Whilst there is no legal obligation to provide equipment, if there is a health and safety need the employer should fund the provision of such. Auxiliary equipment for disabled workers, for example, must be provided under the Equality Act 2010. Assess your workers' ability to access the internet, whether they can carry out their work in a suitable area, establish if they have caring responsibilities or childcare issues. Potential barriers to working from home need to be discussed between employer and employee.

It's important to signpost how those working from home can access mental health support and create a remote working environment which encourages regular online catch ups so feelings of isolation or anxiety can be spotted. Whilst social contact as we used to know it has been taken away from us, online social interaction should be encouraged as much as possible.

Is hybrid working the answer in the longer term?

As lockdown measures hopefully continue to ease over the coming months, we're going to find ourselves in a position of reflecting on the working practices we've experienced over the past year. 

Demands for more flexible working are more likely since workers are more aware of their work-life balance.

Hybrid working (a mix between home and office working) may be the compromise for both the employer and the employee. 

For the employer, offering flexible working on a permanent basis will improve staff morale and reduce staff turnover. If businesses don't give hybrid working due consideration, it's a sure bet that their competitors will.

Be aware that your employees may feel a degree of reticence and apprehension about returning to the office. If you offer the option to work from both locations they may feel less anxious and and those that have felt isolated by remote working can choose what works best for them.

Howard Dawber - head of strategy at Canary Wharf Group - speaking on the BBC's Today programme suggests staff are keen to return to their office environment:

"We've got to the point where there is a lot of fatigue out there." 

Mr Dawber also recognises the shift to home working will have a longer-term effect:

"I think it is going to be more socially acceptable for people to take the occasional day working from home."

Employers will need to be responsive and reactive as society starts to open up again.

And for those who were already working remotely?

Here's some research for those organisations which employ remote rotational workers:

In a global study commissioned by the International SOS Foundation, 200 remote rotational workers (working in mining, offshore, maritime industries) were interviewed to assess their mental health and wellbeing. The study by Affinity Health at Work reported that:

  • 40% of all respondents experienced suicidal thoughts on rotation some or all the time.
  • 29% met the benchmark for clinical depression whilst on-rotation. 
  • 35% exercised less and experienced worse-quality sleep (38%) and were less able to eat a nutritious diet (28%) whilst on rotation. 

And the impact of COVID-19?

  • 65% expressed the view that COVID-19 had increased the demands of their job.
  • 56% reported higher stress and anxiety levels.
  • 55% said the pandemic had a negative impact on working hours.
  • 49% were more concerned about their personal safety.

The report goes on to say:

'The pandemic has exacerbated potential health and safety risks, challenged productivity levels and increased the risks of accidents on site. Organisations should review their flexible working policies to ensure a suitable work-life balance can be achieved and employees receive the appropriate level of care during these unprecedented times. Ensuring mental health resilience will continue to be challenged as the pandemic remains.'

Working From Home - Bonus or bind?

In summary, home working is undoubtedly here to stay. A BBC article How the world of work may change forever examines in depth how COVID-19 has changed our view of working practices and asks CEOs and market leaders their views on the cultural shift we're currently undergoing.

Hybrid working (flexible working in all but name) may well predominate as we return to pre-lockdown conditions. This poses a challenge for employers in how they manage their workforce, evaluate performance, productivity and communicate with them. 

Hybrid working deserves a blog of its own to assess the pros and cons as well as offer practical advice to managers - how will performance management need to change in the long term?

Employers can support their workers by encouraging positive working practices and discouraging negative behaviours. Emphasise the importance of open, two-way communication (as employers we are also learning how to manage our way through the pandemic) and promote a feeling of community by holding regular online group meetings. Whilst we can't actually go on holiday (just yet), workers should still be reminded to take their annual leave so burn-out is avoided. 

This may well be the way we work for years to come. 

How can Q&A People Matter help you?

Has this blog got you thinking? Do you need advice on home working policies? 

Get in touch with us for our expert advice.


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