The ‘new normal’ sees more of us working from home than ever before, with no prospect of a return to the office any time soon. A remote workforce presents a new set of challenges for employers – one of which is supporting employee’s good mental health.

Here, HR expert Sue Hook discusses the impact of this shift on business owners and managers, what their responsibilities are, and how to create a positive mental health culture in a remote workforce.

2020 has been a testing year for employers on all levels, with huge hurdles to overcome.

However, one of the biggest challenges reported by employers is that of remote working and the impact on employee’s mental health. One of the questions we are asked daily is, what can we do to support employees and our business from the adverse effects of poor mental health?

Even in normal years, as the days get shorter our mental health tends to suffer

Sue Hook, Director of Client Development here at Sapience HR, says: “Before the Covid-19 crisis, employers knew what their responsibilities were, and they were able to actively implement their mental health policies in the workplace, face-to-face. Now owners and managers are uncertain about where their responsibilities begin and end when it comes to home working, and how to monitor a remote workforce to head off any issues.”

  • Keeping in touch regularly with employees, no matter the circumstances. Even if an employee is on furlough leave, regular check-ins are important. “You are still building your workplace culture, so don’t leave anyone behind, even if they are not on the premises day to day” says Sue.
  • Maintaining a clear line management structure and procedures for raising mental health issues or requesting sickness leave. “If you know people have struggled in the past, particularly during the first lockdown, have a conversation about taking action early. Ask them what you can do to support them,” Sue advises.
  • Creating a culture where mental health issues are taken seriously, and self-care is actively encouraged. “Regular breaks are essential, and employers should actively encourage a clear separation between work and leisure time. E-presenteeism is rising and it’s not good for mental health,” warns Sue.

It’s important to understand that being at home isn’t a level playing field for a workforce which may feel under intense pressure. As Sue explains:

“For some of us, home is a sanctuary. Somewhere we have space to work in peace, where it’s warm and comfortable and the WiFi works. For others the situation is very different, and home is far from a haven. Employers must acknowledge this inequality and understand that, particularly in competitive scenarios like the build-up to a promotion, working from home can pile on the pressure.”

Is your home a peaceful haven for remote working?

One of our clients recalls having some interesting conversations with employees during the first lockdown. It’s a telling example of the different ways people are struggling with home working…

“One senior member of the team had young children and found it extremely difficult to keep up with the workload because of the clamour at home. This person then couldn’t sleep at night for worrying about falling behind with work, and so poor performance became a viscous cycle.”

“Another employee was a single person who was starting to show signs of depression and was working at all hours as an avoidance mechanism – risking burnout. One of the things this individual cited as a personal challenge was the constant Zoom calls transporting them into other people’s busy, noisy family homes – i.e. like the person in the first example – which made them feel very lonely.”

Sue says that both the individuals mentioned above would benefit from a proactive, early health and wellbeing intervention from the employer. She emphasises: “Employers shouldn’t worry they are intruding into the domestic sphere. This is about supporting the employee and after all, for so many of us, home is now our workplace! Providing sensitivity is shown to all circumstances, it never hurts to ask, ‘how are you managing at home?”

Working at home can be a lonely experience for a lot of people

Sue shares some other good practices to embed now:

  • Upskill line managers to spot the early warning signs of poor mental health. This online course from ACAS is a good place to start.
  • Establish next steps – the things that both parties can do to try and improve the situation. It could be something really simple, like avoiding any contact outside of 9-5 so both parties know where the boundaries are.
  • Acknowledge that everyone is different and not all interventions work for everyone. Taking a daily walk in the fresh air is not a magic bullet!
  • Keep checking in. A daily online meeting will help staff feel connect and valued, and provides an opportunity to spot early warning signs.
  • Keep records of short-term absences. You need to be able to see the big picture and identify patterns or triggers. And yes. Employees can still be off sick even if they work from home.
  • Make sure your policies are up to date. The huge shift to home working may require a thorough review to reflect the new circumstances.
  • Embed any learning. Draw on your experience from each situation and use this inform your overall approach and training.

It’s important to acknowledge that we are still learning about the effects of poor mental health, and the myriad of approaches to combating it. For example, here in Cornwall we are lucky enough to have charities like Sea Sanctuary and Man Down taking innovative approaches.

Staff outing?! Being on or near the ocean is widely acknowledged to help mental health

One thing is certain though, poor mental health can lead to personal suffering and an unproductive work force. As productivity will be key to recovering from the economic affects of the pandemic, we have no doubt that the companies who succeed will be those taking mental health seriously.

If you would like to talk to us about any of the issues raised above, and about how we can help you instil a positive mental health culture in your workforce, please get in touch at hellothere@sapiencehr.co.uk