UK businesses are ‘living with lockdown’. And this means many of us are working from home. The Federation of Small Businesses said in January 2020 that business mental wellbeing is a priority. They pointed out that time spent reflecting on the wellbeing of staff is always well spent, and I have to agree.

Across the country staff have been furloughed and office teams are sent home to work. Some businesses have pivoted to try entirely new ways of working and every day presents a challenge. Whatever changes your business is making, this is a stressful time. Wherever you are, no business is immune to the effects of COVID related stress.

offices are empty as employees are sent home during COVID-19 outbreak

We’re learning a whole COVID lexicon which is stressful itself. ‘Social distancing’, ‘shielding’, ‘furlough’ are all words we haven’t used before. And alongside all of the change, we’re coping with after-shocks of panic or stress. Business leaders, owners and managers are trying to take care of employee – and personal – mental health.

Are we looking after our mental health enough?

Looking after our own mental health right now means answering lots of questions. For business owners, it also means considering the impact of the answers on the business and its staff. We also know that working through such constant, dramatic changes to working practices will impact staff wellbeing.

The impact of COVID-19 on business is widely felt and no sector or place of work is immune. For those of us with children, there is another stress in the mix, too. The expectation for education shifted quickly from school to parents. And in a flash, the balance of work and home became more precarious for many of us. And small children and teenagers are part of parental work routines like never before. 

Self employed workers and sole traders with home offices are embracing new routines and communications. Gone are the coffee shop laptop nomads and networking lunches, which provide contact with life beyond four walls. And in are Zoom calls, shaky desk set-ups…relaxed dress codes and contact that may be constant.

A unique situation

So, yes, this is a unique working from home situation. And no matter what the specific role you or a member of your staff plays, if you’re working from home right now there are two types of employees. Those who are normally home based and those whose place of work is outside of the home.

Some four weeks into the UK’s lockdown, almost all non-essential workers who can Work from Home (WFH) now do so.  First, businesses allocated the tools! Laptops were set-up, cloud software was checked and face-to-face Zoom calls were scheduled. Colleagues joked about lie-ins and the morning news encouraged a commuting workforce to make use of ‘spare’ time. Could we learn another language or commit to daily yoga?

For those not used to WFH this was almost exciting – especially for employees who secretly coveted a WFH job. But novelty quickly wore off and four weeks in I’m hearing about Zoom fatigue, blurred boundaries…and the harsh reality of what happens when work and home lives collide. 

Across the UK, we’ve been spending a lot more time digitally. We’re searching for ‘COVID and mental health’, ‘why am I so stressed all the time?’. And ‘MHFA support at work’ is trending while we grab our morning coffee.

Managing workplace wellbeing at home

The collective strain on our mental wellbeing is clearly building. But are employers managing the wellbeing of their workforce as well as they do when ‘work’ is just one place?

My telephone line is busy with enquiries from front-line workers who need more than a phone line. And I’ve mentored an HR manager concerned that he cannot physically see the impact of COVID-related stress and increased productivity expectation on his remote team. And he raises a good point: in the workplace drop-in sessions are easy and MHFAs can provide a quick litmus test for workplace stress levels. But lovely as Zoom calls are, how do you tell if the employee quiet on a call is disengaged or anxious? Or simply having a bandwidth (or toddler in the background!) issue? 

So, what can we do to maximise employee wellbeing while WFH? For employers, successful and prolonged WFH needs structure. Work needs to get done and employee wellbeing must be protected. For managers, effective communications are essential.

This might look like frequent, scheduled one-to-one telephone catch-ups. Or it might be a Slack channel for informal chat. But whatever system is in place, it’s really important to get feedback on WFH issues. And this includes the impact on mental wellbeing.

Inter-team communications are to be encouraged, as working life is as much about general social interaction as the job in hand. We know that regular communication helps with social isolation. And managers and business owners need to be mindful that for some people, the office is their main social connection. Already, at only four weeks in, loneliness caused by WFH is a discussion I’m having with people at all levels of business.

Healthy work-life balance

And what about a healthy work-life balance? Some of you might struggle with 9-5 motivation while others will work longer – perhaps to prove a point. Employers should tackle both behaviours if they are evident on their teams, and encourage staff to work contracted hours. As lockdown is extended its especially important to help reduce the impact that home working has on home life. Flexibility is important, too: employees may have children at home, or elderly parents for whom ongoing support needs to be arranged. And working a 9-5 day in a linear fashion is sometimes hard. So, it may work better if there is an option to work early or late and take longer daytime breaks.

And within reason, flexibility is a really important part of making WFH work for everyone. This is important for the business, the employee and for their family. When you set clear parameters at home and let family – and colleagues – know when you’re ‘at work’  or ‘at home’ it’s easier to stick to your boundaries. And making the line between work and home as clear as you can will help you maintain good mental wellbeing during this stressful time.

What can we do?

There are things away from our desk that we can do to take care of our mental wellbeing. If you’re not isolating due to symptoms or shielding a vulnerable family member, get out when you can. Take a walk – hook up your earbuds and talk to your friends and family on the phone while you stroll. Switching off from work to enjoy some personal time is not an optional extra in your day – it’s essential.

And as high as the demands are to home school and keep children in routine, a lunchtime spent with algebra or wrestling the school homework app is not the kind of time out that you need while you WFH.

If you’re an employee reading this, it’s also really important to talk openly and honestly with your manager. Let them know how WFH feels for you because if they don’t know any issues you’re dealing with they can’t work with you to find solutions. WFH may not work for all employees and the longer this situation goes on, the greater the chance is that you – or your manager – may feel your mental wellbeing is vulnerable. But if management thinks you are happy and coping, they won’t be considering otherwise.

Why wellbeing is on the business agenda

Mental wellbeing at work is higher up the corporate agenda than ever before. Employee wellbeing and the responsibilities of business are recognised as a legal requirement by the government. MHFAs are often on hand for daily support and many forward-thinking businesses provide access to counselling or mental wellbeing mentoring.

Usually employees won’t be in regular contact with HR or having regular conversations with colleagues or managers about mental wellbeing. But nothing about our current situation is usual. And even the most enthusiastic home workers with the best home office set-up and the most compliant family situations might be struggling.

It’s impossible to call because COVID-19 comes hand in hand with so many other stresses – and WFH does make it slightly easier for distress to be masked from colleagues and bosses. But this might be an occasion when a wellbeing call simply to ‘check in’ might be appreciated. From everyone, from the top of the business down.

To book a Discovery Call and find out how I can mentor teams during this changing time, use the contact form here.