A new ACAS-commissioned YouGov survey recently found that nearly two out of five employees working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic have felt stressed, anxious or experienced mental health difficulties, due to their working situation at some point. The poll also found that one in two people working from home felt isolated and seven out of ten missed social interactions with colleagues. This article considers practical steps employers may want to consider taking to assist employees in working from home from a mental health perspective.
In these unprecedented times, we are having to alter the way we live and work for the good of our collective health and safety. One of these key changes is the move to working from home for those that can. For many of us, this is a new way of working, and where there is change to "the norm" we can find that this places a stress on our mental health.
Without the luxury of time to put effective measures in place, many employers initially adopted a “make do” mentality whilst waiting for normal office life to resume. Now it is clear that it will be some time before we see a resumption of the normal office life we were all used to (if it ever does resume), employers have been taking further steps to assist employees in what are more permanent arrangements.
We have set out some practical considerations for employers below.
1. What steps should employers consider in relation to helping the mental health and wellbeing of staff?
Talk to your employees
Working from home can be incredibly isolating, therefore speaking to your employees regularly is important. Think about your structure and how communications can be made and cascaded. Think about your units of employees, and speak to managers or team leaders about how they can interact. Review your online tools and meeting applications to see if they are the best fit for you and your teams, and make sure that your teams and managers are using them to stay in touch. Do you want to bring in mentoring or mentoring groups so that there are additional points of contact outside the normal manager to employee interaction?
Promote work-life balance
Now that our homes have essentially become our offices, it is very easy for employees to slip into working extended hours. Employees no longer have the commute in the morning to get to work, or the natural break point at the end of the day where they log off and leave the office. Even though we are all well used to the smartphone and picking up emails / phone calls – the loss of the natural breakpoint to leave the office at the end of the day has had an impact on many employees and led to them working extended hours. Think about talking to your employees about this, or investing in training or otherwise cascading advice as to how employees can make sure that they take breaks and switch off at the end of the day and at weekends to the extent that they can. Also make sure that employees are taking breaks through the day. This is important for assisting wellbeing, but of course the working time regulations (and the requirements on breaks) continue to apply to homeworking in the same way as they do for office based work.
Consider individual employees' needs
Look to make sure that employees communicate with you in relation to what their demands are – for example in relation to childcare responsibilities. Make sure that any arrangements are written down so it is clear what has been agreed. For the good of employees and also the company, informal arrangements cannot be continued for anything more than a temporary and short period. You do not want to find that an employee has been juggling childcare and their work for an extended period – it is impossible to work effectively. Equally, it is not good for your employees.
Review your technology
Employers should make sure their employees have the technology and equipment they need to get the work done. Clearly there is a balance to be made in relation to temporary working arrangements and investment, but the longer the period of homeworking goes on, the greater the need for employers to ensure there is proper equipment to get the job done.
Promote access to support
Employers may provide access to support services - if you do, make sure these are advertised well and find out whether there are specific resources relating to the outbreak. Dust off the information regarding EAP and private health provision and cascade out to employees.
2. Firm up your working from home policy
If an employer does not have a working from home policy, now is the perfect time to put one place. A working from home policy could include guidance on:
- hours of work/working patterns
- instruction and guidance on setting up a safe home office environment, particularly in relation to workstation set up
- sickness policy
- links to support on health and wellbeing
- overtime policy
- security issues such reporting personal injury and damage to company equipment and reminder to check home insurance and mortgage or rental agreements
Remote working becomes more efficient when employers set clear expectations and guidelines for their employees.
3. Carry out health and safety risk assessments
Employers have a duty to protect their employees’ health, safety and welfare even when their employees are working from home. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it's very unlikely that employers can carry out "usual" health and safety risk assessments at an employee's home. However, employers should still check that:
- each employee feels the work they're being asked to do at home can be done safely
- employees have the right equipment to work safely
- managers keep in regular contact with their employees, including making sure they do not feel isolated and
- reasonable adjustments are made for employees with disabilities.
Risk assessments should also be updated for home working generally, and any recommendations from those or action points should be put into place (for instance online risk assessments for individuals to complete at home, or online training for homeworking). Employers should also remind employees that they have obligations to report any risks whilst working from home and they should keep in regular communication with their manager. This is particularly important when the employees are working remotely.
Whilst there are many demands on all employers at this time, we also depend on our employees working well and productively from home. In this regard, looking at assisting with, and safeguarding, employee mental wellbeing has benefits for both your employees and the business. There is no formula or automatic solution to it – but hopefully some of the ideas and pointers in this article help in considering these issues.