How your organisation can support employees’ mental health during the pandemic

As the winter nights draw in, fears about the pandemic’s impact on mental health are growing. Psychologists warn that ‘COVID anxiety’ over health, job security and uncertainty around when the crisis will end may develop into full-blown COVID depression if strict social distancing measures stay in place through the colder months, turning homes into prisons.[i]

The crisis is moving employee mental health higher up the corporate agenda. In McKinsey’s 2020 employer survey, more than three out of four CEOs cited it as a concern. Our own insights tool sheds light on how home working may be exacerbating the problem, giving organisations the data to build a clearer picture of employees’ home working experience.

Below, we outline how to use these insights to tackle the looming mental health crisis.

When I work from home, I’m able to be physically active…
Studies show that physical activity is crucial for positive mental health. Regular exercise releases endorphins in the brain, helping to reduce stress and anxiety and improving mood and cognitive function. However, outdoor physical activity becomes harder in the winter. Meanwhile, many employees, particularly young people who live in shared accommodation in major cities like London and New York, do not have the space for it at home.

What next?

  • Identify the demographic make-up of your home-based workforce. Younger employees, for example, will have fewer opportunities for physical activity this winter if lockdown measures stay in place.
  • Find out what kind of workspace your colleagues have at home. If people work in a non-allocated work setting, jumping between dining room table and the sofa, they are less likely to have the space for physical activity.
  • Recommend ways for your employees to stay active. There are a growing number of online exercise classes, including yoga and high-intensity interval training, in which instructors can show you how to make use of a small space like a living room or a bedroom.

When I work from home, I am able to maintain a healthy work-life balance…
Without the physical walls of an office or the distance of a commute, people may find it difficult to switch off when the workday has finished. Studies show that newly remote employees work longer hours compared with when they were office-based. [ii] Our research into home working has revealed that fewer home-based employees place importance on ‘relaxing/taking a break’ compared with office workers in our primary office survey. This raises the possibility that employees are neglecting break time while they work in close proximity to home comforts.

What next?

  • Stop measuring productivity by the number of hours worked. Clock-watching is rarely a reliable indicator of an employee’s effectiveness or the quality of their work. This approach will pressure people into working longer hours, adding to their stress and creating a greater imbalance between work and life.
  • Remind employees to take regular breaks and switch off at the end of the day. Finding time to relax during the workday will help employees rest and stop them from becoming overloaded with work.
  • If employees are working longer hours, find out why. Is the work taking them longer to do because they don’t have access to their colleagues or the right software? Identifying how well their environment supports the activities they do will allow you to find the right solutions.

When I work from home, I feel connected to my organisation…
Our extensive research into the employee workplace experience has revealed that exceptional workplaces connect employees to the culture, values and mission of their organisations. An organisation that wants its employees to express themselves freely, for example, can use the space to set the tone, nurturing a more relaxed or individualistic environment. Naturally, keeping employees connected to the organisation becomes more of a challenge when everyone works remotely, particularly in a period when people are more susceptible to feelings of loneliness.

What next?

  • Stay in regular contact with your employees. As outlined before, constant communication with people during this crisis will alleviate their anxiety and feelings of isolation.
  • Update colleagues on the latest guidance and your organisation’s plans. Providing employees with this information will give them confidence about the future.
  • Survey employees to find out how they’re feeling and what they need. You won’t know if your employees feel disconnected from the organisation if there is no mechanism in place to ask them.

When I work from home, I feel connected to my colleagues…
The workplace is also an environment that allows employees to connect with colleagues. It’s the five minutes before and after a meeting, the coffee in the breakroom or drinks after work that Zoom calls cannot replicate. Even for those who worked flexibly before the pandemic, the office was the spot they came to when they wanted to meet up with colleagues.

Without meaningful interaction with family, friends or colleagues, public health experts worry that COVID-19 has intensified a social loneliness pandemic. Our research into home working has revealed that more than one in three people do not feel connected to their colleagues while working from home – and the data suggests that this could be down to fewer opportunities for social interaction.

What next?

  • Make sure employees can talk to one another regularly. By organising regular team meetings using video conferencing apps, employers can create an all-in-this-together mentality.
  • Don’t forget the fun stuff. Not all virtual meetings have to be about work. Setting aside a few minutes a day or in the week for virtual coffee breaks will help ease the stress on employees.
  • Check in with your colleagues continuously. Tracking your employees’ sentiment will equip you with the data and insights to make changes as circumstances and experiences change.

With countries around the world entering into new national lockdowns for the winter, employers have a duty to look after their employees during this challenging period. This begins by understanding how the home and a lack of a workplace will impact mental health over the coming months.

Covid mental health checklist:

  • Find out who your employees are
  • Identify where your employees work at home
  • Encourage staff to stay active and develop a routine
  • Remind employees to switch off
  • Don’t measure productivity by number of hours worked
  • Carry out a comprehensive audit to find out what employees need at home
  • Keep communication channels open
  • Don’t just check in with employees once
Read more insights from Leesman