As working from home becomes the new normal, we explore its impact on employee wellbeing and identify steps employers can take to maintain a healthy workforce.
The Coronavirus pandemic is changing where and how people work. With millions working from home since lockdown was introduced in the UK, a fundamental shift is occurring with the employee experience.
Research suggests that remote working has positively impacted employees’ quality of life, with almost two-thirds of employers receiving reports of improved work-life balance from staff. The findings also indicate that 43% of employees think collaboration has been enhanced by the change in structure.
Whilst this is to be welcomed, studies also reveal a worrying picture of declining mental and physical health amongst UK homeworkers. According to the Homeworker Wellbeing Survey by the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), more than half of respondents reported musculoskeletal complaints within the first two weeks of working remotely during lockdown. Aches and pains in the neck (58%), shoulder (56%), and back (55%) were recorded as newly emerged symptoms. Additionally, 60% of respondents stated they were exercising less; 33% said they were eating less healthily, and 20% admitted to drinking more alcohol than usual.
The findings also indicate that British homeworkers are having trouble sleeping due to worry, are experiencing symptoms of fatigue and are working extra hours. According to the CIPD Good work Index, four in ten workers say their health and wellbeing has worsened since the outbreak. 28% of the survey’s respondents said work was negatively impacting their mental health, whilst 31% said work was taking a toll on their physical health – rising from 27% and 26% respectively, in January 2020. Of those with an existing mental health issue, nearly half said the problem had become worse.
The impact of poor health on performance has long been documented, with mental health issues alone costing the UK economy between £74 billion and £99 billion. Businesses simply cannot afford to ignore the wellbeing issues that studies have identified in connection with homeworking. Since remote working is set to remain for many organisations, employers need to rethink their approach to ‘workplace’ wellbeing, as pre-pandemic strategies may no longer be appropriate, nor meet the changing needs of employees.
And there are real incentives for employers to act – healthier employees increase productivity, are less likely to have health problems, and take fewer sick days. Not only that, a healthy workforce can yield significant increases in employee engagement and improvements in workplace morale.
The challenge for businesses, therefore, is to find ways of maintaining the wellbeing of staff while working from home.
So, the question becomes:
What can employers do to support the wellbeing of remote employees?
There are simple steps employers can take to support employees, as they navigate their way through unchartered waters during this strange and difficult time.
Businesses really need to take a holistic approach – one that addresses all four pillars of wellbeing: mental, physical, social, and financial health.
- Raise awareness amongst line managers of mental health issues that could be affecting colleagues. It’s also a good idea to signpost support services and resources – such as those available on Mind Charity’s website – which staff may find useful in managing their thoughts and emotions.
- Make employees aware of the mental health support services available through their company’s employee assistance program (EAP), and inform staff on how they can access help and advice, if they need it.
- Ensure there is regular and timely communication with employees. This is especially important in instances where developments occur that might impact them directly.
- Encourage staff to take annual leave. It’s important that employees are prompted to book some time off work, as this will help to promote better work/life balance, reduce stress and prevent burnout.
Encourage staff to:
- Assess their workspace at home periodically for ergonomic risks and improvements that their company can provide support with. Ensuring employees have the necessary equipment to carry out their work safely and effectively from home is key to maintaining their wellbeing.
- Take short breaks away from their desks – say, 5 minutes or so every hour, to minimise the time spent in front of a screen.
- Exercise regularly, which can help to reduce anxiety, improve moods, and achieve a better night’s sleep.
- Maintain a healthy and balanced diet, and ensure they’re taking a sufficient lunch break each day.
- Have regular check-ins with employees – one-to-one and in a group setting – to see how they’re doing and respond to any questions or concerns they may have.
- Schedule virtual coffee breaks using communication platforms such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, where colleagues can catch-up over an audio or video call. This can go a long way in tackling feelings of isolation and helps to promote a greater sense of connectedness.
- The economic impact of the Coronavirus pandemic could be a concern for employees who may feel uncertain about the future and have money worries. Employers should seek to have open conversations with staff, so as to address questions around job security and hopefully minimise these concerns.
- Consideration should also be given to changes in shift pattern or remuneration that could be adversely affecting employees’ finances.
- Employees are often uncomfortable about asking for help with money problems because of the stigma associated with struggling financially. Make it easier for them by promoting expert organisations like StepChange Debt Charity that can provide help and advice at no cost.
By adopting measures like these, businesses can mitigate the risks to employee wellbeing brought on or exacerbated by remote working, and cultivate a healthy culture that drives positive organisational outcomes.
The Bank Workers Charity website contains a range of material and interactive tools to support wellbeing.