By Annabel Dunstan, Founder & CEO at Question & Retain
Sitting at my kitchen table, with views onto a sunny garden and no commute for over 10 weeks, I have settled into lockdown life with relative ease. Not so for many others.
With the onset of Covid-19 and the move for many to working from home, we pivoted our focus to explore the mental health and wellbeing impact of remote working for employees. We further extended this to include staff who have been furloughed – and, as lockdown measures continue to ease, we have also been gauging the feelings on returning to the office and the journey to work.
We found that among 2,500 employees in the communications sector, the biggest mental health impact is among the under 25s – with two thirds having at least one or more signs of mental health issues ranging from marked changes in sleep and eating habits, to excessive mood swings and extreme fatigue.
The over 45s are perhaps understandably less affected at 40%, though this may be slightly skewed as the older group may be less comfortable or willing to reveal they are struggling (despite anonymised survey). Previous experience of having been through challenging times in the past (recessions in 1990 and 2008) may also explain the difference.
There is a palpable fear of returning to the office (97%) with 82% concerned about using public transport. The message to stay home and save lives landed better than anyone could have predicted and so unsurprisingly there is an air of trepidation and caution about resuming old patterns of commuting en masse and a fear of what our new sanitised socially distanced workplaces will actually feel like to work in.
So what does this all mean? Remote working may have won over leadership teams who hitherto could not see how teams could work effectively if they were not all under one roof between 9-5 (or more often than not long after 5pm…) And in some ways the battle fought by many for greater flexibility to work from home and at hours that suit took a giant leap forward with millions taking to video conferencing and using apps to stay connected to teams. This is all good. But humans are social beings and leading a largely isolated screen-based life without the chance collisions and conversations the work-place fosters is, I believe, a loss. Careers are built on connections, skills learned and honed by on the job observation and leadership potential spotted and nurtured by the executive team in the course of meetings, pitches and in asides en route to meet clients and prospects.
Christine Armstrong, Armstrong and Partners, commented: “Hard won battles for some on flexible working may actually suffer a setback as leadership teams now have to review policies and plan who and when people will be in the office. So, someone who, for example, doesn’t work on Fridays may find that their day is reorganised to ensure social distancing. Furthermore, there is a risk that we will go backwards on gender equality in the workplace as, with limited public transport, it will only be those with no caring responsibilities who can get into the queue to catch a train limited to 10 or 15% capacity (think 5am)”.
Technology is clearly galloping ahead to lead the way in improving connections between people and teams and again this is brilliant news for remote working. But what can leaders do to ensure the mental health of their teams is kept in check?
In a recent Zoom call with Michelle Morgan, the CEO and founder of Pjoys (luxury artist designed pyjamas supporting mental health), I was reminded of her mission to make mental health part of everyday conversations. No longer can mental health be a taboo subject in the workplace. Leaders need to focus on the welfare of employees with good two-way communication and promotion of mental fitness being key.
The financial recovery may be slower than we like, the vaccine may seem a long way off, but the longest path will be one to restoring and building the mental fitness among our younger generation.