Homeworking: isolation, anxiety and burnout
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The coronavirus pandemic has sparked a mass retreat of white-collar workers from the office to home amid economic turmoil. While some have found it a relief to give up the daily commute and work at their own pace, others find it stressful, feeling remote from the office at a time when companies are making cuts and furloughing workers.
Disrupted sleep, difficulty controlling moods, and dysphoria [a generalised unease] are common problems, says Richard Chaifetz, chief executive of Chicago-based ComPsych, which provides employee assistance programmes to companies around the world. “Even someone who is relatively healthy mental health wise is going to feel the effects of an abrupt change of their lifestyle: not being able to go out [and the fear of] the unknown, fear of losing their job or having lost their job.”
Nick Bloom, a senior fellow at Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, who has researched the impact of homeworking on productivity, says “forcing everybody home, often around kids, in shared rooms or bedrooms and no escape socially in non-work time will be generating major mental stress”. “This typically leads to loneliness and depression,” he adds, “which is mentally costly and often leads to physical health declines too.”
In the UK, Bupa, the private healthcare provider, reports that workplace psychologists are fully booked for virtual consultations and its health and wellbeing advice line has received 300 per cent more calls since the coronavirus crisis unfolded. In response, they are hiring more professionals trained in mental health. ComPsych says calls sharply rose in Asia when the pandemic took hold, while in the US there was a 20 per cent increase in requests to discuss mental health issues. “Obviously people are feeling the effects economically, people are losing their jobs, spouses are losing their jobs and [they are] concerned about the future,” Mr Chaifetz says.
More drinking, more anxiety
A snap survey of 500 home workers by the Institute for Employment Studies found that 20 per cent of respondents admit to increased alcohol consumption, a third say they are eating less healthily, 60 per cent are doing less exercise. While 64 per cent report problems sleeping due to anxiety and 48 per cent are working irregular work patterns and long days. A third feel lonely.
To combat isolation, employers have instigated virtual meetups, such as online happy hours, talent competitions and quizzes. Goldman Sachs offers cooking classes via Zoom, virtual prayer sessions and virtual story time for children. Linklaters, the law firm, launched virtual choir workshops.
This is a “culture shift”, says Kate Dodd, an employment lawyer who advises law firm Pinsent Masons on diversity and inclusion. “Who’d have thought a law firm would be having guided meditation sessions [to help] people to distinguish work from home. We’re learning as we go on. In week one, we were advising that people turn on their cameras in meetings and then realised some people find it quite overwhelming [and] were struggling with this.”
Lloyds Banking Group offers access to its Your Resilience tool. More than 8,000 colleagues have registered and can access new Covid-19 related content in the form of articles, animations, podcasts and webinars. Linklaters has virtualised some of its existing mental health resources such as on-site psychologists in Hong Kong, Singapore and the UK. Other online resources include webinars on the psychological impact of working in isolation. Some departments have set up a weekly working parents call to share ideas on working patterns, home schooling, occupying younger children, challenges for carers, and keeping in good mental and physical health.
A survey by Mercer found that 43 per cent of workers thought their company had addressed the issue of psychological stress at this time. But only 15 per cent of employers had surveyed staff to understand their needs. As Trent Henry, EY’s global vice-chair for talent, puts it: “You don’t change culture overnight.”
Mental health on everyone’s agenda
Jonathan Moult, a lawyer turned counselling psychologist whose private practice clients are predominantly City workers, says that for many employers the “inescapable reality [is] that sometimes the demands of jobs are so considerable that they don’t match wellbeing” goals. “Prior to coronavirus, mental health was seen as someone else’s responsibility, part of diversity and inclusion. but now it applies across the board. Maybe [a small percentage of us] will get coronavirus but 100 per cent of us are psychologically affected by it.”
Dealing with remote workers’ concerns is hard. Line managers are having to adapt at speed, says Poppy Jaman, chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance. They are struggling “to recognise stress when not seeing people face to face”. Key, she says, is being attuned to behaviour changing and asking people how they are repeatedly, including through one-to-one chats.
Rachel Suff, public policy adviser at the CIPD, the body for HR professionals, says “anxiety can be quite complex and nuanced.” With so much economic uncertainty, the fear of losing their job, says Ms Suff, can “alter people’s behaviour”. Moreover, if they feel their job might be cut or pay reduced they will feel unable “to raise their hand and admit to struggling”. In response, some companies have introduced a buddying system whereby employees are paired with someone outside their department to check on their mental welfare.
Long term impacts
The mental health fallout of coronavirus will be uneven among workers. The Lancet review of the psychological impact of quarantine through studying past epidemics including Sars and Ebola, found that those on low incomes showed “significantly higher amounts of post-traumatic stress and depressive symptoms” because a temporary loss of income had a greater impact than on wealthier peers. Overall, it noted that “separation from loved ones, the loss of freedom, uncertainty over disease status, and boredom can, on occasion, create dramatic effects”.
Those with pre-existing poor mental health would be particularly vulnerable. Frontline workers, such as health professionals, risking infection and looking after vulnerable patients and their distressed relatives, are particularly susceptible to burnout and anxiety.
Employees’ home lives vary considerably. “The issues differ significantly,” says EY’s Mr Henry. Even if employees are able to work safely from home, their spouse might be facing unemployment or be a key worker; they might have to care for vulnerable relatives. “The mental health challenge is very hard,” says Mr Henry. “Some of our employees live by themselves. That is different to someone with three generations under the same roof. Some people are putting in too many hours and over the long-term that’s not sustainable.” Others are “not feeling busy enough” and are worried about the future of their job.
As the social isolation extends, he says, they have observed workers finding it “gets tougher and tougher”, especially for those cooped up in small flats. Mr Chaifetz of ComPsych says that relaxing lockdown rules and then reimposing them may have a “deleterious effect”. It is, he says, like an organisation laying people off. “We always say that you should do it quickly, the drip drip effect is probably worse.”
The challenges of lockdown
Isolation has prompted a rise in domestic violence cases. Refuge, a UK charity helping those affected, has reported a 700 per cent rise in calls to its helpline in one day. Anna Purchas, head of people at KPMG UK, has distributed guidance on domestic abuse to managers. “The main advice is to ask open questions. Open the conversation and signpost help.”
Angela Ogilvie, global human resources director at Linklaters says junior members are typically in smaller flats, have lots of housemates and struggle with finding work space. “It’s trying to make sure that junior staff are adding value and that they have discrete work that they can deliver on so they don’t feel adrift. There are different challenges for the younger workforce.”
Lucy Doubleday, managing partner of Wearesocial, a social media creative agency, says that many of the company’s young workforce are living in flatshares with friends that “have been laid off, [some] done in really horrible ways . . . and that affects them”. The company’s shadow board, a group chosen by staff, is a useful sounding board on the workforce’s mood. “We get feedback from them on how some of the communications have been interpreted.”
Furloughed staff and anxiety
For furloughed staff, there is a huge amount of uncertainty. “It’s creating a lot of anxiety,” Mr Chaifetz says. “They don’t know what they’re coming back to — there’s a lot of ‘what-ifs’ [with regard to] the status of the business. It’s hard to be definitive if you are experiencing financial crush as a CEO.”
Even those on paid leave, Ms Suff says, it is no holiday. “[They’re] in limbo which can breed a lot of anxiety. If you’re working, you’ve got a purpose. You still have a duty of care to them, they still need to feel valued.”
Research found that working just eight hours a week can preserve people’s mental health. “There’s a massive difference in terms of mental health between not working and working,” says Brendan Burchell, reader at the department of sociology, University of Cambridge and one of the authors of the report. He proposes that government furlough schemes could allow people to do some work, perhaps for the public sector — or redistributed tasks within companies.
“Work imposes a structure to people’s life, so you have something to do, so [you are] not ruminating all the time. Maintaining contact with people outside the house,” he says. “The most important factor is having meaningful goals. It can be altruistic, [such as] helping nurses, or [it] can be goals like selling. It just has to be important to you and that’s what keeps you going.”
Anthony Wheeler, professor of management at West Chester University of Pennsylvania, says that “typically, with a furlough, employees will experience morale problems that will fuse with stress and burnout”. It can also be divisive. “If some employees are called to work while others get furloughed, companies should have articulated policies around why they make the decisions they make relative to who works and who does not,” he says.
Generally, if people believe that the processes are applied fairly, they might not like the outcome but will feel that the outcome was justified, Prof Wheeler adds. “People can handle that. What they can’t handle is when the processes lack fairness and transparency. In those circumstances, companies will experience a host of negative outcomes related to its employees — poor performance, more turnover, counterproductive work behaviours.”
Get comfortable with discomfort
Cate Murden, founder of Push, which provides coaching and counselling to companies, says that many employees are finding it hard to cope with uncertainty. “When this first started we continued to go at 100mph to make ourselves feel safer. We’re not very good at sitting in discomfort. The solution is to get more comfortable with dealing with uncertainty. People are desperately trying to plan their way out of it. We can’t.”
Pinsent Mason’s Ms Dodd says that they have learnt from Asian colleagues not to plan too far ahead. “It’s so counter-intuitive for law firms. We’re trying to say don’t plan in future. Let’s take things week by week. Don’t make too many predictions. People are saying they are worrying about six weeks’ time. We try to say, don’t ruminate on that.”
And some good news
For some, working from home is a chance to spend time with family or pause to reflect. Mr Moult says, “often in the chaos of daily life we don’t have an opportunity to think about our purpose.” The pandemic has exposed the fact that the best-paid are not essential, triggering soul-searching among financiers and lawyers. “There’s a recalibration,” says Mr Mount. “We have had a society that has privileged moneymaking, agency and self-determination.” Now public service and social connections are prioritised.
Ollie Dearn, who works in marketing at Havas, the advertising group, says that as an introvert working in an industry dominated by extroverts, he has found he has “more energy, my head is clearer and I’m getting a lot done.” Though by week four, the novelty had worn thin and turned into a “slog”.
While technology allows him to do the majority of his work remotely, it doesn’t replicate the day-to-day human interaction the office brings. “I miss gossip, laughing, bouncing ideas off people and general small talk. That’s difficult to replicate on Zoom. Everything has become diarised, to the detriment of spontaneity,” he says. “For me, ‘work’ and ‘life’ has begun to blend into one — although I am now fiercely protecting my weekends. While everyone has adapted to working from home remarkably well, the longer it goes on, the more exhausting it gets.”
‘Humans saved me — including my employers’
In the past four years — in the UK alone — nearly 20,000 people have committed suicide. That’s a terrifying statistic for anyone; but it’s especially poignant for me because, following a mental breakdown in September 2016, I was very nearly one of them, writes Josh Roberts.
There are lots of reasons why I didn’t end-up killing myself; but if I had to summarise them in a single word it would be “humans”. Humans saved me — my parents, my family, my friends, my girlfriend and, perhaps surprisingly, my employers.
When I am speaking about my book about the experience, Anxious Man, business leaders often ask if there’s anything they can do to encourage mental wellbeing among their employees. And these concerns have only grown more acute in recent weeks.
The answer, of course, is yes. There is a lot that businesses can do to both prevent and cure mental health problems like mine.
They can, for example, implement comprehensive employee assistance programmes that provide access to counselling. Or they can provide medical insurance that emphasises mental as well as physical health. Or they can insist on ways of working which promote mental wellbeing (no emails after 8pm, no weekend working).
Most importantly, businesses and their leaders can embed a culture of honesty when it comes to mental health. Mental health problems — be they anxious, depressive or obsessive — are cancers of the mind. The longer they are left, the bigger they become and the harder they become to operate on. Early intervention — getting folks to admit they need help — is key. And businesses can play a vital role in encouraging this.
‘Anxious Man’, by Josh Roberts, is published by Yellow Kite, £14.99
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