Pressures of the pandemic have taken a considerable toll on the mental health of desk-based workers. According to a recent report, 25 per cent of adults experienced feelings of loneliness during the first national lockdown, up from 10 per cent pre-pandemic*. Moreover, a further 25 per cent suffered from moderate or severe depressive symptoms, while 10 per cent experienced suicidal thoughts. These numbers underline the importance of businesses ensuring their employees do not feel forgotten while working from home and as our working norms evolve post-pandemic.

The good news is that there are several steps businesses can take to safeguard the wellbeing of their employees both now and beyond COVID-19. By discouraging presenteeism and educating workers, employers can provide preventative care for mental health issues. Furthermore, trusting employees with greater flexibility in working hours or locations will benefit their morale and mental health, as well as business productivity in the long term.

Ending presenteeism

Despite some suspicions earlier this year that the shift towards working from home would foment the growth of absenteeism, this year has actually seen a rise in presenteeism – employees’ working longer hours than required, even while unwell. Employers must instead encourage workers to adopt a routine which optimises both their productivity and their wellbeing.

Indeed, a recent 8×8 report found that 38 per cent of employees felt that being ‘always on’ while working from home contributed to rising anxiety and stress. If workers feel unable to take time off to recuperate, they will end up trapped in a vicious circle of deteriorating mental wellbeing.

Thankfully, employers can take a very simple first step to reduce this risk for their workers: reassuring them that they are trusted to take time off when they need it. In the long term and as we emerge from lockdown, offering options away from permanent home working must also clearly be a priority.

Worker-centric planning

Whatever the longer-term future of work will look like, employers should do their utmost to ease the transition for their workers. Indeed, businesses must bring their workers on board when determining their future plans around returning to the office as emergency restrictions are hopefully repealed over the coming months, and consider non-traditional solutions such as a hub and spoke model.

The popularity of a decentralised network of offices rather than a central HQ has long been on the rise, and this increase has only been compounded by the effects of COVID-19. Standard Chartered, for example, recently announced its decision to offer half of its workforce the chance to adopt hybrid working from early 2021, empowering individuals to work in “near home” offices. This demonstrates a level of trust which workers will value, as well as a recognition that employees should be empowered to work in a way that suits them.

While many employers will understandably be hesitant to solidify plans for an uncertain future, in the meantime they must invite workers to get involved in prospective decision-making. With 59 per cent of employees favouring a continuation of remote working even after lockdown measures are eased, businesses must at least avoid trying to hit the reset button too abruptly.

Stress-testing

Approaching these issues proactively is vital for businesses, as they cannot simply wait for employees’ mental health to collapse without adequate support. Employers must seek to improve their own understanding of mental health, and raise awareness among workers, to ensure that employees are not left to reach breaking point.

While working from home has been necessary for safeguarding employees’ physical health, a passive approach to their mental wellbeing will allow cases of stress, anxiety, and depression to proliferate. Most workers, for example, are understandably anxious about the current health crisis, with 66 per cent fearful of catching COVID-19, and a further 62 per cent concerned about spreading the virus.

Businesses must ensure that those in management positions are educated on the interrelationship between mental health, morale, and productivity, so they can keep an eye on how their teams are doing. Equally important is the introduction of mental health ‘first aid’ training, which will equip employees to look after themselves and each other better.

Investment in initiatives which raise awareness of mental health issues will pay dividends in the longer term. A company with 500 employees, for example, can reasonably expect to spend £80 per person per year – or £40,000 annually – on adequate educational materials, which would yield returns of almost £350,000 over two years due to reduced presenteeism and absenteeism**.

Fostering flexible hours

Businesses must acknowledge that their workers have lives outside the virtual office, and this means giving them the agency to deviate from rigid working hours. While colleagues may by now be accustomed to toddlers gate-crashing team meetings, employers should take the lead in cultivating an environment in which workers feel completely comfortable putting personal priorities first. Implementing a flexible hours policy is a simple step employers can take to empower modern workers without a knock-on effect on productivity.

Workers with children, for example, remain under particular stress due to COVID-19, with calls for school closures now intensifying and increasing numbers of pupils sent home to self-isolate. Employers must show receptiveness to parents’ concerns by providing flexible work schedules which can accommodate drastic changes to childcare routines.

Normalising a more malleable work-life balance may additionally yield improvement in gender representation within the workforce. Women have occupied 33 per cent of the management positions filled at insurance giant Zurich since the company introduced flexible hours for all job roles last year, increasing hopes of equal representation in the longer term.

The wellbeing of their workers should always rank high on the employer agenda, but COVID-19 and the stresses surrounding the future of work mark a watershed moment for employers to cement wellbeing measures into day-to-day working norms. By embracing policies which empower employees to find their own optimal balance between work, life, and rest, businesses can invest in their workforce with the promise of returns in both morale and productivity, now and well beyond COVID-19.


*https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/news/almost-quarter-adults-living-under-lockdown-uk-have-felt-loneliness

**https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/statistics/mental-health-statistics-mental-health-work

https://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/business/zurich-attracts-more-women-with-offer-of-flexible-working-mnj5ps8l7