Coronavirus has touched all our lives and created new worries and concerns for us. Many will have faced financial insecurity, additional caring responsibilities, health worries and an uncertain future for the better part of a year. Now it is clear that ongoing restrictions and local lockdown measures will continue for at least another six months. Currently, a large portion of the workforce will be following the Government’s most recent guidance to ‘only leave home for work purposes where you cannot do this work from home’.
For some people this may be welcome news, but for others living in single person households it may feel overwhelming. A real storm is looming when it comes to the nation’s wellbeing, with The Centre for Mental Health already estimating half a million more people will experience a mental health difficulty over the next year as a result of the pandemic.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has formally recognised ‘burnout’ at work as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ and research has shown that 23% of full time workers in the UK even before the pandemic were frequently operating in ‘burnout mode’ in the workplace. As more people continue to work from home, the risk of burnout could be on the rise. In the current climate mental ill health triggers are increasingly unavoidable and many people’s usual coping strategies – socialising with friends, exercising, and therapy – are more difficult to do. Combined with difficult economic circumstances, widespread redundancies, and the Winter Job Retention Scheme, many teams will be left with reduced capacity and more people potentially working longer hours.
It has never been more important for employers to protect the wellbeing of their workforce, as more employees face potential burnout and poor mental health. All employers have a responsibility to protect the wellbeing of their workforce and provide appropriate support.
Symptoms of burnout
Employees experiencing burnout are likely to feel depleted of energy and exhausted from coping with an increased workload and stress for an extended period of time. It can result in reduced productivity and negative feelings or complete apathy towards one’s job.
Physical signs include a lack of care over personal appearance, frequent minor illness, sudden weight loss or weight gain, irritability, or withdrawing from social interaction. If your team is working remotely these signs may be less obvious, or easier to hide, so take time to consider these carefully.
Changes in someone’s working patterns may also indicate burnout. For example, if they are working too many hours but still not meeting deadlines or being productive, or unable to step away from their inbox whilst on holiday, constantly checking and responding to emails.
A decline in the relationships between team members, particularly with managers, can also be a result of burnout. When employees are feeling physically and emotionally drained they are likely to experience reduced professional efficacy which can impact on the whole team.
Keep in mind the links between our mental and physical health. When we eat well and exercise more it helps boost our mental wellbeing. When we feel burnout or exhaustion, and are confined to our own homes all the time, it can be tempting to indulge in coffees and unhealthy snacks. Extended period of high levels of sugar, caffeine or alcohol while working from home can increase stress in the long run.
Encourage employees to be mindful of their mental health
It is important to remind and encourage employees to check in with their own mental health. When we check in on ourselves regularly, we are more likely to notice rising stress levels or exhaustion. Understanding and recognising changes in our behaviour or mood can help identify when something is not quite right and address the issue in good time. Being kind to ourselves in this way could help us encourage more helpful habits long term and access support before burnout sets in.
One way to do this is through a weekly wellbeing check-up. There are some key questions people can ask themselves on a regular basis:
– Where’s my mental health today – how do I feel physically and mentally?
– Am I drinking enough water and eating a balanced diet?
– How did I sleep last night – did I feel rested when I woke up?
– How are my thoughts making me feel? Am I having unhelpful thoughts?
– Am I using helpful coping strategies for my stress – are they working?
Replicate ‘normal’ conditions where you can
When working from home, thinking about our routine is a good place to start. Encourage employees to mirror their normal working day – without a commute it can be tempting to log on the moment you wake up, or to work through your lunch break. Instead, you could encourage people to consider using their extra time for exercise, housework, or hobbies rather than work.
One of the biggest challenges working from home presents is the blurring of your ‘work zone’ and ‘home zone’. It can leave people unable to switch off at the end of the day. If possible, provide employees with the resources they need to differentiate this space. This could include sending out office desks and chairs that are not needed in the office at the moment.
Initiate regular catch ups with employees
Finally, it’s important to reach out to colleagues regularly during remote working. Keeping connected as a team can really help those who may be struggling with burnout by giving them the opportunity to speak up and ask for help. It also helps to motivate people and create an atmosphere of psychological safety. You can do this in one-to-one management catch-ups, through virtual coffee breaks, and while socialising as a team with lunch video hangouts, team quizzes, and other online activities.
While remaining connected with your team is important, video meetings all day, every day, will not be sustainable. Try restricting calls to core hours (10 – 4pm) and scheduling short breaks between meetings to allow people to decompress and process.
Look after yourself
For HR professionals to be in a position to best support others, you also need to look after yourself. You cannot pour from an empty cup and these tips and advice are for everyone to use. These ideas on how to stay mentally healthy whilst working from home should be shared with team members to support their mental wellbeing.
Support outside of the workplace
There are also a number of useful organisations you can signpost to for further advice and support. Free MHFA England resources to help conduct a weekly wellbeing check-up are available on the website, for free resources on spotting and challenging poor mental health visit the NHS Apps Library. Samaritans are available to speak to around the clock on 116 123.