The workplace is changing dramatically with technology enabling many employees to work whenever and wherever they like. But while this can be a benefit, it can also have serious implications for an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.
“Technology is both a benefit and a burden,” says Eugene Farrell, chair of the UK Employee Assistance Professionals Association and mental health lead at Axa PPP Healthcare. “It enables people to fit work into their lifestyle but remote working and the ‘always-on’ culture can lead to social isolation, disrupt employees’ personal lives and relationships and make them feel under pressure to work longer hours. This can lead to burnout and other mental health issues.”
It’s a relatively common problem too. A study by the CIPD (Employee Outlook: Employee Views on Working Life) found that 32 per cent of employees felt working remotely meant they could not switch off in their personal time, with 18 per cent saying the constant connection to the office was akin to being under surveillance.
Similarly, research conducted in 2017 as part of Axa’s Stress Index found that the ‘always on’ culture is a major contributor to employees feeling under pressure. Almost three in five Brits (59 per cent) admitted to taking calls outside of work hours and more than half (55 per cent) checked their emails.
For Group Risk Development spokesperson Katharine Moxham it’s the lack of control that can potentially affect employees’ mental wellbeing. “In the good old days when all we had was the post, there was a system in place, with everything answered in two or three days. The ability to receive or send emails at any time of day or night can put unreasonable pressures on people.”
Plenty of support is available to help employees with mental health problems but, with these issues related to work, Farrell says employers must be more upstream. “Counselling someone out of a work problem is a little bit too late,” he says. “Employers need to consider how they can prevent these problems in the first place.”
Creating the right culture is essential. Gallagher Communication business development director Matt Frost says this needs to be led from the top, with senior managers helping to set expectations and reinforce them through their own behaviours. “Managers need to make a point of leaving at 2pm if they want employees to feel comfortable and confident to work flexibly,” he explains. “It helps to create a culture of collaboration and trust.” While demonstrating what’s expected is the best way to set the culture, this can be reinforced through policies. For instance, Aon Employee Benefits head of health management Charles Alberts recommends having a homeworking policy for remote
workers. “This can provide guidance on how they can look after their mental and physical health, outlining the hours they’re expected to work and best practice around creating a division between work and home life.”
This could cover simple measures like having a separate space for work; turning off work phones, or email notifications, at the end of the working day; and taking regular breaks.
Some firms – and countries – have taken this a step further and specified when emails are turned off. As examples, Volkswagen stops emails outside of working hours and Daimler has a ‘mail on holiday’ email policy, allowing employees to set their emails to autodelete when they take a break.
The French government has also laid down the law on emails, introducing the right to disconnect in 2017. This requires companies with more than 50 workers to set out when emails are out of bounds. While this works in France, where the working week is capped at 35 hours, Farrell believes it might be too drastic a measure for the UK. “By outlawing emails outside of core hours, it could deny employees the right to flexibility. Many people like to work flexibly to fit around their lifestyle so it could be a control too far. It’s better to set sensible expectations and let employees determine what they do.”
Frost agrees. “The relationship between manager and employee needs to move to one of peer to peer. This will make it much easier to talk openly about mental health and the things affecting it,” he says. “Being overly prescriptive keeps us in a state of parent and child.”
New ways of working
Given the scale of the shift in working practices, especially where employees go from an office to a home setting, line manager training is also prudent. Bupa commercial director Mark Allan recommends communication training. “If someone’s gone from seeing the 15 people they manage every day to managing them remotely, they’ll need t o de v elop their communication and listening skills,” he says. “There’s no body language in the virtual office so they need to be more thoughtful about how they communicate.”
Although technology can be part of the problem, it also offers some solutions to these new ways of working. Towergate Health & Protection distribution director Brett Hill recommends enterprise social media as a more appropriate way for remote employees to communicate. “Platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Yammer and Facebook’s WorkPlace make it much easier for employees to keep up with each other,” he says.
Similarly, Farrell says video calls can provide a more personal way to work. “Video platforms such as Zoom allows multiple people to see each other. It’s not as good as actually meeting but it’s much better than a phone call or email,” he adds.
While a large part of the approach is around policies and setting expectations, there are some interventions that can be recommended to help create a more positive culture. Aston Lark Employee Benefits divisional director Samantha Mistry suggests investing in mental health first aid training. “This really helps to raise the profile of mental health and create an open-door policy,” she explains. “Employers want to make staff feel comfortable about talking to a line or HR manager about their mental health.”
There’s also plenty of support from insurers to remove stigmas around mental health. Mistry points at mental health training days and employee assistance programmes as examples. “Advisers and employers can work with the insurers to normalise mental health,” she adds. “Even the inclusion of additional benefits such as health helplines on insurance products helps to start the conversation.”
An organisation can also demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding employees’ mental health by signing up to external charters and pledges. Alberts recommends the Mindful Business Charter, which is a collaboration of firms looking to improve working practices, and the Time to Change employer pledge, which is led by Mind and Rethink Mental Illness and is supported by a 12-month action plan.
As awareness grows of the risks associated with these modern working practices, employers’ approach is likely to evolve further. Allan expects to see more employers using personality tests to determine which employees would flourish with particular types of work. “Employers will start to consider the psychological safety of work, with boards only signing off work that would be good for employees,” he adds. “Technology is creating challenges we’ve never seen before in the workplace. Employers need to be mindful of what they’re doing, to safeguard employees’ mental health and wellbeing and ensure these changes bring benefits.”
THE POSITIVES AND NEGATIVES OF REMOTE WORKING
Nuffield Health’s white paper on the effects of remote working found overall the practice is linked to positive wellbeing. It found remote working overall does not impact levels of stress or productivity, but there can be differences for individuals. For people with high rumination (overthinking or obsessing about situations or life events), then remote working may be bad for their wellbeing, whereas people high on openness may adapt well to remote working.
There must be agreement on key issues such as:
- The work to be done and whether it is suitable for remote working
- Agreed working hours (limiting stress and maintaining a work/life balance)
- The number of days doing remote working and being in the office. There is no obvious perfect ratio of remote working/ non-remote working. But there is some evidence that 2–2.5 days remote working a week provides a good balance for staff to work flexibly while also remaining connected to the physical workplace. Approximately 2.5 days away from the office may be advisable, particularly in the beginning
- The availability of desks, equipment and relevant team members in the office when the remote worker is present.
Trust between the manager and the employee is vital for remote working.
This can be a challenge for managers, who may prefer to see their employees in plain sight, and has been found to be a great barrier to achieving successful homeworking.
For remote working to succeed for both sides, there must be regular communication with the manager and wider team, with agreement as to when the employee can be contactable, face-to-face office meetings and arrangements for the manager or employee to call each other in an emergency.