Briefing: Stress – supporting employees through hybrid working
For many people across the UK, working patterns changed abruptly when the Government announced a nationwide lockdown last year. A sudden rise in remote work, self-isolation and health-related anxiety created a general sense of unease for many people and exacerbated existing mental health issues for many more. Ahead of Stress Awareness week (1-5 November), this briefing takes a look at the issues.
According to Instant Offices, a YouGov survey highlighted how the outbreak has impacted the UK’s overall mood, with 41% of Brits feeling stressed and 38% feeling frustrated.
It is estimated that 828,000 workers in the UK struggle with work-related stress, anxiety or depression. From 2019 to 2020, 17.9 million working days were lost due to these work-related mental health issues. With the whole world facing unprecedented challenges around COVID-19, now is an ideal time for businesses to place a sharper focus on talking about stress.
Says stress awareness expert Adele Stickland:
“As most organisations will continue with some form of hybrid working the question is how can your business reduce the stress impact of this new way of working? How can your business reduce the stress associated with ‘distance’ working, combatting loneliness and driving creativity in a hybrid, remote-working situation so that your teams remain connected and visionary?”
The pros and cons of hybrid working
There are numerous advantages for employees in working remotely, either full-time or part-time, for example:
- Less commuting.
- More freedom around when they can work and where they can work from.
- Work can be fit around employees’ schedules.
- Time is better used.
- Stronger focus on tasks without noise from the traditional office.
- Productive times of their day can be chosen to be creative.
However, whilst productivity may have gone up, many employees report feeling anxious and burned out. Instant Offices data highlights that the top five struggles for remote workers are currently:
- Not being able to unplug: 27%
- Difficulties with communication: 16%
- Loneliness: 16%
- Distractions at home: 15%
- Staying motivated: 12%
Work in Mind concur, stating that:
“While many extoll the virtues of flexibility and cutting out the commute, research also suggests the realities of ‘always on’ digital working, combined with physical isolation from colleagues, can increase stress.”
One survey by Microsoft and the CIPD revealed how working from home equates to insurmountable workloads and longer working hours for many UK workers. Many employees say they are being stretched further than before, with one in three (30%) reporting working longer hours and more than half (53%) saying they felt they had to be available at all times. Many find it difficult to create a degree of separation between work time and personal time, stating it felt impossible to switch off or take breaks.
Guidance for employees
It is now quicker than ever to check into ‘work mode’ by simply logging into a computer. This makes it even more important for employees to set boundaries in order to maintain a good work–life balance.
The following guidance from employment consultancy QCC can be helpful for employees in achieving this:
- Try to stick to your typical working hours. When you log off for the day, either shut the door to your ‘office’ or put your laptop out of sight to avoid temptations to check emails or ‘just quickly finish something off’.
- Turn email notifications off on your personal phone. When you’re facetiming friends or family and the notification bar drops down at the top of the screen with a work email, it’s too tempting to just open it and alas – you’re back into work mode.
- Use your annual leave! Many of us have fallen victim to saving all of our leave in case there is the opportunity for travel – but you still need a break. It’s important to use your leave for exactly that – leave. A relatively new term has been coined ‘leavism’ where employees use their leave to work, which totally misses the point.
- Finally, avoid presenteeism. The CIPD has found that the number of sick days recorded by employers has dropped – but presenteeism (where employees feel the need to work when unwell) is now widespread.
“A recent article in the Guardian talked about the 8-8-8 notion: eight hours of work, eight hours of free time and eight hours of sleep. Whilst this may not work for all professions all the time, it’s a good guide to bear in mind when you’re trying to set boundaries.
“It is important for organisations to be mindful that employees may be struggling to set boundaries between their work and personal lives. We recommend line managers having open conversations with their reports in order to guide boundary setting. Senior management should also be open about how they manage their boundaries between work and home in order to set an example for the rest of the organisation.”
What can your business do to reduce stress of hybrid working?
There are also steps employers can take to avoid hybrid stress. Stickland recommends:
- Agenda-free time
One approach is to leave a part of the meeting agenda-free, as a time for employees to discuss any topic.
- Allow employees to feel heard
Employees feel they’ve yet to hear enough about their employer’s plans for post-COVID-19 working arrangements. Organisations may have announced a general intent to embrace hybrid virtual work going forward, but too few of them, employees say, have shared detailed guidelines, policies, expectations, and approaches. And the lack of remote-relevant specifics is leaving employees anxious.
- Open communication
Even high-level communication about post-COVID-19 working arrangements boosts employee wellbeing and productivity. But organisations that convey more detailed, remote-relevant policies and approaches see greater increases.
- Feel included
Employees who feel included in more detailed communication are nearly five times more likely to report increased productivity. Because communicating about the future can drive performance outcomes today, leaders should consider increasing the frequency of their employee updates – both to share what’s already decided and to communicate what is still uncertain.
There are also different management techniques that employers can use to change the organisation’s overall approach towards mental health. Instant Offices suggests:
- Break the culture of silence
There is still a stigma around mental illness that makes employees more likely to suffer in silence than share information with their managers or bosses.
Now is an ideal time for leaders within businesses to talk more openly about mental health and create a culture that encourages conversations around these issues. Taking a mental health day or asking for support should never impact an employee’s reputation or how they are perceived.
- Lead by example
With many employees working remotely, managers need to be more conscious of the challenges different households face. Encouraging flexibility, self-care and regular check-ins is key to reducing presenteeism and stress and ensuring employees facing any issues can be identified and supported. Encourage transparent conversations and put action plans in place for team members who need help.
- Introduce (or keep up) team activity and training sessions
With employees using tools like Zoom to connect with the office remotely, now is a great time for businesses to encourage morning catch-ups, remote Friday drinks, yoga sessions or even company training sessions. Encourage team members to take a class they’ve always wanted to try or to attend industry-related webinars. This is a great way to support employees looking to upskill themselves and stay busy.
Recognising the signs
Finally, now more than ever it’s important for employers to consider how they can monitor employees’ mental health while adopting a hybrid method of working. The separation of employers and employees could make it difficult for employers to recognise the signs of stress and for employees to get proper support.
Keeping in touch with employees is vital. Employers should put procedures in place to keep in direct contact with homeworkers and have a greater chance of recognising the signs of stress as early as possible. It is also important to have an emergency point of contact and to share this so people know how to get help if they need it.