In April 2020, the UK was several weeks into living through a unique situation in the UK. Businesses furloughed staff, sent their office staff home to work or pivoted quickly to try entirely new ways of working.
As well as a whole new lexicon: ‘social distancing’, ‘shielding’, ‘furlough’ questions arose about the need to protect our mental wellbeing from the impact of the dramatic changes brought on by COVID-19.
Thinking back, when the situation was unfolding, what lessons were we learning?
The impact of COVID-19 on businesses, managers and employees was widely felt and no sector or place of work was immune. For those of us with children, there was another stress in the mix as the expectation for education shifted from school to parents. And in a flash, small children and teenagers were part of their parents’ work like never before.
Even self employed workers and sole traders who may have had a home office set-up in place had to embrace new routines and ways to communicate. Gone were coffee shop laptop nomads and networking lunches, which provided much-needed contact with life beyond four walls. And in came Zoom calls, shaky desk set-ups…relaxed dress codes and contact that may be constant.
So, yes, this was a unique situation. And no matter what the specific role you or a member of your staff played, if you were working from home during Lockdown One as it is now know, there were two types of employees: those who were normally home based and those whose usual place of work was outside of the home.
So, how did we adjust? First, businesses made sure that employees had the right tools! Laptops were set-up, home networks / cloud software was checked and face-to-face Zoom calls were scheduled. Colleagues joked about lie-ins and the morning news encouraged a commuting workforce to make use of this spare time… learn another language, commit to daily yoga….
For those not used to WFH this was almost exciting – especially for employees who secretly coveted a WFH job. But novelty quickly wore off and three weeks in we were reading about Zoom fatigue, blurred boundaries… and the harsh reality of what happens when work and home lives collide.
Across the UK, we searched for ‘COVID and mental health’, or ‘why am I so stressed all the time’ and ‘MHFA support at work’ while we grabbed our morning coffee.
The collective strain on mental wellbeing was building, but did employers take their responsibilities to the mental wellbeing of their migrated workforce as much as they did when people were all in one place?
During this time I spent many afternoons mentoring an HR manager who was concerned that he could not physically see the impact of COVID related stress and increased productivity expectation because his team were all working remotely. And he raised a good point: in the workplace drop-in ‘chat’ sessions and wellbeing awareness days are easy… but lovely as Zoom wellbeing check-in calls are, how do you tell if the employee quiet on a call is disengaged or anxious, or simply having a bandwidth (or toddler in the background!) issue?
And as high as the demands were to home school and keep children in routine, a lunchtime spent with algebra or wrestling the school homework app was not the kind of time out that you needed while WFH. And for many of us who struggled to parent and work through two lockdowns and other periods of lockdown and imposed isolation, the impact is still felt.
So today, my lasting message is the same as it was in Spring 2020: it is really important that employees are able to talk openly and honestly with employers. And of course it’s equally important that organisations hear these voices and have strong, robust wellbeing pillars supporting their business strategy and corporate culture.
Mental wellbeing at work is not a new thing and it needs to sit higher up the corporate agenda more now than than ever before.