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How would a post-Coronavirus revolution on working from home affect our mental health?

To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, ABI Policy Adviser, Health and Protection, Jo Scott, has written on how the rumoured post-Coronavirus revolution on working from home may affect our mental health, as we all adapt to new ways of working.

In the blog, Jo explores the importance of mental and physical wellbeing for people, but also for employers, productivity and the economy as a whole and highlights the vital role of many of the support services available through health and protection insurance policies.

There are many things in our lives which we cannot predict or control. We are all, to varying degrees, comfortable with this concept. Lockdown has brought with it an – excuse the hackneyed phrase – unprecedented level of uncertainty to our daily lives.

To what extent does uncertainty around what our new “normal” looks like at home and in our working lives impact our mental health? Uncertainty can be exciting and unpredictable, but it is hard to avoid feeling some unease towards what the future holds. Even for those who are lucky enough to have a secure job which works well remotely (save for a few technical glitches here and there), there is a degree of ambiguity of what our working environments will look like in the near future. With rumours of plans to permanently downsize offices to move to an indefinite “work from home” set-up circulating, it is hard to go a week without reading that this signals the end of the office as we know it.

There has been a gradual shift towards this for years, with many companies moving to offices outside city centres or to smaller premises and encouraging staff to work remotely where possible. The impact of coronavirus could be accelerating the inevitable, especially in larger cities where office space can be incredibly expensive, but where there are savings in overheads, there could be costs to employee wellbeing.

Firms should not underestimate the impact that changes to how or where people work can have on their mental health. Many people crave the human interaction, motivation and sense of community that offices provide. Drastic changes to working patterns can feel novel at the beginning, but in the long term it can be stressful and have serious ramifications on people’s motivation and mental health. If this really is the dawn of a new working age, how employers help support the mental and physical wellbeing of their workforces will become increasingly important. This is crucial for employee wellbeing, but also for productivity levels.

It is not news that having a mentally and physically healthy workforce is an essential element for a happy and productive workforce. There are countless figures quoting the financial cost of ill health on the UK – Vitality’s Britain’s Healthiest Workplace Study for 2018 estimated the combined cost of presenteeism and absenteeism reached £81 billion. It is fair to assume that this figure will increase given the current circumstances and working patterns will play an increasingly important a role. Susanna Abse, consultant psychoanalytic psychotherapist and Chair of The British Psychoanalytic Council, states that evidence shows that workplace stress significantly exacerbates mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. COVID-19 has put further pressure on all of us with unexpected changes and new challenges.” 

She also reflected that not everyone’s experience of working from home is positive, so access to the appropriate professional support as well as opportunity to socialise with colleagues is crucial. Abse noted that “it is very important that employees have access to appropriate therapeutic help delivered by trained and accredited psychotherapists and counsellors. Employees may be too anxious to be productive or even to come to work, or they may be facing serious family challenge at this point. Many employees will find working from home rewarding, but others will greatly miss the contact with colleagues and the support this offers; employers should be mindful to provide online opportunities for teams and individuals which build a sense of community and collaboration.” Access to professional mental health support services, like counselling, can offer this vital support. These services are often accessible through health and protection insurance policies, so if people are struggling to find appropriate support during lockdown they should check with their employer or insurer to access these services remotely.

Organisations which have already invested in the health and wellbeing of their workforces (such as through training mental health first aiders, or promoting services employees can access through insurance policies, like Employee Assistance Programmes or virtual GPs) have shown the value that these services can offer. One critical part of this is the type culture it fosters. Katie Alpin, Interim Chief Executive of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute noted that “in the current crisis, millions of people will be feeling the strain on their mental health and finances. Employers can help ease that pressure by creating a culture of support, helping to build financial resilience and making sure people can afford to take time off when they’re struggling with their mental health.”

Alpin added that “simple measures such as giving staff more flexibility over their working hours and practices could help, as will offering signposting to sources of support with their mental health. Employers should also consider how they can make contractual sick pay more flexible, to encourage staff to take preventative part-time sick leave if they need it, as well as phased returns to work.” Firms which take open approaches like this will not only help support existing employees now but also attract new talent in the job market, post-Coronavirus. The Social Market Foundation is conducting research commissioned by the ABI on ‘work, health and insurance’ which has found that flexibility and support from employers will become a key recruitment and retention factor for people.

Lockdown has shown us that it is possible to work outside the normal nine-to-five structure and tailor what works in terms of a work/life balance, albeit in pretty limited circumstances. Only time will tell whether the Coronavirus will signal the end of the office entirely. However, companies which demonstrated an investment in their employees’ wellbeing through offering flexibility and choice in a crisis will likely come up trumps in the long term.

Last updated 21/05/2020