By Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health
UK small businesses have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. The general uncertainty caused by COVID-19 will have had a huge impact emotionally, physically and mentally.
As the remote working trend looks set to continue even as restrictions ease, it is important businesses are able to support employees in maintaining and improving their physical and mental health while away from the office.
The health impact of remote working
While Nuffield Health research found up to two days working from home per week leads to positive employee emotional wellbeing, there are some downsides to long-term remote working where mental and physical health are concerned.
One benefit of communal office space is the dopamine spike we get from social interaction – it makes us feel happy, improves attention and motivation and plays an important role in our mental wellbeing.
Loneliness has negative physical and emotional effects and the impact of loneliness for anyone who feels disconnected from the people around them can be profound. The effect on mortality is comparable to the impact of well-known risk factors such as obesity and has a similar influence as cigarette smoking.
Researchers have also claimed the psychological impact of physical distancing is like the effects of large disasters on human beings, with its trauma leading to depression, PTSD, substance use disorder and other mental and behavioural disorders.
Remote working could also cause thousands of workers physical discomfort. Working from home and reduced activity levels can have a serious deconditioning effect on millions of people. In fact, a recent study revealed four in five who began working remotely in lockdown developed some form of musculoskeletal pain.
What steps can business owners take to improve physical and mental health?
Whether you do or do not already have emotional wellbeing services, it is important for all businesses to see which options are available that could make a real difference to their workforce.
The main practical step is to ensure a workplace culture where employees see a conversation about mental health as both welcomed and expected. A culture where it is ‘OK not to be OK’ and there is a wide range of sources of support provided.
While working remotely, online mental health awareness training encourages these conversations. It allows employees to work through modules at their own pace and gives them the confidence to talk about mental health and support others in need. This is particularly helpful while employees are physically distanced, as some may be less likely to openly speak about their feelings over the phone or online.
Other sources of support include treatments such as cognitive behaviour therapy, which can be delivered safely and effectively by phone, video or email for flexibility and privacy. Other types of therapy, which are also safe, effective, and accessible remotely, include counselling (e.g., relationship, bereavement), interpersonal therapy, and access to psychiatric assessments.
It is also essential to ensure musculoskeletal health is protected while many employees continue to work from home. However, research shows more than half of employees receive no employer guidance on how to set up a workstation that supports healthy posture, despite employer’s having a legal obligation to look after the health of long-term desk workers.
Employers should issue and check Display Screen Equipment assessments are completed and if possible, provide access to face to face and remote physiotherapy services to help both prevent and treat musculoskeletal issues.
Personalised health assessments also allow businesses to tailor interventions to the individual needs of their team. For example, Nuffield Health’s online digital platform, PATH, uses several evidence-based mathematical algorithms to determine a person’s risk factors and generates a completely tailored assessment for them.
These assessments can be completed remotely – to suit those working from home – ensuring individuals can track their physical and mental health needs during these difficult times.