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Supporting employees’ physical and mental health while working remotely

by maria
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By: Aliya Vigor-Robertson, co-founder, JourneyHR

Last year saw our working lives undergo a radical transformation, as the pandemic forced companies around the world to close their offices and millions started to work from home for the first time. And in a year of many ‘firsts’ – from social distancing to national lockdown and Zoom pub quizzes – it seems that working from home is the one that is most likely to stick.

A survey by YouGov showed that 57% of British workers want to be able to work from home after the pandemic, while the proportion of UK jobs advertised as ‘remote working’ has more than quadrupled over the past year.

Employer fear that productivity would dip if employees worked from home has proved unfounded, while employees have relished not having to endure the daily commute and the chance to enjoy a better work/life balance.

But while this rapid rise in remote working has many benefits, it can also have its downsides. Swapping the office environment for a home desk can lead to feelings of isolation and it can become much more difficult to set boundaries between home and work, particularly in a world where technology means we’re contactable around the clock.

As businesses navigate the permanent transition to hybrid or full-time homeworking, it’s important that they continue to support and look after the wellbeing of their employees. Healthy employees are not only happier but are more engaged and productive, which will reap dividends for businesses’ bottom line too.

Creating boundaries 

Mental health has become a pressing concern for employers in recent years and the effects of the pandemic have only worsened the situation. According to the Office for National Statistics, around one in five adults experienced some form of depression in early 2021 – more than double that observed before the pandemic.

The mass move to homeworking last year saw employees lose many of the boundaries between their professional and personal lives so it’s vital that both employers and employees make a concerted effort to bring these back.

This could be as simple as encouraging employees to set a start and finish time and putting in place a ‘no email’ rule for evenings and weekends to help people switch off. Employees could use the time before or after work to go for a walk, mimicking the old “commute” to the office and creating a clear line between work and personal time.

Managers should lead by example by taking regular breaks and communicating to their team the importance of a lunch hour to switch off. This will help employees to feel more comfortable taking time out in the day, which in turn will leave them feeling more energised and less at risk of burnout.

Regular communication

One of the biggest impacts on productivity can be a lack of focus and with many employees working from home alone, the normal sources of motivation and energy from the office are no longer available.

Employees should assess when in the day they have the most energy and make an effort to take on the most challenging tasks at those times. The old adage of “eat the frog” isn’t wrong; sometimes it’s better to do the hardest tasks first and get them out of the way. Breaking tasks down into smaller chunks can also help to overcome the initial reluctance.

It’s important that managers maintain regular contact with their teams to ensure they’re coping with their workload. Asking team members to share a weekly to-do list so that workloads can be monitored to prevent burnout and spread out among teams if needed will help employees feel less overwhelmed and more motivated.

Regular contact and one-to-ones are also critical to building an open culture that actively encourages employees to share their concerns, worries and stresses without judgement or stigma. It also helps to establish a broader support system which has never been so important, with mentor and buddy systems a great way to ensure employees have someone to turn to while working remotely.

For those employees feeling anxious or stressed businesses need to make sure external resources from mental health websites to employee assistant programmes are well signposted.

But it’s important that employers don’t rest on their laurels – taking care of employee mental wellbeing is an ongoing process and anonymous employee engagement surveys are a brilliant tool to help managers understand how they’re faring and what more can be done to support their employees.

Stay active 

Our physical health can have a big impact on our mental wellbeing, with research suggesting that people with low levels of fitness are more likely to suffer from anxiety and nearly twice as likely to experience depression. But with growing numbers of employees opting to work from home, the lack of daily commute and motivation from colleagues to get fit can make it harder to stay active.

Although many office perks such as subsidised gym membership and lunchtime yoga lessons may have vanished, this doesn’t mean businesses should ignore the need to help employees improve their physical wellbeing.

There are various online platforms that companies can use to provide employee benefits, such as yoga mats, pilates equipment, vitamin packs or virtual exercise classes and offering these for free or at a subsidised rate will encourage more employees to access them.

Introducing team physical challenges such as company step challenges or a charity run can also be a great way to get more people involved in physical activity and has the added bonus of boosting team spirit.

Employers should also encourage employees to use the time they would normally be commuting into the office to exercise and promote the physical and mental benefits of getting fit.

There’s little doubt that businesses have a lot to contend with as they navigate this permanent shift to remote working, but it’s absolutely vital that employee wellbeing is firmly at the top of the agenda.

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