Here’s a story about Nicholas Bloom.
For those of you who don’t know, Nicholas Bloom is a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research.
Nicholas Bloom is, like most of the rest of us for the foreseeable future, working from home on what we can only imagine to be complex economics-based work that requires deep thought and Zen-like levels of concentration.
But all is not well in the Bloom household. He has a 4-year old daughter who comes into his office every half an hour asking him when he’s coming outside to play and his two older children, thanks to gifts from their maternal Scottish grandparents, are teaching themselves the bagpipes.
It’s fair to say that for Nicholas Bloom, working from home isn’t great. The irony here of course is that in 2015, he published a report that found that Chinese call-centre employees who worked from home were 13% more productive than employees in a control group, because they took fewer breaks and made more calls per minute. They were also happier and were less likely to quit their job.
Which got us thinking…
How Can We Stay Well And Working During Lockdown?
A small percentage of us will get it, but 100% of us are psychologically affected by it.
Jonathan Mount, Counselling Psychologist
In moving out of the office and into kitchens, spare bedrooms and dining room tables, plenty of us have been relieved to give up the monotony of the daily commute and to be allowed to work at our own pace while others are finding it very stressful. Being away from the familiarity of the office environment at a time when staff are being furloughed and companies are making wholesale cuts is something that very few of us have ever had to deal with and we’re finding it hard.
Richard Chaifetz, CEO of Chicago-based ComPsych, a business that provides employee assistance to companies big and small around the world says that ‘Even someone who is relatively healthy mental health-wise is going to feel the effects of an abrupt change of their lifestyle.’ Irritable sleep, unusual mood swings and dysphoria (a general feeling of unease) are all common problems, as are not being able to go out and see family and friends. Perhaps the worst of all for many, fear of the unknown and a fear of becoming unemployed (along the associated trauma of worrying about mortgage payments).
Nicholas Bloom who has, as you know, researched the impact of homeworking on productivity is equally maudlin. ‘Forcing everybody home, often around kids, in shared rooms or bedrooms and no escape socially in non-work time will be generating major mental stress. This typically leads to loneliness and depression which is mentally costly and often leads to physical health declines too.’
According to a survey of 500 home workers by the Institute of Employment Studies, the stats bear out this new feeling of isolation:
- One in five admitted to increased alcohol consumption
- A third say they are eating less healthily
- 60% are doing less exercise
- 64% report problems sleeping due to anxiety
- Just under half are working longer and more irregular hours
- 33% feel lonely
So What’s Being Done?
This is an interesting one. Perhaps the first question we need to ask is ‘whose responsibility is it to keep us well and working during lockdown?
Back here in the UK, Bupa report that the appointment books for workplace psychologists are full to bursting for virtual consultations and their health and wellbeing advice line is taking 300% more calls since lockdown. This is a good sign. This says to us that people aren’t simply brushing their mental health issues under the carpet to be dealt with later.
Kate Dodd, an employment lawyer who advises law firms on diversity and inclusion suggests that this is a ‘culture shift’.
‘Who’d have thought a law firm would be having guided meditation sessions [to help] people to distinguish work from home. We’re learning as we go on. In week one, we were advising that people turn on their cameras in meetings and then realised some people find it quite overwhelming [and] were struggling with this.’
Companies have set up online happy hours, quizzes and talent competitions to keep the troops entertained. Goldman Sachs have started to offer cooking classes, virtual prayer sessions and story time for kids on Zoom and law firm Linklaters launched virtual choir workshops and have virtualised some of their existing mental health resources including on-site psychologists. Some departments at Linklaters have set up weekly calls for working parents to share tips and ideas on how to combine working with home schooling, keeping the kids occupied and the challenges they face as parents and carers.
Lloyds Banking Group have had 8,000 employees sign up to their Your Resilience tool where they can access new Covid-19-related articles, podcasts, webinars and animations.
However – and this is a neon Hollywood sign-sized – according to a very interesting research study by global consulting firm Mercer of around 2,700 people, 43% of respondents thought their company had addressed the issue of psychological stress but only 16% of employers had surveyed their staff to understand what their employees are thinking and feeling.
As you know we like a statistic so here are some more, and they may come as a bit of a surprise (and not in the good way)…
- 29.6% captured informal information to better understand their employees’ state of mind
- 66% provided employees with a ‘work from home’ playbook of best practices known to be effective
- 42.7% distributed a series of checklists and FAQs regarding their approach to health and wellbeing
- 24.7% Established virtual wellness moments for remote workers, supporting tea breaks, yoga moments and more, based on employee needs
You can’t read a single coronavirus-related article without the mention of mental health issues but yet it seems like businesses are still just paying lip service to their employees.
Lawyer-cum-counselling psychologist Jonathan Moult suggests that ‘the inescapable reality is that sometimes the demands of jobs are so considerable that they don’t match wellbeing. Prior to coronavirus, mental health was seen as someone else’s responsibility, part of diversity and inclusion. but now it applies across the board.’
Poppy Jaman, chief executive of City Mental Health Alliance also understands how hard managers are finding dealing with the concerns of remote workers. They are struggling ‘to recognise stress when not seeing people face to face’. Key, she says, is being attuned to behaviour changing and asking people how they are repeatedly, including through one-to-one chats.
As we move through month three, we were struck by a message from the Canadian Government to their federal employees that said, ‘you are not working from home, you are at your home, during a crisis, trying to work.’
It’s Time For Businesses To Step Up
You’ll have read statements like these in your corporate handbook or in job adverts or plastered all over the walls of the breakout space in the office –
Employees are offered a safe and healthy workplace and the company will provide everything you need to make that happen.
We treat every employee with the respect they deserve.
We have a programme of health and wellbeing that all employees can sign up to.
So now, more than ever, it’s time to practice what you preach and here are four ways in which businesses can step up and keep their employees – lest we forget they are a business’s most valuable asset – well and working during lockdown.
Be More Flexible Working from home affects everyone differently and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to employees’ wellbeing. Employer flexibility must match the needs of every specific employee. Not the other way round.
Every line manager (and this should be a directive from the top, not elective) should be in regular contact with each employee discussing how and when work can be accomplished and at the same time offering a range of options for flexibility including timetables for delivery or adjusting working hours.
Encourage Social Time (Or Even Host It). Especially for employees who have never worked from home, social isolation can be especially hard. Especially if, like many, the office is the only place where friends are and social interactions take place.
There’s plenty of research that suggests that reciprocal, supportive interactions with colleagues is inextricably linked to employee wellbeing so organise virtual coffee breaks where you can shoot the breeze about last night’s telly or the weather or when McDonald’s drive-thrus will open again (this week in the UK, apparently!)
How about organising a virtual, interdepartmental pub quiz on a Friday afternoon before the weekend starts? By getting people together, it makes them feel like a team – and it’s lots of fun!
Train For Online Collaboration Working together on projects when you’re in the office is easy, doing it when everyone feels so separated is another thing entirely.
Much of the issue is down to how people like to communicate. For some a phone call is the best way. For others, it’s email. For others still it’s Slack or Zoom or WhatsApp. To address the disparate nature of our preferred methods of communication, companies can offer online sessions on the best ways to work online.
During these sessions, leaders can establish ground rules for the use of collaborative technology and build awareness of individual and cultural differences in communication, including preferences for email, phone calls and conference calls, so says Paula Caliguiri, Distinguished Professor of International Business and Strategy at Northeastern University and Helen de Cieri, Professor of Management at Monsah University, both in the USA writing in an article on theconversation.com.
Foster Positive Coping On one level or another, we’re all finding it harder to cope. Our fear and stress levels are increasing and people are turning to negative methods to try and cope including the increased use of alcohol and crappy foods.
It’s true to say that businesses these days are offering gym memberships, more physical activity and out-of-hours social activity but with those options off the table for now, they’re having to look for new ways to direct their efforts. As you read earlier, companies like Goldman Sachs and Linklaters are doing their bit but it’s not just the big boys with deep pockets who can steer their staff through this.
The online world is your only friend so use it. Offer mindfulness workshops, look for employee assistance programs, even suggest everyone takes a break and goes for a walk. There’s a whole world of resources available to you.
In the office it’s easy to throw a protective cloak over your staff but now they’re all at home, don’t think for a second it becomes someone else’s problem. It’s still up to you, even more so than ever.
We forgot to answer the question we asked earlier – whose responsibility is it to keep us well and working during lockdown?
The answer: Yours. It’s always been yours.
To help with this responsibility, we have developed bespoke programmes that are already rolling out with our corporate clients to ensure that you as a leader, your team and your organisation are ‘match ready’ for the new normal – whatever that may mean. The programme is interactive, simple and designed to get you and your team/s working in an even more productive and cohesive way. It helps you to stop, reflect and focus on the things that will improve and support those who are returning to work.
For more information on this, leadership programmes or 1:1 exec coaching, contact me, Jules Peck at firstname.lastname@example.org or +44 7931 325 642