Follow us
Donate
Login
Become a member

To preserve the mental health of workers, information and guidance are key

Responding to COVID-19: Interview Series

MHE aims to provide helpful information to as many people as possible on how communities, including experts by experience, service providers, mental health leaders, governments and policy makers, researchers and others, can support people efficiently through the current crisis and beyond.

 

In this interview series with MHE members and partners, we discuss the impact of the pandemic on their lives and work and which measures they are taking or can be taken to cope with the situation. These testimonies underline the importance of putting mental health higher on the European agenda, during the crisis and afterwards, while offering a personal side and shared expertise for people within the mental health sector, decision makers, and anyone interested in improving mental health for all.

Interview with Stephen Bevan, head of HR research development at Institute for Employment Studies about the challenges and needs of homeworkers, the type of support to provide and what could be learned from these circumstances.

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many people to work from home. Home settings are not always ideal: from those who live on their own and might experience isolation, to those who share their house with others (like flatmates or their family). How can people best adapt to enforced or unplanned homeworking?

A survey we did to look at the experience of homeworkers in the first weeks of the lockdown points to four challenges:

  1. Sleep;
  2. Mental health and feeling of isolation;
  3. Physical health, particularly in relation to musculoskeletal health (e.g. neck and back problems);
  4. Exercise, diet and alcohol.

There are four things that homeworkers can do to make things better and to thrive at work:

  1. Stay connected with colleagues as well as friends and families. It is important not to forget external connections;
  2. Develop a routine that has boundaries between the different parts of working and private life, particularly for workers with caring responsibilities;
  3. Create a working environment that is physically comfortable for them to avoid strain;
  4. Try to move if you can, exercise, eat healthily, get some sunshine: these are basic activities, but it is important not to neglect them.

Stay connected with colleagues as well as friends and families. It is important not to forget external connections.

How does the idea of “right to disconnect” fit into this new way of working?

There is a lot of debate about this topic and there have been various attempts across Europe to legislate on the right of workers to disconnect. I had a look at how successful these attempts have been and there is not much evidence, even before the COVID-19 outbreak, to suggest that the right to disconnect works or is enforceable, particularly through regulations.

 

What we know from the research is that workers want control and want to feel trusted to work when they want to work. It is the discretion and control that makes most difference.

 

The objective of the right to disconnect is well-meaning and a more voluntary approach seems to be the one that works best. Germany, for instance, has a more laissez-faire approach: individual employers are setting rules in collaboration with their employees.

Workers want control and want to feel trusted to work when they want to work. It is the discretion and control that makes most difference.

Managers also play an important role to provide employees with the support they need to work from home. What could managers do in these circumstances? And what type of managerial styles could work better?

Managers are in the middle: they are in between the employees and the managers above them, so it is important to pay attention of the mental health of managers as well since this is a difficult time for them too.

 

When they are managing people, they need to be clear about what they are expecting of people and they need to be more empathetic and compassionate. They also need to be more flexible in recognising that people have different needs and caring responsibilities and might not be able to be as productive for the whole week as they were previously.

 

Our survey also shows that regular, supportive communication between managers and staff can positively impact the mental health of workers. Conversely, if people feel that their managers are ignoring or abandoning them, this can start a slow decline into depression or anxiety.

 

In term of managerial styles, some managers think that a random act of kindness towards their staff is an act of weakness. We are living in times where we cannot have this sort of attitude: we need managers to be very sensitive, particularly because homeworking does not allow to detect signals of distress through body language. Managers need to be ultra-sensitive and observant to changes in mood and the mental health of their employees.

Supportive communication between managers and staff can positively impact the mental health of workers.

What practices should be set in place by organisations and workplaces in general? How can organisational structures enable managers to fulfil their support role to staff?

Our work indicates that the following organisational practices could provide better support to workers:

  • Discussing and agreeing on performance measures and targets, both for individuals and teams;
  • Being clear about work schedules, particularly for workers with caring responsibilities that might not be available to work for certain times of the day, as well as informing colleagues of what works for you and how to fit around the schedule;
  • Recognising the value and supportive nature of teams, particularly in taking decisions, to build resilience and support people in coping with times of uncertainty.

Given the challenges we are facing, actions cannot only come from workers and their employers. What should governments do to provide support to both workers and businesses? What kind of policies are more conducive to mentally health workplaces when homework is required?

This is obviously a difficult time for governments. In this particular situation, to preserve the mental health of workers, regulation is not something that needs to happen. The role of policy makers should be more to provide information and guidance.

 

One of the areas in which there is a regulatory gap is the implementation of health and safety legislation in home settings. Employer retains a legal duty of care of the health of their workers, even when they work from home. Governments could provide guidance on how to conduct risk assessments of people’s physical and mental health when homeworking. They could also help employers connect with each other to share good practice and introduce incentives for employers to use support interventions such as Employee Assistance Programmes.

To preserve the mental health of workers, regulation is not something that needs to happen. The role of policy makers should be more to provide information and guidance.

These exceptional circumstances are forcing everyone to take quick actions and find creative solutions. Once lockdown measures will start to loosen up, what will be the lessons learned and lockdown practices/habits that might be worthwhile keeping as beneficial to the general work environment?

There are two things that will be interesting and beneficial:

  1. Some employers will start to rethink the assumptions they have traditionally made about what type of work can be done at home and whether different types of flexible working are feasible. We can consider these times as a live experiment which may demonstrate to many employers that their prejudices about flexible working may be wrong and that people, particularly when trusted, want some types of flexible arrangement and can make them work without reducing productivity.
  2. The debate about compressed hours working and the four-day working week: for health, commuting and environmental reasons, we will see more interest in how to make the four-day working week work well in certain types of organisations.

These times are a live experiment demonstrating to many employers that their prejudices about flexible working may be wrong.

Related

COVID-19 Pandemic and Mental Health

See MHE's information hub which collects advice and resources on how communities can provide efficient mental health support through the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.

FIND OUT MORE

We’re focusing on one goal – to provide services to the people

Read an interview with Paul Bomke, member of MHE’s Board and director of Pfalzklinikum, a service provider of mental health care in the Palatinate region, Germany.

READ MORE