In the UK, an ACAS-commissioned YouGov survey conducted during the COVID-19 lockdown found that nearly two out of five employees who have been working from home said they felt stressed, anxious or had experienced mental health difficulties due to their working situation. The research also found that one in two people said working from home made them feel isolated, while a further seven in ten said they felt they were missing out on social interactions with others at work, a daily interaction that we all had come to take for granted.
Social creatures forced to be antisocial
During the COVID-19 emergency, millions of people around the world were asked to work from home, including around 90% of IT workers in India. It was something that many office workers had never had to do before, and it had to happen rapidly, almost overnight in some cases. What it meant was that employers did not have the time to train and prepare employees as they usually would before they began to work from home.
What effect this isolation will have on ordinarily social workers is yet to be seen. “The impact of the pandemic on people’s mental health is already extremely concerning,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “It is now crystal clear that mental health needs must be treated as a core element of our response to and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.”
There is already some evidence of this in India. Within a week of the start of the nationwide lockdown, the number of reported cases of mental illness had grown by 20%, according to research by the Indian Psychiatry Society. Counseling firms in India have reported a 35% to 40% increase in cases of stress and panic attacks in April versus previous months.
Supporting workers helps your company
I believe that companies should integrate employees’ mental well-being into business continuity planning: it helps them, it helps you and it helps your company to remain resilient during a testing time. A successful business continuity plan should balance business needs with people needs, and particularly now, it must reassure employees they are safe and healthy while fulfilling their work. Research has shown that the impact of stress, anxiety and mental illness on productivity could amount to $16.3 trillion in economic losses by 2030.
Findings from the 2020 Global Medical Trends Survey show that Asia Pacific insurance providers believe mental and behavioral conditions will be in the top three most common and most expensive workplace conditions over the next five years. Companies should not neglect employees’ mental well-being, and if you can help them stay mentally resilient during a crisis period, you will reap the benefits. Workers will be in a better condition to bounce back faster when you return to some degree of business as usual. Orange talks about this in a new ebook, which describes how to lead your organization through change and how keeping your workers connected does them good and your organization, too.
How employers can help employees
As a business leader at a time like this, I believe it is important to appreciate just how dramatically workers’ lives have just changed. Digital technology can be a lifeline for workers and not just an aid to productivity and presence. Being able to work helps people develop a sense of routine and connectedness, both of which can have a positive effect on their mental health. There are things you can encourage your workers to do that will help with stress and mental well-being, and you can do them proactively:
1. Tell people not to be afraid to ask for help from IT departments or colleagues. Digital tools and working from home might be new and a little intimidating, so no question is too obvious.
2. Urge employees to try to use video calls whenever they can. There's no substitute for seeing a colleague’s face. If bandwidth doesn’t support videoconferencing, consider using OTT apps like WhatsApp video for basic video calls with close colleagues.
3. Routine helps. Help workers set up a place to work remotely that is as free of distractions as possible. Also help them to try to stick to a relatively standard working schedule with regular breaks, including a lunch break, and aim to finish work at an appropriate time.
4. Retain a structured mindset. Encourage your workers to not work in their pajamas all day! You might be amazed at how many people do. “Getting dressed for work” is another positive mental exercise and delineates between work and home life.
Things you should remember
Similarly, there are things that employers should do, too, that can help employees manage the situation better and avoid unnecessary stress and impact on their mental health.
1. Use reputable sources to share information. Gossip and inaccurate information about the virus and overall situation can be extremely stressful, so encourage your employees not to share too much information about the COVID-19 virus. And only share information from official and reputable sources. Speculation can be nerve-wracking.
2. Talk to your people. Regular, daily contact with employees is essential, and try to keep it light and enjoyable. Invite workers to have informal conversations like they would normally have around the water cooler – they are important.
3. Promote support. If your organization usually offers employee support services provided by HR in the workplace, you should promote those more than ever now. So advertise them to your workers and make sure they know who they would need to contact and talk to internally.
4. Growth and development. Employees working from home need opportunities for growth and development. It can encourage in them a sense of normality and give them an alternative mental focus. It can be good for workers to be connected to volunteering opportunities, community support schemes and local food banks, for example. These, too, can help foster mental well-being and alleviate stress.
I believe that this is a watershed moment for employers. We are working our way through an emergency, but it does at the same time offer opportunities to learn and to improve how we do business and manage our people. Workers’ mental well-being is one such area. Times of uncertainty take their toll on workers’ mental health, and employers can play a vital role and be a source of trust and comfort for employees during a crisis and help them to bounce back in the long term.
To read more about how Orange can help your organization remain resilient, keep workers connected and mitigate the risks of disruption during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond, read our ebook: Be resilient at all times – 5 strategies forward.