Why homeworking shouldn’t be blamed for the COVID-19 mental health crisis

Workers are suffering from mounting stress and job burnout as COVID-19 continues, could the remote working model be the pandemic's next victim?

In 2020, businesses faced a workforce mental health crisis that cost them £1.3 billion in losses; with the pandemic continuing this year, employees’ collective mental health could get worse still. But is homeworking to blame, or working from home during a pandemic?

COVID-19 has caused a shift to remote working on a scale that’s never seen before, with one in four UK employees expected to work from home permanently. While some employees reported increased productivity and wellbeing when working from home last year, there was also a rise in mental health issues. A new report by health services company Westfield Health reveals just how serious it was.

Rising mental health issues

One in three workers involved in the study said mental health issues disrupted their work at least once a week while absences related to mental health increased by 10%, costing UK businesses £14 billion.

Employees also reported growing job-related anxiety (26%), low workplace morale (34%), and poor engagement (27%), while 76% said their productivity had stagnated or fallen.

The fact employees had their productivity frequently comprised, but continued to work, showed that presenteeism was also an issue for a number of workers. But why weren’t they taking time off?

Employees were nervous about losing their jobs in 2020 (22%). Considering the numbers placed on furlough (that resulted in a total of 9.9 million furloughed jobs last year), coupled with redundancies that rose to record highs, job security concerns could well have made employees reluctant to take time off.

Lack of support and boundaries

Another report found that employees felt their employers weren’t doing enough to facilitate their career development during the pandemic. The intelligence learning platform, HowNow, found the rate of promotions and training fell last year and led 35% of respondents to look for new jobs mostly due to work-related stress.

Another result of working at home during COVID-19 has been the development of an “always-on” culture where the boundaries between work and free time have become blurred, resulting in job burnout.

A study by Harvard that involved over three million people worldwide found that remote staff were more likely to work nearly an hour more per day while Eurofound, an EU agency, discovered they were “twice as likely as office-based workers to be exceeding the EU’s 48-hour working week.”

Unsurprisingly, this new work culture has been made worse by the use of technology, where employees feel compelled to check and respond to messages and emails outside of their contracted working hours.


A zeitgeist era for mental health?

Despite the ongoing issues, businesses seem to be doing more to break the mental health taboo, where 81% of businesses surveyed by Westfield Health said COVID-19 has made them focus more on mental health.

This commitment has also translated into spending for a number of employers, which was up 34% in 2020 from the year before. Businesses are also more likely to commit to long-term investment in wellbeing support for their staff, with 56% saying they will increase their budget over the next five years.

The Westfield Health report also heard from businesses that have already invested in wellbeing programmes where 78% reported high employee engagement, a 36% increase compared to those without a programme.

Dave Capper, CEO of Westfield Health, said: “As we know, COVID-19 is having a huge impact on employees’ mental health, the scars from which may not be visible, let alone heal, for many years and have arguably changed our connection to work and colleagues permanently.

“The findings from our research paint a worrying picture for workplace productivity, with the economic impact of mental health clearly deepening. However, the way businesses are responding to this challenge gives us hope, as when we come out the other side of this pandemic, there will be a long-term commitment to support employees’ mental and physical wellbeing. This has seen an increased openness to address a once-taboo topic as the link between mental health and wellbeing and business recovery becomes clearer.”

Moving into 2021

Poor employee mental health can cost a business and an individual a lot during the pandemic. The benefits of remote working, such as staff wellbeing and productivity, can be jeopardised if employers fail to uphold the same demarcations of work versus free time as they would, or should do, in an office environment.

Employers must also invest in their employees, whether that’s skills-building or even considering promotions and/or pay rises if appropriate and financially possible for the business.

Introducing wellbeing programmes whether that’s counselling, online meditation sessions, or allowing staff to take a mental health day will only improve the experience of those working remotely through the pandemic, and even after it ends – the statistics don’t lie.

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