The emotional impact of physical distancing in the workplace

Sudies show that physical distancing is having a toll on employee wellbeing, and so Brendan Street details what employers can do to help.

Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health, discusses the emotional impact of physical distancing since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place and how this could affect employee mental health as businesses start to re-open.

While social distancing measures are being introduced to protect staff against the spread of the coronavirus, adapting to the ‘new normal’ of physical distancing could take its toll on their emotional wellbeing.

Researchers have claimed the psychological impact of physical distancing is similar to the effects of large disasters on human beings, with its trauma leading to depression, PTSD, substance use disorder and other mental and behavioural disorders.

Don’t stand so close to me

Constant disruption – like one-way traffic routes around the workplace, queueing for the toilet, cleaning requirements and restrictions in the kitchen – are stressful for employees, as individuals often rely on a familiar structure to regulate their emotional wellbeing.

At present, it’s still recommended to continue offering remote working opportunities, wherever possible. However, just because staff can return to the office doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to reap the rewards flexible working can bring.

Flexible working has been shown to help improve employee wellbeing, and Nuffield Health research found that up to two days working from home per week led to positive employee emotional wellbeing without deteriorating co-worker relationships.

Combating loneliness

One benefit of communal office space is the dopamine spike we get from social interaction – it makes us feel happy, improves attention and motivation and plays an important role in our mental wellbeing.

Loneliness can be toxic to the body and we know the impact it can have on anyone who is disconnected from the people around them. With physical distancing the new norm, colleagues are at risk of being completely disconnected from each other.

However, we can continue to maintain positive remote working habits through daily video chats, and calls, which helps to alleviate feelings of isolation in those who are struggling to adapt to new measures.

Another issue is while some employees are now able to return to their previous places of work, not only are they physically distanced from colleagues in the office, but face-to-face meetings are still banned. Employees are even discouraged from having social conversations, as simply talking is believed to put people at risk.

It’s important employers nurture employee relationships while staying safe. Embrace the tools that worked well during the lockdown, for example, dialling into conference calls or video chats. If office space allows, consider holding a socially distanced ‘huddle’ – an office floor chat for all employees, where you can catch up about work issues and have personal conversations.

Providing emotional wellbeing support

As employees come to terms with the ‘new normal’, it’s important that businesses put in place the right emotional wellbeing support for those who find themselves struggling to cope with changes.

For example, online manager wellbeing training raises awareness of emotional wellbeing needs. Managers are equipped with the skills to spot signs of struggle in others and send them a message, starting with simply asking ‘are you okay?’.

Online mental health awareness training also lets employees work through modules at their own pace and gives them the confidence to talk about mental health and support others in need. This is particularly helpful while employees are physically distanced, as some may be less likely to speak about their feelings over the phone or online openly.

If possible, invite a mental health specialist to deliver a socially distanced seminar in the office, providing actionable tips for those struggling with feelings of stress or isolation. This also helps to naturalise conversations around emotional wellbeing in the workplace and encourage employees to seek support.

Finally, businesses must track COVID-19’s impact on staff mental health. This data should include evaluations from mental health professionals as well as reports from employees sharing their daily experiences with line managers and HR support.

Findings should be shared across disciplines, so UK businesses are alert to the concerns most affecting employees.

At Nuffield Health, we’ve found pointing individuals towards employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and telephone CBT sessions gives them remote access to speak to a specialist and are some of the most effective signposts for emotional wellbeing support in the workplace.
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