Wellness lessons learnt in a year of working from home

Even if organisations go back to the office post COVID-19, employee values have changed for good

The 23rd March 2021 marks one year since Boris Johnson announced the first COVID-19 lockdown in the UK and ordered people to stay home. At the time, the Prime Minister said he was confident the country could turn the tide of coronavirus in 12 weeks. However, after a year of lockdowns, bubbles, and tiers, the UK’s workforces are still working from what were supposed to be temporary home offices.

Upheaval from offices to homes has had effects, both positive and negative, on employee wellbeing across the country, which is why employers must work alongside their employees and use the lessons learnt over the last year to healthily blend remote and office working practices and promote employee wellbeing.

Working from home has impacted everyone uniquely, but it certainly has impacted everybody in some way, be it psychologically, emotionally, physically, or a combination of all three.

Some employees have embraced elements of the new remote working lifestyle, such as enjoying longer in bed, saving on average two hours a day on the commute, and spending extra time at home with family.

On the other hand, many have struggled with inefficient workspaces and extended periods of isolation from friends, family, and colleagues, which can lead to mental health issues.

Business leaders and remote working: An improved attitude

The move to working from home happened overnight and was very sudden and intense for employees and organisations alike. The change has created an interesting paradigm shift among business leaders who previously doubted the efficacy of mass or long-term remote working.

The change in the mindset around remote working among business leaders is one of the most interesting trends to emerge from working from home. Organisations have been shown that their workforce can effectively do their jobs despite being away from the traditional work environment.

Experiencing home working firsthand has opened managers’ eyes to the viability of remote working, whereas before, there were doubts about productivity. Some workforces have been more productive and better at working in larger teams since being away from the office and has reduced stress for some workers.

The reverse to this is the trend of staff giving so much time to their roles; they do not take enough time for themselves. Since working from home, some employees have struggled to structure their days well and are more likely to start early, finish late, and work through lunch. This trend has led to overall fatigue from COVID-19, unstructured working times, and excessive video conferencing.

Despite high productivity worker wellness has been impacted

The past year has revealed some elements related to wellness at work that had not been considered this time last year and working from home has not gone as was originally expected.

When workforces were sent home this time last year, many did not expect how much staff would genuinely show up and show how hard they would work while not in the office. The high productivity levels, the ownership, and the responsibility that staff has shown have been a revelation for many managers.

Despite this, we have seen self-management and focus on work cause some employees to develop various unhealthy behaviours. Many employees have neglected their usual routine, including walking on the commute and decent lunchtime breaks, and the Irish Heart Foundation has found that over half of Irish home workers are sitting down for an extra three hours a day.

Last March, we imagined that the impact of lockdowns would ease over time as we curbed the virus, but the constant opening and closing of lockdowns has created continual levels of uncertainty and stress. This has been emotionally draining, and a focus on employee wellbeing has become as, if not more, essential than it was in the early days of the first lockdown.

Staff wellbeing must remain a priority when workplaces reopen

The end of enforced remote working is in sight, but employers must ensure they consider staff wellbeing for the remainder of work from home and throughout the gradual return to the office.

An unusual result of the pandemic is that business owners and senior staff members have keen insight into their employees’ challenges, having also experienced the trials and tribulations of working from home themselves. This means that managers should be open and understand workers’ situations, including understanding, empathising, appreciating, and supporting emerging mental health issues.

Businesses need to ask staff how they are feeling regularly. Sharing stories and advice among colleagues will go a long way in boosting morale and helping staff with the continued challenges. This could be in the form of regular health surveys to gather timely data to focus on practical interventions, along with structured wellbeing and health support for the remainder of work from home.

Digital health benefits are proving to be an effective benefit for remote worker support alongside traditional employee assistance programmes, and businesses can extend health and wellbeing benefits to staff even while we are in lockdown.

Staying engaged with employee wellness, motivation and morale have been critical this year, and employers must not drop this interest when we go back to the office. There will be a longer-term emotional and psychological effect, namely a ‘COVID-19 echo’ when the world reopens, and staff begins to return to the workplace routine. Companies will need to advocate and support employee wellbeing long into the future.

Leadership must listen and be empathetic

Returning to the office will be a great milestone. Still, managers must be sensitive to the fact that staff will be going through another significant routine upheaval, and there will be a period of readjustment to begin with.

Being back in the office will be a relief to some, but there will be employees dealing with various uncertainties, such as taking public transport while the pandemic is still being brought under control. Patience and empathy will be critical, and managers must listen to their workforce’s thoughts and feedback.

The return to the office may look different to each staff member so leaders need to have open conversations with their employees about wellbeing and how they want to work going forwards.

Once offices are open, businesses should look at flexible working environments based on conversations with employees about what they want. Clear policies will need to be created around this to ensure a win-win way of working that promotes both productivity and wellbeing. Practical health and wellness policies to accommodate remote working and record and manage staff wellbeing will be necessary.

Employers have to be more creative about their wellbeing practices and not rely upon outdated packages, many of which were already struggling in the office environment with uptake rates of between 2 and 4%. More proactivity and creativity in wellbeing support investment will be necessary for those businesses that have traditionally placed low levels or no investment in employee wellbeing and support.

Working from home will give way to long-term attitudes changes

Workforces will eventually repopulate the offices that have sat empty for a year, but the pandemic will change aspects of the way we work forever.

Employees have been introduced to the valid option of working from home and indeed working from anywhere they want. This will encourage more dialogue between employer and employee regarding what is possible in terms of where and when people work.

With more options and flexibility than was thought possible pre-pandemic, we can expect to see a rising trend of people taking more care of their work-life balance and workplace wellness.

Managers and leaders have now experienced remote leadership for a sustained period and have insight into the benefits and challenges of this style of leadership. Lessons they have learnt when working at home during the pandemic, such as the importance of regular personal and professional contact with staff, will support their leadership success if some team members choose to continue to work remotely.

The pandemic and working from home have inspired some businesses to give their teams wellbeing budgets to invest in home office improvements or virtual wellbeing and social sessions. This will have shown businesses the benefits of investing in employee wellbeing and hopefully this trend continues as offices reopen so that employers can offer their staff benefits packages that genuinely support their wellbeing.

Jason Brennan is a psychotherapist, mental skills trainer, and Director of Leadership and Wellness at Wrkit, an employee engagement platform.

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