Liberation and isolation

Tom Fox, MD of Thoughtify, discusses the mental dichotomy of remote working

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Published: 5 November 2021

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This article first appeared in our Sustainable IT special issue of of My Green Pod Magazine, distributed with The Guardian on 05 November 2021. Click here to subscribe to our digital edition and get each issue delivered straight to your inbox

Research determines that IT-enabled remote working will help save the planet – but in my experience, there is a cost to people in the form of mental health.

At Thoughtify, we specialise in providing training and education for businesses in relation to supporting and maintaining employee mental health.

For many, the global pandemic has transformed the way we work. For some, seeing our immediate family more offers liberation from the nine-to-five, but for others dramatic change represents isolation and challenges mental wellbeing.

Enforced isolation

Having the option to work from home is one thing, but in 2020 we were made to work from home due to a government-enforced lockdown, and this – coupled with the extended home working that ensued – is something else entirely.

Many people familiar with working from modern, well-designed office spaces, away from the home and with regular in-person contact with friends, colleagues and clients, suddenly found themselves having to work from kitchen tables, bedrooms, balconies and sheds.

Consequently, many have been coping with isolation, ill health and domestic issues. Prevailing studies highlight a rise in work-family conflict where the demands of work impinge on domestic and family commitments. Such friction creates an ongoing strain that is taking its toll on the mental wellbeing of many workers.

Work and mental health

According to a survey from the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH), home working is having an impact on employee mental health. 67% of respondents to the poll said they felt less connected to their colleagues and 56% said they found it harder to switch off.

Those who live with multiple occupancy were more likely to think that working from home was worse for their health and wellbeing (41%), compared with people who live on their own (29%) or with just their partner (24%).

Despite the findings, only a third of respondents had been offered employer support for their mental health. 

Another major consideration for employers is the impact of the subsequent increased workload. Many clients feel their workload has increased over the last 18 months, noting they have actually been busier than usual due to perceived endless availability.

As an example, an individual’s day is often filled with consecutive Zoom calls, listening to more company updates and attending more management meetings, yet they still need to keep on top of the flow of daily emails, telephone calls and other normal day-to-day tasks.

From personal experience, I know that it’s easy to start feeling exhausted and overwhelmed.

This can lead to burnout and mental exhaustion that happens swiftly and unexpectedly. Sadly, by the time you know something’s wrong it may be too late.

To exacerbate the issue, it’s not only mental strain we have to consider. Research links work overload and high blood pressure, heart disease and possibly certain cancers. Mental and physical illness are not mutually exclusive.

Finding balance

Conversely, if managed properly home working can be beneficial and bring many positives that couldn’t perhaps previously be enjoyed by permanent office workers.

Taking a balanced view, an RSPH survey also indicated the vast majority don’t want to return to working in an office full time. In fact, three-quarters of respondents (74%) suggested they wanted to split their time between home working and working in an office.

So how do employers find a balance that works for all? In my opinion, they must educate employees about mental health and wellbeing, and look to provide more in-depth training for leadership teams and managers.

Mental health education needs to become part of organisational strategy, not just an afterthought satisfied by ad hoc wellbeing ‘Lunch & Learns’ that arguably achieve very little in the longer term.

Spotting the signs

Awareness and engagement is key. Signs that an employee may be experiencing a period of low mental health can be recognised early if we know what to look for. Education around how to notice those signs in ourselves causes a ripple effect.

Understanding how to position simple and effective – but often difficult – questions such as ‘I’ve noticed some changes in you and I’m concerned thing’s might not all be OK, how are you managing?’ are vital for supporting and helping to maintain employee mental wellbeing.

Thoughtify exists because we know it is important for organisations and employees alike to understand the key causes that lead to mental ill health. It is possible for organisations to plan ahead and incorporate measures to help avoid some of the negative outcomes of working from home. Isolation can be nurtured to become liberation.

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