Home Working and Mental Health

By Neil McLeese, CEO at BeyondHR

Fast forward into 2020 and the current Covid-19 pandemic has seen home working become the “new normal” with 30% of the UK workforce mainly working from home.  This is a staggering increase and is likely to stay at an increased level for the foreseeable future.  For some businesses this may end up being a permanent change with some larger businesses already telling staff they can now work from home indefinitely.  

Coming into 2020 working from home wasn’t something that a lot of people would have considered. In fact, the ONS statistics show that in the 5 years up to December 2019 the numbers of people mainly working from home had only slightly increased from 4.3% to 5.1% of the total UK workforce. In Northern Ireland in 2019, only 3.8% of the working population reported that they mainly worked from home.  

Those of us who have done it will have experienced the undoubted benefits of working from home such as time saved fighting through rush-hour traffic to get to work as well as being available to receive the weekly grocery delivery or the all too frequent Amazon parcels. 

However, it is worth remembering that everyone is different and for every person that enjoys working from home another will find it challenging. More concerning is the potential impact prolonged homeworking could have on employee well-being and mental health. 

The slightly ironic thing is that, working from home, can have an adverse effect on work-life balance and increase the risk of burn-out as, the absence of a commute to work, can make it harder for people to separate work from home. To illustrate this point, the Institute of Employment Studies carried out a survey, in April 2020, in which 50% of respondents stated they were unhappy with their current work-life balance and were putting in longer and more irregular hours than normal.   

Unfortunately, there is the potential for this to get worse rather than better as talk about recession and redundancies increases. It is likely we will see the ‘presenteeism’ problem of the 2008 financial crisis return in a different form with employees working longer hours at home to try and demonstrate their commitment to their employers but ultimately leading to burn out. 

For the majority, working at home will be completely new and they will have gone from seeing colleagues five days a week to only seeing them “virtually” during video conferencing calls. The impact of the reduction in social interaction at work is often underestimated. Working with others in a shared workspace makes it easier to discuss new ideas or solve problems. It also helps people develop their skills simply observing their colleagues or by sharing experiences over a coffee. This type of meaningful social interaction is more difficult to achieve by telephone or video conferencing and poses a risk of some employees becoming demotivated, unproductive and feeling increasingly socially isolated while at home.  

In our own business we understand the importance of socialising with colleagues and the benefit of being able to share thoughts, ideas and problems in person. However, we also acknowledge the benefits of working from home and we have tried to get the best of both worlds by having our team in the office for 3 days and at home for the remainder of the week.  

Where this type of dual working isn’t possible or desirable business leaders should consider putting appropriate support systems in place like employee assistance programmes and regular ‘check-in’ conversations with their team members.  

The sooner businesses get to grips with this the better because the indications are that the new normal is here to stay. 

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