21 March 2021

Jeff Phipps, UK managing director at ADP, contends that employers cannot afford to ignore this when it comes to remote working policies

When the Covid-19 pandemic set in, businesses rushed to transition to remote working, which resulted in patchwork approaches to everything: from resourcing equipment to video calling platforms to flexible working policies. After nearly a year of this ‘new normal’, many of these issues have been worked out, and organisations have successfully adapted their business processes for a remote workforce. Unfortunately, mental health has largely slipped under the radar with regards to remote working policies. As organisations decide whether their future is in the office, at home, or a hybrid of the two, decision-makers are largely focusing on logistical concerns and business outcomes such as productivity. When employers don’t take mental health into account, the decisions they make may increase the burdens many employees face.

Mental health is clearly a huge, complicated issue, and affects millions across the UK. Long-standing statistics show that one in four people (https://bit.ly/3ta06Hu) experience mental health problems during their lifetime, and the pandemic has exacerbated this. The Office for National Statistics reported that one in five adults have experienced some form of depression during the coronavirus pandemic, a rate which has doubled since the beginning of 2020. Being forced to work from home, without in-person contact with colleagues, is clearly a significant burden, with over half of Brits consistently reporting that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental wellbeing, according to Dynata (http://bit.ly/3qBRCHd).

As organisations focus on their long-term strategies for remote working, mental health must be at the forefront, with decision-makers considering overworking, isolation, and outside influences in choices about remote working. Without a considered approach, businesses risk severely damaging employee wellbeing. In addition, research from Deloitte (http://bit.ly/3ldrmC8) found that poor mental health now costs UK employers up to £45 billion each year, a rise of 16% since 2016.

...Brits consistently reporting that the pandemic has negatively impacted their mental wellbeing...

Presenteeism remains a key concern with remote working, as employees feel they need to work longer hours to prove their dedication, especially amid concerns around job losses. Some organisations have fuelled this, extending the working day to hours when individuals may have been commuting. UK employees are, on average, working nearly 6.5 hours unpaid every week – an increase of 90 minutes from pre-pandemic levels - according to ADP’s Workforce View (http://bit.ly/3l5lFWE).

Even without employer pressure, the lines between work and home life are increasingly blurred, and it can be difficult to stop working at a certain time. When they are at work, individuals get a mental break from home stresses; when they are at home, they are mentally distanced from work stress. Working at home means that this distance disappears, and stresses from both home and work are ever-present and difficult to escape.

Everyone has had a unique year, with the pandemic impacting us all differently. This not only makes it harder to create thoughtful policies that are appropriate across an entire workforce, but can also exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation, as individuals struggle to find support and understanding outside the office.

For those who live alone, the lack of socialisation can exacerbate mental health issues, whereas for those juggling work and home schooling, the stress of being overworked may have the same effect.

Many organisations looking forward are considering hybrid models, where some of the workforce is based in the office while the rest is remote. This needs to be managed carefully to prevent individuals prioritising economic concerns, such as the cost of commuting, or familial obligations, like childcare, over the option that is best for their mental health. Just giving employees the simple decision to work in the office or at home may seem like the best, fairest policy – and a way for individuals to personally determine what is best for them. However, existing social structures may leave some feeling like the decision is out of their hands, such as mothers who are consistently expected (http://bit.ly/3l7eIog) to take on the bulk of childcare and home-schooling. Those who feel least able to return to the office may also be those who suffer most from working at home.

Mental health needs an order of magnitude more thought when it comes to remote working policies. A policy or process that works logistically, and seems to be a better option for productivity, will result in short-lived gains at best if it is implemented without a thought to individual experience and employee wellbeing. Organisations need to take a holistic view of both their policies and their employees needs in order to come up with solutions that are flexible, adaptable, and sensitive in their approach to mental health. 

Featured in the April 2021 issue of Professional in Payroll, Pensions and Reward. Correct at time of publication.