How do we sustain mental health when working from home?

The literature on health and safety at work makes very clear that for many people work is a major source of stress and working from home, particularly now during the lockdown period, is producing new forms of stress. There are reports that mental health problems are becoming very common. There can be many reasons for this. One is the depression and anxiety that comes with a sense of isolation: being cut-off from day-to-day contact with the work community. The loss of the normal structure to the day can also induce anxiety: people have to find the self-discipline to create and sustain their own daily structure. And there is the stress of managing home/work relationships, looking after children or sharing workspaces with family members. There are many examples of people, Roald Dahl and David Cameron amongst them, who have resorted to sheds in their gardens in order to keep work and home life separate.

How can an employer help employees sustain good mental health and well being if they are working from home? It is not so easy to monitor how people are feeling if you don’t see them and not the same opportunities to offer help. Fortunately the internet is a medium capable of supporting many kinds of activity apart from work and social media in particular is showing ways in which people can support one another. There are a variety of ways employers can harness these capabilities to help their staff:

  • Creating informal on-line ‘get togethers’ that are about sharing experiences rather than doing work
  • Creating opportunities for shared activities like fitness classes
  • Building opportunities around on-line work meetings for side conversations
  • Developing a counselling or ‘buddying’ scheme; someone who regularly reviews with staff how they are coping. Care needs to be taken that this is not seen as a performance review.

Above all people need an opportunity for a ‘reflective space’, perhaps with people they trust, in which they can put the daily hassle behind them for a time. My colleague Simon Bell has developed a novel way of doing this in which people come together in Zoom meetings to reflect on Mindfulness Stories that Simon has written.

As always each organisation will have to find the best way to support its staff and an iterative, exploring and
learning process will be necessary.

Professor Ken Eason