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

How do you manage people working from home?

If you have ben used to managing people through regular face-to-face contact with them what do you do when they are working from home and you never see them? How will you know they are putting the hours in, following all the proper procedures, hitting deadlines and achieving good quality standards?

One way is to install monitoring apps on employee’s equipment. There are apps that will allow you to ‘look over their shoulder’ and see what is on the screen and that will count every keystroke. The apps will give all kinds of histograms and charts to summarise time spent on screen, productivity, errors, websites visited and so on. There are reports that more and more companies are installing these apps.

But this route to employee management is beset with dangers. It can be very invasive of privacy, in this case the privacy of other people’s homes. You might be capturing an employee’s computer use when they are not actually working. You might also, inadvertently be capturing information about other members of the family.  You might be storing information that would put you in breach of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). At the very least, the monitoring procedures that are in place must be transparent to everybody being monitored. Another problem is that procedures that attempt tight control invite people to ‘game’ the system, to look for ways of keeping the scores high by artificial means and find workarounds to fool the system. And there is no end to the ingenuity people display when they want to preserve some level of control over their existence.

Before rushing to computer solutions to manage remote workers it is important to consider other approaches. There may be an opportunity to work towards a culture of trust: one in which, for example, each employee has targets to meet and they are entrusted to find their own ways of achieving those targets. Management of this kind is known to help employees feel more a trusted member of the team and less like a dispensable cog in a machine.

Whatever new system of management emerges, it will be best created by consulting with staff and working iteratively towards procedures that enable effective management and engender good employee well being.

Professor Ken Eason

Getting the Work/Life Balance Right

For many people the daily work/life balance has been defined by the hours spent at the office, shop or factory. You have to work there for a set number of hours and then you can go home and forget about it. Working from home throws all that up in the air. You could now work very different hours and make it a much better fit with school hours for example. It could be a great boon to getting a much better work/life balance. But it might work the other way round. Because your ‘work’ is always as near as your laptop or mobile phone, your bosses or work colleagues might expect you to respond at all hours. When I was a university teacher I remember a paper on the ‘Perpetual Professor’ who because of on-line systems would be available around the clock to answer student queries. My devotion to my students never stretched that far!

If the new flexibility afforded by home working is to be of benefit to both employees and companies, agreed patterns of work need to be worked out. Because people have very different domestic arrangements this may not be a case of all employees following the same practices. It is likely that the Principle of Minimum Critical Specification from sociotechnical systems theory will apply. Everybody will need to agree to some common practices, for example, that on-line meetings are arranged at a time of day to suit everybody (not easy if you are an international company with staff in other time zones). Some companies have also instituted a rule that emails can only be sent during normal working hours (or at least no one is expected to respond to midnight messages until the following day). Beyond the minimum common practices, people might then put in their work hours when it suits them, the rule being that they put in the requisite amount of time per week.

It is unlikely that all the issues about working from home will be resolved quickly. It will require an iterative approach that gradually evolves practices that enable the company to work well and employees to get the benefit of a better work/life balance. It will also require open and transparent communications so that problems can be surfaced quickly and fair solutions identified.

Professor Ken Eason

What will we miss by working from home?

Many organisations have been practicing home working for years. What is striking is that most of them have not gone wholly virtual: staff may work from home 3 days a week for example and come into the office on other days. Or they might just come in for special meetings. All kinds of ‘blended’ arrangements have evolved.

What is it that causes organisations not to go wholly virtual? In part it seems to be that whilst it is possible to do the functional work on-line it is not so easy to do many of the other things that hold an organisation together and enable it to drive forward:

  • How do you spark ideas off one another to get new developments started or solve knotty problems?
  • How do you discover what’s worrying people and might indicate big problems coming later?
  • How do you introduce new staff: how are they to ‘get to know’ their colleagues? It is one thing to work with colleagues who you have known in face-to-face settings for years: it is quite another to develop empathy and understanding with people you only see on a small screen.
  • How do you negotiate with people remotely? You need to understand them, what motivates them, where there is room to manoeuvre, where their red lines are etc, and there can be no side conversations away from the negotiating table to facilitate that kind of understanding. There are reports that Brexit negotiations are not going well and some of the difficulties are being attributed to the lack of opportunities for informal conversations because everything is confined to teleconferencing.

Every organisation will have to work out what work it can do remotely and what is best done by getting people together face-to-face. The problem is that whilst there may be widely shared views about the routine work it may take more effort to dig out all the less proceduralised but nevertheless essential informal work that also needs to be done.

Professor Ken Eason

What if I’m really struggling to work from home

By Professor Ken Eason

 

Some of us are in a very good position to work from home. We have a room we can call a study where we can set up a decent workstation and we have a good broadband service. All those Zoom participants who have a well-stocked bookshelf behind them seem to be very well set up for home working. But there are many people who have really struggled: working on the kitchen table, sharing tablets with children doing their school work, working in a space that is also for cooking, playing and entertainment. Most of our homes were never designed for home working. And how many are trying home working without good wi-fi? If some employees are in this position, what can an employer do?

The first requirement is to know the position of everybody. That requires the research part of the action research cycle. How have people actually coped with home working during lockdown? This may need sensitive questioning because people may fear the consequences of revealing they have been struggling.  We have often undertaken this kind of research for clients because we can ensure independence and confidentiality.

But what actions can be taken? 

Setting up home working workstations.  There is a lot of ergonomic advice available to help people make the best of what they have available to them. Here is the advice from the Health and Safety Executive.

https://www.hse.gov.uk/toolbox/workers/home.htm

Setting up video conferencing.   Similarly, there is a lot of advice available to make the best of videoconferencing. Getting the screen at eye height, for example, is important so that you appear to be making eye contact with others on the call.

Paying for equipment and services. People may have muddled through lockdown with the equipment they have at home but if home working is to be permanent, the employer may need to provide a support package, not just a computer but perhaps an office chair and a contribution towards broadband costs.

Local office rental space. If it is really difficult for people to work from home, there is also the option of renting local office space perhaps for a group of employees who live in a particular area.

The appropriate action will vary even within an organisation. A linked action-research strategy will be needed to reveal what is needed.

Will working from home be the ‘new norm’?

By Professor Ken Eason


Many people have been discovering they can work from home and many companies have discovered they can run their business with their staff working from home. There is now much speculation that we will continue to work in this way when the lockdown is over. There are many advantages: savings on office costs, no long commutes, less pollution in the atmosphere, more time with the family, reduced rush hours and so on. But working like this for a few months under emergency conditions is one thing, working like it on a permanent basis is quite another. Before we just assume this will be the new normal there are many things to consider:

What could we lose by just being a ‘virtual organisation’?

What did all those face-to-face opportunities contribute that we might now be losing?

Can people work effectively with one another if they only ever see them in Zoom meetings?

How suitable is the home environment of staff to permanent home working. Working on the kitchen table might be alright for a while but its not quite an office workstation

How will we manage staff when we never see them?

Every organisation will have to find its own answers to these questions and many more. We will look at the issues in more detail in other blogs. But everybody needs to set up a mechanism for evolving their own ‘home working’ practice. It will need some of the features of an action research approach. It needs an ‘action’ element to plan how it is all going to work. And it will need a ‘research’ element to assess on a regular basis how it is going. There will no doubt be ‘hard data’ to look at: are we sustaining productivity levels? But there will also be ‘soft data’ to gather – how are people coping, what problems are they encountering and so on? Whatever task force is set up to do this work, it needs to ensure that the voice of the new home workers comes through loud and clear.  The Bayswater Institute have been researching these and related issues for many years and have a small skilled team available to support organisations, small and large, grappling with these issues as they strive to most effectively rebuild their business into the future.  Examples of some of these issues are covered in the next few blogs.