Authors: David Cox
Source: The Guardian
As a London-based management consultant who has struggled with anxiety and insomnia, Marion dreaded the prospect of working from home when the UK’s first Covid-19 lockdown was announced in 2020.
“If things get disrupted for me professionally, it can spell trouble for my mental health,” she says. “For one thing, the boundaries between work and life blur in the remote world, which means I typically work longer hours, and find it more difficult to switch off. Chatting to colleagues online feels much more cold and transactional. When you discuss issues you’re having, I feel the lack of in-person cues means you don’t get the same sort of empathy you might do in real life.”
Marion’s struggle is shared by many other people working remotely.
Acknowledging the toll of working remotely
Although it is often described as a way to improve people’s work-life balance, the reality of remote working can vary greatly according to individual circumstances. During the Covid-19 lockdowns, for example, those living alone or in cramped shared dwellings will probably have had a very different experience from those living with family, or with access to private space. And that may well have contributed to higher levels of anxiety and stress.
At the start of the first lockdown in March 2020, almost half of people in the UK reported high anxiety compared with 21% in late 2019, according to the Office for National Statistics.
The ONS found that people who were lonely experienced higher levels of anxiety, and that among those with high anxiety, more than one in five said their work was negatively affected as a result of working from home.
While figures from early 2021 show levels of anxiety had improved, they were significantly worse compared with pre-pandemic levels.
The role of employers
Nonetheless, remote working is here to stay as companies see advantages in being more flexible about where employees work. Indeed, some of the best known tech firms have announced policies that allow employees to work remotely indefinitely.
But remote working and the effect it can have on mental wellbeing also places new responsibilities on employers.
Tech tools can help detect and reduce isolation
For many businesses, technology could play a role in helping employees’ mental wellbeing. One solution is the use of app-based surveys that enable employees to set out their concerns and feelings about their workplace environment. This is an effective way of ensuring that employers take into account the diverse and differing needs of their workforce, says Kate Cavanagh, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Sussex.
“Tech systems can be useful to rapidly and regularly survey employees, which can allow for sensitive support of individuals with more specific needs and potential stressors,” she says. “For example, those working from home who have caring responsibilities, and so require more flexible working hours.”
A number of companies have also adopted mind-mapping apps to try to reduce stress by helping their staff with task management and team communication, although these do have to be used with care. “These kinds of apps can help make working remotely a real pleasure, but thoughtful implementation is really important for them to be effective,” says Marion, the management consultant who found working from home a challenge. “If you have too many apps on the go and you’re getting bombarded with requests from email and other task-management apps all at the same time, this can have the opposite effect on stress.”
Some psychologists say that AI-enabled workplace analytics tools that analyse company data can help managers identify employees who are struggling. Such tools, running silently in the background, can detect warning signs of impending burnout or flag behaviours that colleagues or a manager may miss.
“Tech has a key role to play in managing people remotely, and finding out if they’re not coping,” says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester. “If you’re in a physical work environment you can see if people are having trouble, but it’s more difficult to do that virtually.”
Future tech to reduce stress on remote workers
In the coming years, software packages with such analytics will become more sophisticated. The growing trend toward corporate wellness initiatives, which give employees access to wearable tech devices that collect data ranging from fatigue levels to pulse rate, will make workplace technology more intelligent and even enable it to connect employees with wellbeing or medical resources.
“We will have technologies which will naturally be able to react differently depending on the nature of the problem that individual employees have,” says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of the HR research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence. “For instance, if an employee isn’t getting enough sleep because they are stressed out about work, a chatbot will be able to provide some feedback and advice.”
Cooper believes that technology will have an increasingly important role to play in aiding mental wellbeing. “There are going to be fewer people, doing more work, who are going to be feeling more job insecure and at greater risk of burnout,” he says. “There are a lot of companies who are looking to technology to try to help in this sphere as they need to retain their talent.”
When it comes to digital solutions, the California-based software company ServiceNow has designed a Safe Workplace suite to help companies plan and work through the essential steps needed to create safe workplaces for employees.
One of the suite’s apps, the Employee Readiness Survey, enables a company to gauge which staff are ready to go back to their workplace by taking account of their views and assessing their physical and mental health. “That helps us understand how our employees are feeling around stress, workload, the support they’re getting from leadership as well as their manager, and the types of virtual engagement activities that we’re doing,” says Sally Sourbon, ServiceNow’s senior HR director for the EMEA region. The feedback also helps guide companies as to what additional steps may be needed to make employees feel more reassured.
Ben Rooney, marketing campaigns manager at ServiceNow, says: “It’s about not taking a blanket approach, but taking account of individuals’ home lives, and whether they’re comfortable or not to [return],” he says. “Some may be more anxious than others, while some may feel differently.”
Sourbon emphasises that when it comes to supporting employees with their mental wellbeing, technological solutions that can provide an element of choice in workplace arrangements are crucial for minimising stress.
Going forward, technology may also hold the key to solving mental wellbeing problems that have been created by technology itself. Cooper cites a major driver of workplace health issues as being “technostress”. “24/7 emails, people sending emails at night, at weekends, while they’re on holiday, is causing people to get stressed,” he says. “In the future, technology has a role to play in constraining the overuse of email by automatically alerting people and making them think before they send.”
However work works right now, you can do it confidently with the ServiceNow Safe Workplace suite. Engage with employees, automate steps for returning, and provide a safe, employee-ready working environment. Find out more at servicenow.com/uk