Type “employee wellbeing” into Google and you’ll bring up thousands - if not hundreds of thousands - of articles. The subject has been steadily rising up the workplace agenda in recent years, with findings from REBA, the Reward and Employee Benefits Association backing this up.
According to their Employee Wellbeing Report 2019, more than two thirds of companies (68.4%) now have a defined wellbeing strategy in place. That’s more than double the number in 2016 (29.8%) and a significant step up even from 2018 (45.2%).
But 2020 has thrown a COVID-19 curveball at all aspects of business, not least where people work. For a time, home working was mandatory for all but designated essential workers and a survey by S&P Global Market Intelligence suggests as many as two thirds of businesses are planning to keep working from home policies in place long term.
This shift will have many practical implications for businesses but what will the impact on employee wellbeing be? And how can HR departments ensure they are doing their best to protect all members of staff?
Many employees have welcomed the changes that allow them to work from home. And there are certainly plenty of advantages. From time and money saved by not having to commute, to the simple joys of being able to work in more comfortable clothes and in familiar surroundings, home working is considered a benefit by many.
But there are downsides too, many of which are linked to physical and mental health and wellbeing.
Just trying to maintain a work life balance when you’re living and working in the same space can have a huge impact on stress levels, with employees finding it difficult to “switch off” at the end of the day. A Bloomberg report published in April suggested people were working around 3 hours more every day thanks to lockdown homeworking.
If employees have children at home it can be a huge distraction, even if they’ve got childcare support. Toddlers don’t understand why mummy or daddy is closed away in the spare room on a video call and can’t come out for cuddles. This can lead to feelings of guilt as parents try to maintain a balance for their families as well as themselves.
On the other hand, those living alone may well find themselves dealing with loneliness. But lack of contact with employees can have a negative impact well beyond loneliness, as a recent article in Forbes pointed out. There are issues around team communication and cohesion too, a sense of being left out or overlooked because you’re not in front of people’s faces in the same way as you would be in an office setting.
Physically, many home work spaces simply don’t comply with health and safety standards. Not everyone has a spare room with a dedicated desk, ergonomic accessories, decent lighting and a chair that supports good back health. Many are forced to work on dining tables, kitchen work surfaces, even balancing their laptops literally on their laps as they sit on beds and sofas.
And there are the financial implications that range from losing access to free teas and coffees or a subsidised canteen, to needing to spend more money on heating, electricity, even toilet roll and hand soap.
Another hidden stressor is the technological impact of working from home. In an office setting, the working environment is homogenised. Everyone has roughly the same computer, the same internet access, the same ability to ring through to IT and get a problem fixed.
At home, these benefits we take for granted no longer exist. Employees may all have standard issue laptops but internet connectivity, for example, will vary greatly. Those in rural areas and other places with poor connectivity will naturally suffer. Ditto those who can’t afford faster broadband provision or wifi booster technology.
How does this impact wellbeing? Well, just think of the frustration of waiting for a web page to load or being forced to ask people to repeat themselves on a video conference call because your connection keeps dropping out. These might not be major stressors but they can still build up over time.
Where poor connectivity impacts productivity, employees may start to feel anxious about being able to do their job. And there is a risk that these fears might be realised. If a pitch goes badly because an intermittent Zoom connection saps the salesperson’s confidence, it could lead to missed targets, missed bonuses and even missed promotions.
Many of the challenges of home working are fixable, at least to a degree. From providing ergonomic equipment to make home office setups more compliant to health and safety requirements, to creating virtual social spaces to allow colleagues to catch up, there are plenty of solutions that don’t have to take huge amounts of time, effort or budget to implement.
Technological challenges are particularly practical and therefore easy to solve. If an employee’s wifi connection is poor, for example, their employer could fund a router upgrade.
The tricky part is understanding where the needs lie. Because not every employee is going to be confident enough to speak up and ask for help. Especially if they think it might reflect negatively on them or could be considered a personal issue rather than a company one, such as not being able to afford decent broadband.
Some won’t even realise their challenges have a solution, assuming that poor internet connectivity is just something “everyone has to put up with”.
That’s why being able to accurately measure the digital environment in which home workers are working is so important. Businesses need a way to assess not just whether technology is operating within certain parameters but what the true human experience of engaging with the digital ecosystem is. Only then can they understand the true impact on employee mental health and wellbeing.
Protecting and supporting employee wellbeing isn’t just a good thing to do - there are business benefits too. According to a report by mental health charity Mind, FTSE 100 companies that do so outperform their rivals by 10%, with benefits including increased morale, productivity, commitment, innovation and profitability.
By fully understanding the stressors impacting home-working individuals, employers can take steps to make changes that positively impact mental health and benefit everyone in the process.
Ask yourself the following:
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