There are few people in this country whose lives have not been dramatically altered by the impact of the ongoing pandemic. The UK lockdown, which has mandated home working, school closures, social distancing and the closing of restaurants and pubs, has transformed our daily routines and the way we communicate with each other.
For many of us, the last two weeks have been an experiment in home working, as companies adapt to the new climate. Technology has been at the centre of this, enabling us to maintain communication with colleagues – whether through email, workplace messaging platforms or video calls – to keep our productivity levels up, and our businesses running (almost!) as usual.
However, while navigating this transition to mass remote working, it is equally important that employers consider how they can look after their employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Here too, technology can play a vital role.
Although we sometimes associate technology with having a negative impact on mental health, it has the potential to be a hugely positive force. In a time when many are physically isolated from their friends and colleagues, we must ensure now more than ever that employees can readily access tools and resources to support their wellbeing.
Part of the solution lies in good communication; it is important that workplaces keep levels of communication as high as they would be in the office. It’s difficult to fully replicate a workplace environment, which gives plenty of opportunity for face-to-face interaction, but technology can help ease this transition. Simple steps such as replacing phone calls with video calls can help keep close communication high and reduce anxieties around the newness of the situation.
On the flip side, be aware that a sudden deluge of digital correspondence can be overwhelming. While keeping communication high, make sure to establish etiquette around this, and avoid sending lots of messages outside of working hours. Equally, if the increased noise of notifications is making it almost impossible to focus, then perhaps try switching them off completely outside of predefined slots in your day.
It is important that employers understand the specific challenges that home working brings for mental wellbeing. For some employees the lack of in-person social contact will cause feelings of isolation and loneliness, or can even exacerbate existing mental health conditions. In this situation, it is more important than ever that employees know where to turn and what resources are at their disposal to tackle this.
If employees are struggling with loneliness, technology also has the ability to provide digital spaces for staff to connect virtually, for example over lunch or in a virtual pub. In this way, tech can help replicate normal social activity and help to stave off loneliness.
Another challenge commonly faced by those working at home is the blurring of boundaries. Without clearly defined work and home spaces, many can find it difficult to create a distinction between the two. This can lead to difficulty switching off from work in the evenings or completing work in a home environment, which can result in stress and even burnout.
The key to addressing this is routine. Following your normal routine as closely as possible in these new circumstances can help create distinctions between work and home life and ensure a healthy balance is maintained. This means getting dressed for work (putting you in the right frame of mind to start the working day), taking regular breaks, and keeping to normal working hours. Here too technology and the communication it enables plays an important role. By keeping video calls, messages and emails frequent during the day, and avoiding sending emails and messages at night, employers can help to maintain a work mentality during the day while allowing employees to switch off in the evenings.
As home working looks set to continue for the foreseeable future for many of us, employers must ask how they can adapt their wellbeing strategies beyond simply reactive measures to the specific mental health challenges this brings. This means giving employees proactive support which they can access in any place, and at any time. Mental health platforms, online resources, and other digital services will be crucial to supporting employees in this new environment.
Without seeing colleagues in person every day, it is more important than ever that we adopt a preventative attitude, rather than simply reacting to deteriorations in our mental health. Technology has a key part to play here, giving employees the opportunity to access scientifically backed resources to learn about their mental health, proactively improve it, and know when to raise the issue if something is wrong. For those adapting a wellbeing strategy for this situation, technology’s capability to provide employees with quality resources that empower them to look after their own mental health, from wherever they are working, is key to success.
As we navigate this unprecedented situation, technology can – and must – play a key role in ensuring that employees’ mental health is supported. This means allowing them to access the support they need, wherever they are, as well as addressing the specific mental health challenges that long-term home working can bring. The digital world and mental health don’t always live in harmony, but it’s a misconception that the two are incompatible. By questioning these assumptions, we can realise the great potential of technology for improving mental health.
If we truly adopt this attitude, the benefits could be long lasting. Paradoxically, this stressful and challenging situation, in which we are forced to innovate and trust in technology, could result in a better world for mental health, both within and outside the workplace, in years to come.
Ry Morgan is Co-founder, COO and Product Strategy at Unmind