When it comes to the future of work, the conversation over the past few years has been increasingly focused on a desire for greater flexibilty. According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Work report, 99% of people surveyed said they would like to work remotely at least some of the time for the rest of their careers, with a flexible schedule, working from any location and having more time with family all cited as factors driving a growing number to consider remote working.

However, due to lockdown measures imposed in many countries due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, many non-key workers have made the rapid switch to working from home for the first time, a significant change for both employers and employees.

Although the flexibility to work from home, driven by technology, may be something a growing number look for in a job, many now find themselves away from their routine, increasingly isolated or juggling other commitments.

Along with the current state of worry and uncertainty caused by the pandemic, this may lead to employees experiencing new mental health challenges.

Workplace mental health

Clinical psychologist Dr Nick Taylor, is CEO and co-founder of Unmind, a workplace mental health platform, and global ambassador and supporter of UNLEASH. Taylor tells Verdict that the inspiration for establishing Unmind came from first-hand experience of workplace mental health being neglected.

“I found myself going into a senior leadership role, I suddenly realised that I was part of a management team of people who were a under huge amount of pressure had high levels of absenteeism as a result of mental ill health, high levels of presenteeism, so people coming into work unwell. We had high staff turnover and it was difficult to attract the best people,” he says.

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“So I find myself getting increasingly interested in how can organisations better support their people on a day to day basis. And then the other thing that happened simultaneous to that was that I became increasingly frustrated by the way in which we as a society, were addressing mental health.”

Unmind provides tools and training designed to improve workplace mental health, aggregates anonymous data to improve decision-making when it comes to wellbeing, and signposting support services.

“Since we were founded, we have seen a lot of growth in every area of the business,” says Taylor.

“We released a second version of our platform at the end of last year, built on all the learnings we’ve built up since we founded the business. We’ve scaled up so we’ve now got users in I think 47 countries around the world, working with household names from the likes of John Lewis and Partners to British Airways to ASOS to William Hill, big name companies. And from our side, we’re just getting started really because we’re on a mission to improve the mental wellbeing of ten million people in organisations around the world, and never has that mission, in my opinion, been more important than it is now, as we enter the current health pandemic.”

Significant challenges: Remote working and mental health

Although there is a growing awareness of the importance of workplace mental health, one area that can be overlooked is those who work away from the office.

According to a survey conducted last year by DigitalOcean, 82% of US tech professionals who work remotely said they feel burnt out, with 52% saying they end up working longer hours and 40% believing that they are expected to contribute more than those who do not work remotely. However, they did report having a better work-life balance.

Taylor believes that this is amplified by the current situation

“The mental health challenges are really significant. If you think about the things that are important for somebody’s health, that sense of connection, seeing people, seeing friends, seeing loved ones, interacting with other people. That’s been massively impacted by the isolation that we feel, or the social anxiety we feel being near to other people. If you look at our physical health, it has a direct impact on our mental health,” he says.

“Our eating habits have been changed as a result of being at home, many people have become more sedentary as they are isolated into smaller environments and less able to go out and exercise or move just as much as they used to be moving. And that’s going to in turn be impacting people’s sleep, as is the work-life balance being shifted, as is the general anxiety we have as a society about financial matters and job security. Our mood and our stress levels and our general anxiety levels are all at a greater the risk of being elevated.”

According to The Lancet Psychiatry, the coronavirus pandemic could have a “profound” impact on individuals’ mental health, and Taylor emphasises that employers must recognise the exceptional circumstances around the shift to remote working

“The important thing is to recognise that it’s not just the same as working from home one day a week. And it’s not only a massive amount of change that people are having to adjust to, but it’s also an unknown length of time we’re having to adjust to it. And I think that whoever you look at, people have very, very different personal circumstances and has a unique set of challenges that those circumstances put on them. So for parents, it’s hard to negotiate with a very young child when you’re trying to get on a Zoom call,” he says.

“So I think you can’t overstate really the stress that it’s putting on people and then added to that is this enormous uncertainty around jobs because of the economic downturn. And then you’ve got uncertainty around money and we know that financial instability has a very negative impact on mental stability.”

Promoting connection

The use of video conferencing platforms such as Zoom and Skype has become the primary way colleagues are communicating, both for work matters and for socialising, with 62 million downloads of video conferencing apps across iOS and Google Play in mid-March, according to App Annie.

Taylor believes that organisations should take advantage of this shift in the way we work to encourage greater communication, despite physical distance

“I think there’s a lot that [organisations] could be doing. Let’s think about those that are now working from home for example. Making sure that connection is promoted as best possible, and using Zoom or Skype or whatever communication channels you might have, making sure that people are having the opportunity to socially relate to one another, rather than always being on work calls,” he says.

“For example, having an online space that you can dip in and out almost like the common room or kitchen table kind of environment. And making sure that there are very clear levels of communication from managers about what going on.”

He also explains that leading by example when it comes to healthy remote working habits is key.

“I think that really encouraging a culture where people take up the opportunity to go and exercise is incredibly important. I think being flexible, recognising that in this time, some things will change. Some things that previously were very important to the business, are now going to have to be de-prioritised temporarily. Whereas other things that previously didn’t feel as important are now going to have to be made more important.”

According to Buffer’s 2019 State of Remote Working report, 19% of workers said that lonliness was their biggest struggle when working remotely. Technology can be one way of mitigating this.

“I think technology has an incredibly important role to play in maintaining mental health.I think it would be a very different experience for all of us right now if we didn’t have technology. It has actually proven itself to be incredibly enabling, be that helping us connect with one another, or helping us look after our mental health and our physical health,” says Taylor.

“I believe that actually, the digital world has really come to the rescue in lots of ways in helping people to maintain wellbeing during this period.”

However, advances in workplace technology can create problems for remote workers, creating an “always on” mentality in which workers feel they must always be contactable and find it difficult to switch off. It is important for employers to carefully examine how remote working tools are being used and the impact this can have on wellness.

“I think the conversation around digital having a negative impact on the mental health of people is a really important conversation,” says Taylor.

“Like anything, it’s important that the balance is maintained between our physical lives and our digital lives. And I think one of the challenges for people in this time is maintaining that work life balance. With their a computer screen on in the dining room or kitchen, it’s then come five or six o’clock, having the discipline to close the lid. I think that it’s up to leaders to lead by example. And to create a culture where people know it’s okay to set boundaries and say “now is my home time”.”

Having the right tools for employees

Of course, not all emplyees are currently remote working, with many key workers currently facing additional pressure and health risks.

Unmind is offering all NHS staff, approximately 1.5 million people, free access to their digital platform and resources in the face of Covid-19 pressures. This is intended to help those at the front line of the fight against coronavirus look after their own mental health at this time.

Taylor believes that it is still vital to protect the mental wellbeing of these workers.

“There are many people right now doing incredibly important jobs to keep the economy going. And I think for those organisations, again, you can apply the five ways of wellbeing but also really making sure that people feel supported as best possible by managers listening and making sure that they’re really hearing what their employees are saying.

Looking beyond the coronavirus pandemic, Taylor believes that the nature of work could be altered, and with that comes new mental health considerations. Hopefully this will bring with it a growing awareness of the benefits flexibility can bring for employees with existing mental health conditions.

“I think one of the things that might come is a recognition that there are things we can now do at home that we didn’t used to think we could do at home. But I suspect as much as the argument can be made for why we could all start working remotely, people will probably also say: ‘you know what, I really miss being with my colleagues, I really miss that social interaction’,” he says.

“I also think that organisations will recognise the need to have the right tools for their employees for any scenario. Part of that scenario is not always being in the same space and being present. Be that making sure they’ve got the right access to video conferencing software, or making sure that they have the right wellbeing initiatives to meet the needs of their people when they’re not going to be in the same room as one another and that’s going to become a digital project.”

Read more: World Mental Health Day: The impact of “always on” technology on employee mental health.