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Mental health and COVID-19
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Mental health and COVID-19: How to stay safe and mentally balanced

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Extreme loneliness or great work life balance? How to work from home and stay mentally healthy, according to workplace wellbeing experts.

With social distancing and self-isolation becoming increasingly common due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, more businesses are shifting to remote working to keep afloat. For many, this is a sudden change and one borne out of immediate necessity can be mentally distressing. How can you make sure you and your staff are keeping on top of their mental health in such a time?

Government reports suggest that up to 1 out of 5 could be off work due to COVID-19 in the UK, so preparations are being rapidly put in place by organisations which have perhaps never considered enabling their staff to work from home before, and large businesses like Google and Twitter are telling their staff to work from home to prevent the spread of the rapidly escalating disease.

As a result, many businesses are rushing into or being forced to get remote working set up adequately, and many technology platforms are jumping to attention around the media coverage, creating guides and recommendations on how to set up your work force to adequately work from home.

Looking specifically at the emotional impact it could have on those who are suddenly having to work in this way until offices are reopened opens up a new set of challenges.

Employees are developing guidelines and ensuring that sick pay will be paid – but for working parents, there seems to be little relief for those planning for school closures, and for the self-employed there is no sick pay – many won’t be able to work or maintain their livelihood – a concern to many of the UK’s 5m who work for themselves.

Some groups, like community project Leapers, are looking to tackle these more emotional aspects of the pandemic.

Leapers has developed a guide for teams who might forced to work from home, tips and ideas of how to “work well” with a focus on maintaining positive mental health under challenging circumstances.

“Many freelancers deal with isolation and working from home every day, so we have plenty of experience of what is needed to work well when working remotely,” Matthew Knight, founder of the project supporting the mental health of the self-employed, explains. “Fortunately, for many who might be under quarantine, 14 days is not forever – but isolation can very quickly set in, so we’re encouraging everyone to prepare for working remotely, not wait until it happens”.

Other groups who focus on remote working are joining together behind the hashtag #remoteagainstcoronavirus – encouraging everyone to share their tools, tips, techniques and support businesses to take steps towards remote working sooner rather than later, such as remote agency Hoxby Collective, and Mind have published guidance on maintaining good mental health under stress during infectious outbreaks such as COVID-19.

There are plenty of negatives to working from home, says David Price, workplace wellbeing expert and CEO of Health Assured.

“Sometimes it becomes difficult to separate your work life from your home life, especially when they both take place in the same area. It can get a bit lonely, without the commute and your co-workers around you. And you might find yourself becoming far less active—especially for the conscientious among you who walk or cycle every morning,” he says.

But, of course, there are positive among the gloom. Remote workers are often more productive, more engaged (with lower levels of absenteeism) and more loyal—in fact, 54% of quizzed workers say they would change jobs for one which offered more flexibility.

How to stay mentally balanced as a remote worker

So, what can you do to keep yourself sane and healthy if you’re sent home to work at short notice?

  • Draw a line between work and home. It’s more straightforward than it sounds, says Price. Make sure you have a dedicated area where you do work, and nothing else even if it’s just a corner of a kitchen table. Treat this as your office for now, and take regular breaks.
  • Stick to your hours. It can be tempting to set Slack to busy and start work a little later—or to keep burning through your tasks throughout the evening. This is counterproductive—best practice dictates that you ought to keep to your regular hours. No-one is expecting you to work more (or less!) while you’re at home.
  • Keep yourself positive. Take advantage of being at home to set the mood. You don’t even have to wear pants if you don’t want to (but you probably should!) Make that nice coffee you keep as a treat, listen to the music no one else in the office likes, burn some incense, keep the thermostat at the perfect temperature.
  • Eat, exercise, sleep. According to Knight, physical health is intertwined with mental health, make sure you’re getting good rest, eating well, and find exercises you can do from home.
  • Schedule in socials. Put some time in the day where you’re catching up with others about non-work topics, just as you would as work. Share a cup of tea with someone via a video call, or just pick up the phone, don’t rely upon only typing and texting.

How to stay mentally balanced as an employer working remotely

If you’re an employer who is unused to remote work, it can feel a little daunting letting your people off the leash. Here are a few ways to support and care for your employees:

  • Get Ready. Don’t wait for it to be necessary, prepare your technology and teams for remote working now, give it a trial run and make sure you’ve discussed how your teams will communicate.
  • Use technology to keep office morale up. Set up a Slack or Discord channel, use Microsoft Teams or even get a WhatsApp group together so everyone can stay in touch in real-time.
  • Communicate. Stay in touch and talk regularly. Check-in at least once every hour—not in a snooping or invasive way, literally ask how people are doing, and if you can help. Companies need to check in on their teams at home, and individuals need to check in with their colleagues, and for those who are struggling, share how you’re feeling, talking about the stresses really helps.
  • Encourage people to work within the hours they should. If you see someone online beavering away at 7 pm, make sure they understand that they’re not expected to.
  • Reward and reassure people. Make sure they know that they’re just as valued wherever they might be.

Free mental wellbeing programmes

Realising the power of cloud technologies and communication platforms at times like this, tech firms around the world are stepping up support for the business community.

87%, a digital platform dedicated to managing and improving mental wellbeing in the workplace, has pledged today to support Britain’s small business community by providing free access to its mental health platform.

Its shareholders have advanced it dedicated funds so it can offer any company, with between 1 and 100 employees, free access to the 87% platform until the end of June 2020.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 worldwide is creating unprecedented levels of uncertainty and change in both business and personal lives. This is already having materially adverse effects on mental health.

87% is in essence a team of experts in psychology, technology and business focused on improving mental wellbeing in the workforce whilst maintaining the absolute privacy and trust of the employee.

The benefits from using the platform accrue not only directly to employees (in terms of better understanding and wellbeing resilience) but also to the company sponsor through improved employee engagement, productivity, reduced business costs and the creation of a more sustainable business culture.

In light of this global crisis, 87% is offering any business based in the UK, with between 1 and 100 employees free access for its employees to the 87% platform until the end of June 2020, with no further obligation.

The crisis situation will be assessed at the end of this period and an extension may be offered dependent on circumstances.

Employees will gain full access to the 87% app with a comprehensive feature set, daily interactions, weekly mental fitness bulletins and podcast series. The 87% platform can provide the employer with an insight dashboard and can be integrated with existing mental wellbeing products and initiatives such as EAP, MHFA and current healthcare providers to create a one-stop-shop for employee wellbeing.

“These are worrying times for us all and 87% is doing its bit to help,” says CEO Andy Bibby. “Smaller businesses are undoubtedly going to be suffering more than most during this time of uncertainty yet care for their employees equally. if we can use our platform and combined skills to help, then we will of course, do so. We all have a responsibility to work together to support our economy, society and each other today, and in the future.”

To get free access to the 87% app, companies will need to go through a simple approval process. To apply please visit https://www.87percent.co.uk/covid-19

Employment statistics: Cause for concern?

UK Employment data released on 17 March 2020 reveals an opportunity for businesses to step up to the plate when it comes to duty of care.
“In times of crisis, responsible business practice can easily slip through the net and we are urging businesses to bolster their duty of care towards employees rather than put it on the back burner,” Amanda Mackenzie OBE, Chief Executive of Business in the Community, a charity and The Prince’s Responsible Business Network, says.
“The threat from COVID-19 is an opportunity for businesses to show real character and a commitment to their staff that could prove invaluable in the long term.”
COVID-19 is putting an unprecedented level of pressure on businesses of all sizes in every sector, which is why Mackenzie believes a sharp rise in unemployment is inevitable in the weeks and months ahead.
“With events changing by the day, crystal clear communication and a basic duty of care towards employees will vastly improve their wellbeing, which is key,” she says.
“Businesses need to be completely transparent with their staff about the decisions they are making as part of their management of the pandemic.”
As well as accommodating the needs of employees who are at higher risk of contracting the virus, employers need to be aware of the toll COVID-19 will be taking on the mental health of staff.
“Making employees aware of mental health first aiders, Employee Assistance Programmes and other help is a good first step to making sure that support is not only provided but accessible, too.”
“In the current environment, employers should look at their duty of care not just as a legal and moral imperative but as a chance to significantly enhance staff loyalty,” Mackenzie adds.

Are you a business affected by social distancing and isolation? Let us know what strategies you have in place to keep your remote workforce connected and mentally balanced. 

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