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It was over the summer that Clint Lee had his eureka moment. The CEO of Texan video technology company OneDay had spent a few weeks working remotely from a Colorado log cabin. The office skyscrapers of Dallas were swapped for the jagged peaks of the Rockies, the choking traffic of home replaced with lake vistas and cool mountain breezes.
Refreshed, he came up with the idea of ‘New Digs’, an initiative where four employees each month are handpicked to work from an Airbnb in the US of their choosing – lockdown permitting. The aim: to rejuvenate workers suffering from stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic. Although not a panacea, the programme is there to help staff who might be struggling as they work from home during a prolonged health crisis.
Across the Atlantic, bosses in the UK are similarly turning to creative ways to try to stave off employee coronavirus fatigue. The novelty of working from home has faded, and the pandemic rumbles on. Employees also had to contend with lockdown hokey-cokey: having been urged back to the office over the summer, they were soon told to go home. They may not be back until there’s a vaccine.
That uncertainty, mixed with a persistent background hum of anxiety, is a recipe for mental burnout. “It’s more than just feeling stressed – it’s a state of exhaustion,” explains business psychologist Alan Bradshaw. Unremitting demands, combined with isolation and a lack of perceived control, are key ingredients. “With Covid, we haven’t had much of a break and the second wave has really knocked our morale. Everything has been up in the air and the worries and concerns have been constant.”
Ideas to ease workers’ cognitive load are plentiful. Financial software provider Intelliflo has added ‘drop in’ Zoom coffee slots, and a new scheme called ‘Walkie Talkies’. “People can go for a walk when dialling in to some meetings where laptops aren’t required,” says CEO Nick Eatock. “It seems to work well to get fresh air and a change of scenery. And everyone is encouraged to shut down and switch off properly in the evening to avoid screen-time fatigue.”
Likewise, pharmaceutical tech firm BenevolentAI encourages its remote workforce to take ‘wellness walks’ to ensure time away from their desks. “‘Too busy’ is no excuse,” says Benevolent’s chief people officer Trecilla Lobo. “We’ve increased mental health support services and also offered access to wellbeing apps.” One such app generates random weekly matches between team members, so they can have virtual coffee breaks together.
Ideas to ease workers’ cognitive load are plentiful. Nominet, the official registry for the .uk domain name, supplied its workers with a home office set-up during the first lockdown. This time around, it’s sending employees care packages in time for Christmas. Other initiatives have included its social committee going virtual, inviting a mental health speaker to provide a talk to workers, and even weekly emails moving to video news and animated postcards as a way of bringing seasonal cheer. “We’re determined to ensure our staff can embrace as much festive spirit as possible,” says CEO Russell Haworth.
It’s not just tech firms, though. HR departments across multiple industries are figuring out how to translate office collaboration into living rooms scattered around the country. Baby food manufacturer Ella’s Kitchen sends cakes in the post, so workers can enjoy tea meetings. Energy firm Centrica offers employees ten days’ leave for those with caregiving responsibilities. Companies are regularly booking check-ins to see how staff are coping through their working day.
Managers are fighting more than just lockdown fatigue. Coronavirus notwithstanding, there are indications that prolonged working from home can be damaging to some people’s mental health – especially those who felt isolated long before social distancing came into fashion. “This generation already was disproportionately anxious and lonely,” explains economist Noreena Hertz, author of The Lonely Century. “Working from home, in the midst of a global pandemic, has exacerbated that.”
Hertz cites a pre-Covid study in which a Chinese firm sent 500 of its employees to work from home for nine months. Although there was a boost in performance, most still elected for a permanent office return once the experiment was over. Many reported feelings of isolation. “Since lockdown, research has found an increasing number of remote workers that they’re feeling lonely. We’re creatures of togetherness – we’re hardwired to connect. We’re increasingly aware of virtual interactions not being as satisfying as face-to-face ones.”
Water cooler chat and work lunches, the micro-exchanges with colleagues which help ease the pressure gauge of stress, have gone. In their place are makeshift desks, extended periods alone and a slew of Zoom calls. The sanctuary of the home – once the refuge from the everyday pressures of the workplace – has vanished. Instead, it’s become the new workplace. Career and family stresses now merge into one.
Susan Raftery, senior adviser for the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (Acas), lists some of the telltale signs that an employee is struggling. “A more obvious issue is noticing earlier or later logging on – and whether staff are taking enough leave. But things like not turning up for calls can be one. If people are not willing to put their camera on, we’ve found it can be a sign of stress or mental health issues.”
As bosses navigate the new normal, it’s little wonder that Acas has seen an uptick in its training courses. Popular ones include mental health, resilience training for staff and managing homeworkers. Raftery adds that introducing ‘duvet days’ – in which employees can take the day off at short notice – could help ease workers’ mental burden. “Pre-pandemic, there were a number of organisations who were using personal days to aid staff if they thought they could be struggling. Initiatives like these can be of real use – otherwise the employee will most likely just call in sick anyway.”
While some still enjoy the office-free life, there are certain demographics more prone to struggling than others. According to one recent study, it’s those aged under 25 who are most keen to return to the workplace. “Younger employees fear they’re more likely to feel invisible to their managers when not in the office,” Hertz says. “At a time when people are increasingly worried about keeping their jobs, that’s an additional strain: ‘Will my manager even remember me?’”
The first lockdown saw a proliferation of virtual work drinks and group yoga classes – a band-aid to cover the psychological wounds of isolation and reduced job security. Are bosses under increasing pressure to find a more permanent solution this time around? Yes, according to Bradshaw. “With the second lockdown, it’s much more difficult to argue that the mental health impact, the anxiety fuelled by isolation and loneliness – and lack of support – couldn’t have been foreseen. Enlightened employers have recognised this and have realised they need to do much more, especially around management development and training.”
Hertz agrees. She recommends virtual lunch meetings as a way of employees bonding and remaining engaged – so long as eating your sandwich with colleagues feels like a break, and isn’t scheduled in between back-to-back work calls. Connections don’t have to feel forced, either. “I know of one company in which staff post photos of what they’re interested in – from ballet to football. People with a shared interest, across a whole organisation, then link up and interact. It’s a nice initiative – it starts conversations.”
Sending off employees to far-flung Airbnbs for some recuperation may be out of reach for most businesses. But as the second wave of Covid continues to crash against the shore, providing workers with a lifebuoy as they navigate uncertain waters is critical. “I’ve been encouraging managers to become more aware of mental health challenges and pay more attention to employees’ needs – especially among younger workers,” says Bradshaw. “Many understand their duty of care and are doing more to bring people into teams in a much more inclusive and supportive way.”
Noreena Hertz was one of the speakers at WIRED Smarter 2020. The virtual event, which ran from October 13 to 15, explored the ways senior business leaders can turn disruption into a strategy.
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