What a difference a week makes. By now, businesses, offices and families all across the United Kingdom are coming to terms with the recommendation that (where possible) people self-isolate as the UK Government seeks to “spread the peak” of the Coronavirus pandemic. Ignoring the seismic impact this has had upon businesses and industries, there is a fundamental, human impact to this. This can be seen most easily in the form of deserted streets, train carriages, pubs, restaurants, shops and the like.
But what about the people who are self-isolating? I am one of the lucky ones – I work from home once a week and have an office at home which is set up to mirror as closely as possible my office at work (with some added children). However, others are unable to work from home or, if they do work from home, have to do so using a laptop, sharing space with flatmates or partners and without the same calm working atmosphere they would otherwise have in a professional office.
There are other issues to consider however. Indeed, the biggest challenge for most people will not be setting the alarm at 5am to make sure they get the prime spot on the couch so they can use the coffee table for their laptop; or a clash of laptop screens over a small dining table but the sense of loneliness, disconnection and alienation which will come with being away from their co-workers and friends for a potential protracted period of time.
Human beings are, in the main, social animals. This is a fact proven by countless studies over the years. Further, people often ask me why we refer to the employment “relationship”, when the stock answer to a round of lay-offs, failure to give pay rises or performance terminations that “it’s just business, nothing personal”. However, the fact remains that employment is a relationship – we spend more time with our co-workers than we do with our families in most cases (sad, but true). Being ripped away from those co-workers is likely to place employees at risk of possible mental health issues.
So what can employers do to help employees at this time?
- They can organise regular one-to-one check-ins with employees – these do not specifically have to be about how people are feeling, but line managers, colleagues, etc., should just use every opportunity to call someone, rather than sending an email.
- Hold regular virtual team meetings – find an excuse to do so, even if you don’t feel you need one. This gives everyone an opportunity to feel part of the team and to contribute, or just to have a moan.
- Consider using video conferencing or video calls where possible – whilst not quite the same as chatting about the football or EastEnders at the coffee machine (a conversation which would be pretty limited at the current time anyway) this is a greater level of human interaction than sending emails to people and/or using team instant messengers, at least until the technology sags under the unexpected weight of usage.
- Find other ways for the team to interact – for example, we have downloaded WhatsApp. So far, this is not only a way to share important news updates, but also a way to share those little “jokes” for which you might otherwise stick your head into someone’s room.
- Check in with employees regularly – they or family members may have contracted Covid-19, furthering their isolation and making them feel worse. Try not to sound too business-like and breezy about all this as it may grate horribly.
- Share news sensitively and carefully – the World Health Organisation has produced some useful guidance on mental health considerations at this trying time, a key element of which is making sure that you only share facts, not rumours or mis-information.
- If you are aware that employees may have an underlying mental health condition (or indeed have a physical condition which may put them at risk from Covid-19), perhaps pay them extra care – it is important that they feel they are being supported at all times as they are likely to be fearful themselves.
- Find ways to proactively keep track of employees’ workloads and ensure that work is shared appropriately – this can be difficult when people are working remotely, as you do not have the physical touchpoint of seeing them in the office at all hours/seeing how stressed they are, but it’s even more important when working remotely that employees feel as supported as possible.
This is going to be a difficult time and it is unclear how long this is likely to last. It is important to ensure that team members are supported throughout this period and are made to feel like a team – the more people can be made to feel that, genuinely, we are all in this together, the better.