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Several recent reports highlight the impact of remote working on mental health, but they forget that remote working during Covid is not the same as normal remote working.
‘Employers must be aware of remote working risks to mental health’ said an article on Monday, citing Paul Crawford, of the University of Nottingham’s Institute of Mental Health, saying businesses concentrating on the savings the shift to home working will bring may “condemn huge swathes of their workforces to . . . a desolate, unfulfilling existence.”
Another article from the Sunday Express reported that mental health problems now account for almost four in 10 of all sick notes signed by GPs, up 6% since the pandemic started. It quoted Vicki Chauhan, head of public services at NTT Data UK, saying: “Employee mental health and wellbeing has always been of crucial importance in the workplace. This research shows that it’s more important now than ever to support our health as lockdown and remote working continues to impact society.”
And a report on People Management on Monday was titled “Increase in mental health-related sickness absence during lockdown, analysis finds”. Carole Spiers, chair of the International Stress Management Association UK, said: “Working from home is a major challenge at the moment, and employees need tips and strategies to enhance mental wellbeing while working remotely.”
While there are clearly issues around isolation with remote working and many people are not properly set up for it, I would argue that a lot of these reports miss one crucial fact: that the remote working they are talking about is been done in a pandemic where people are anxious about their health, about their jobs and often working while juggling caring responsibilities as school year groups open and close and everything seems very uncertain.
Having worked remotely for many years, I can vouch for the fact that, at least in my job, pandemic remote working is nothing like normal remote working where you can go out and meet up with people, attend events, etc, and not be stuck on Zoom day in and day out, battling to keep your organisation going through a hugely challenging time. In normal remote working you do not get messages from your school every five minutes that another year group has closed down and you are back to homeschooling. And you can spend weekends visiting family and friends.
There is nothing remotely normal about the last few months and it would be sad if all the progress that has been made on flexible working – and all the interest in hybrid working where you get the best of both worlds of remote and office working – were to go backwards because remote working is being labelled as bad for mental health.
Surely, too, it depends in part on how remote jobs are designed and managed. The important thing when it comes to workplace stress is choice and the surveys indicate a proportion of the workforce want full remote working, with hybrid working the most popular option in many organisations.
Indeed, for many people remote working is good for their mental health. I recall the daily stress of going into the office after multiple drop-offs, worrying about getting home late and being fined by the nursery, stressing out about what to do when a child was ill or had an inset day or whatever. That was definitely not good for my mental health as was the lack of empathy from a boss who didn’t understand.
Come mass vaccination and the ‘return to normality’, there is likely to be almighty pressure to get back to the office. We’ve already had a taste of it in September. But ‘normality’ doesn’t work for many people. Employers need to ensure that they take into account that what works for some may not work for all.