The new normal, whatever that is

By Adrian Wakeling, Senior Policy Advisor, Acas 

It's a cliché but when this is over, I'll never, EVER take anything for granted again …we thought we were awake, but we were truly sleepwalking” 

These are the words of the novelist Joanna Cannon, writing on Twitter. If we needed a wake-up call for the way we value each other at work and the way we reach out to offer support to the most vulnerable, then the new CIPD survey gives us a collective prod in the ribs.  

With many people living with constant anxiety, is it good enough that only a third of managers are viewed as being confident at having sensitive discussions about mental health? 

Acas has had a surge in calls to its helpline – up to around 5,000 a day. People are calling about all kinds of pressing issues, including redundancy, sick pay, holiday, working at home and looking after childrenand our advisors are picking up on the increased levels of stress. As Rachel Suff has commented, this crisis is as much about our mental health as our physical health.  

My personal observations on what works in the new normal are:  

More sharing and less telling  

The poor line manager always seems to get hauled over the coals for not doing enough, but I think we are living in a time when sharing on equal terms (parent/parent or child/child) may work more than telling in the way we have been used toMany people are reaching out to support each other in an organic and spontaneous way. I know in my own team we are having regular catch-ups, not to talk about work but for pastoral care. The ‘are you alright?’ question seems so telling every single day. 

Yes, managers and employers have clear responsibilities, but the old boundaries and demarcations don’t work as well in the current climate. A junior member of staff can ring up the Chief Executive to check if they are ok; and teams can become like extended families. In many settings, this is happening without people being told to make it happen.   

There are degrees of vulnerability  

The new survey makes a telling point about the double-edged nature of technology and how it can both liberate and enslave us. As a someone who has worked form home for over fifteen years, I noticed that the ‘them and us’ between home and office workers, has evaporated. We are all in the same boat, with many of us perched on the edge of a sofa and having to cope with children or pets interrupting the skype calls! 

Despite all we have in common, we must remember there are degrees of vulnerability. Some will find the isolation overwhelming and those with pre-existing mental health conditions will feel levels of anxiety potentially reaching tipping points. 

We need to look after ourselves and develop our own coping strategies, a point well made in the CIPD report, but as soon as we think we are ok, we need to try and help those struggling most. 

Let’s not recreate what we are used to  

The current crisis gives us the chance to create something better for the futureEveryone is re-evaluating their priorities in terms of what really matters to them. It’s an unsettling time and it is understandable that there is a psychological need to recreate what is known and familiar – in terms of chains of command and decision-making. 

But why not take the disruption as an opportunity to do things differently?  We don’t have to replace the same face-to-face committees with identical virtual committees; or spend all day on skype meetings instead of face-to-face ones. Yes, we need to keep communicating effectively, but smarter and quicker ways of making decisions may evolve. I think that we can all embrace a little more spontaneity 

More than anything we need flexibility and understanding. Sickness absence may be flatlining in the latest figures, but presenteeism is on the increase. And let’s not forget that flexible working, often seen as a poor relation by some, is now being understood for what it is: a sensible, grown-up way to work and live.    

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