Coronavirus and the workforce: coping with isolation
How can we mitigate the psychological impact of COVID-19 lockdown?
On 16 April the government announced an extension of lockdown across the UK. While distancing measures are in place to prioritise and protect public health, there is a negative impact associated with the adjustment to living, schooling and working in the limited space of our homes. At a time where fear and anxiety is already heightened, it’s important for people practitioners to consider how to best manage the psychological impact COVID-19 could be having on your workforce.
In the CIPD’s recent COVID-19 survey with over 1,000 UK employers, 49% say more than half of their workforce is working from home on a continual basis. While this doesn’t necessarily mean ‘business as usual’ it indicates a large proportion of organisations expect employees to continue working remotely and from home. However, the same survey also found 37% felt that reduced mental well-being was a significant challenge as a result of increased homeworking during the crisis. Research shows that stressors of isolation affect psychological health and well-being (see The Lancet for a rapid review of evidence). It can also influence work-related outcomes, such as productivity and engagement – in our survey one in five said engagement and motivation is a key challenge for home workers (19%).
So, what can we do to mitigate these factors and protect the workforce? Drawing on insights from research, we summarise evidence-based strategies that aim to support workers to cope with the psychological demands that many continue to face.
Employers, managers and people practitioners:
- Consistent and timely communication and information. Previous research found that a lack of information can exacerbate psychological stressors and tensions when in isolation. Any information and guidance that the business shares about COVID-19 should be from reliable sources, such as government or public health organisations. Given the uncertain time, employees will also want to know how the organisation is responding to, and impacted by, COVID-19 – regular and transparent communications around business continuity should be shared with the entire workforce.
- Consider how your new working hours may impact on colleagues. As we all take on the biggest home working experiment, it is important to recognise how our working patterns may impact on colleagues. For example, if you’re sending emails out in the evening, colleagues may feel there is an expectation to respond and this creates an unhealthy, ‘always on’ working culture. If you choose to work ad-hoc/flexible hours, communicate this and state that there isn’t an expectation for colleagues to do the same and action emails according to your working schedule.
- Use different means of communication. As we are all relying so heavily on digital technology to enable homeworking, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the daily digital ‘noise’. Try and use a range of different methods when communicating with colleagues (such as video calling, speaking on the phone etc.) to avoid feelings of being bogged down by emails and instant messages. Communicating in this way also provides a way to minimise the chances of digital miscommunication – where messages are misinterpreted or misunderstood by colleagues.
- Virtual tea breaks? Stay connected. The sky’s the limit here – there are so many innovative ways that teams are staying in contact with one another for the water-cooler conversations that are no longer happening. At the CIPD, we’ve witnessed virtual tea breaks, quizzes, and a lunchtime cook-along to name a few. Whatever it is, get your team talking and feeling connected about something other than work.
- A period of adjustment. The Psychologist draws insight from research of populations that work in isolated, confined and extreme environments and highlights that adapting to a new environment is a gradual process that can take up to 10 days. Being aware and able to recognise this transition will take time, but this can support you to normalise into your new working environment.
- Have a structured routine. Having structure and routine is so important for our mental health and general well-being, but it also helps us to feel organised and make the most out of our working day. Having set breaks is also vital, just as we would in an office. Take some time throughout your day to have regular breaks away from your screen to refocus and give your mind a break. It’s easy to forget to do this but it can make a huge difference to productivity.
- Think about what you can control, not what you can’t. At times of crisis, it’s natural to feel a sense of hopelessness or lack of control – but it’s much healthier to focus on aspects of work and home life that are in your control. This might be things like how you structure your day, how often you exercise, and the mode and frequency of how you communicate with colleagues, friends and family. Essential workers can also think about how and when they travel to work to minimise any health risks and avoid busier periods.
- Does your physical environment support your well-being? Physical working conditions can have a big impact on psychological health. The homeworking space we create will not only influence physical health but can have an impact on work outputs. Working conditions at home will vary for lots of us but some things to consider are:
- Posture – having correct equipment like monitors, laptop stands, keyboards and a mouse can help with this. Your organisation may be able to help supply necessary equipment.
- Lighting – make sure your room is well lit and allows natural light in (where possible)
- Remove distractions where possible (such as noise)
- Having a safe environment where there aren’t any obvious hazards
- Shift your mindset and see the positives. It’s easy to focus on the negatives, but we should also recognise the positivity around us, from spending more time with immediate family in the same household to how nature has benefitted from the lockdown measures. It could also be a great time to set yourself some new goals, like learning a language or reading more often. Whatever goals you set, remember to be kind to yourself.
Finally, it’s not always easy to stay productive and motivated while working during lockdown, so consider:
- Boundary management of work and home life. A mass working from home experiment can mean that work and home life becomes integrated more prominently, making it difficult to compartmentalise the two. For some, integrating home and work life isn’t a problem, but it’s important that we find ways to disconnect from work and re-charge our batteries. Make time and prioritise non-work activities that energise you, either at the start or end of your working day. Be clear about your working hours and don’t be tempted to check work emails outside of your working day.
- Build your mental resilience. For more evidence-based advice on managing mental well-being throughout this time see International SOS’s resource and video.
The CIPD is providing advice, resources and guidance to support employers and people professionals in their response to COVID-19 on its Coronavirus hub, including tips on getting the most from remote working and essential flexible working considerations.
Rebecca is a Research Advisor at CIPD. Her interests include health and well-being at work, using positive psychology to help people thrive and the application of evidence into practice. In her spare time Rebecca enjoys travelling and experiencing new places, cultures and food. Being a foodie, she also enjoys cooking and trying out different recipes.