Ways to overcome feelings of isolation in home workers...
Before 2020, many workers felt that working from home was a luxury. After all, who wouldn’t want to avoid lengthy commutes and traffic delays? But after months of lockdown where working from home became compulsory for many, the challenges of long-term remote working are starting to be felt.
A report from the Eurofound and the International Labour Office highlighted that remote working can have lasting repercussions for staff. The global report has compared research from around the world, noticing that wherever workers are based, isolation is a significant challenge. It’s interesting that although this report was published in 2017, it’s even more relevant today.
There are different categories of the 'homeworker'. One is “the introvert” – a worker who may become so used to working from home that they become reclusive and lose many of their social skills. For this group, working from home for lengthy periods can start to be detrimental to their overall health and wellbeing.
Most people are social creatures. We thrive on building connections and maintaining relationships with others. For many people, going to work is a core part of their ‘social activity’. After all, going to work is the time when you get to leave your house for the day and interact with others. It’s something that many of us have taken for granted. Since lockdown and the enforced ‘stay home’ message, many workers have become increasingly isolated and there are concerns that this could have lasting implications for mental health.
Research from the Mental Health Foundation found that before lockdown, 1 in 10 adults said they had felt lonely in the past two weeks. When asked this question just a few weeks later (as lockdown took place), this escalated from 1 in 10, to 1 in 4.
How can employers help?
Line managers should be encouraged to listen to their staff to identify the issues they may be facing. Some may be struggling to combine full-time work with continued home-schooling. Others may be impacted by COVID-19 related anxiety. As we head into nearly a year of home working and as some businesses decide to downsize or close office-based operations altogether, dealing with mental health and wellbeing is likely to become an even bigger priority. Crucially, employers must continue to offer staff the same levels of support that they would receive if they were office-based.
When it comes to multiple locations, delivering a cohesive experience for all employees is an enormous challenge. Immediate considerations include issues relating to supervision, measuring outputs, ensuring equal opportunities, recognising and rewarding hard work, and awarding promotions…. and so the list goes on.
Encourage people to be sociable!
The question many employers are grappling with is how to make employees feel valued and supported by line managers even if they aren’t seeing them face to face?
Make sure that employees know they have a right to ‘log off’ from work outside of contracted hours. When working from home, it can be easy to work additional hours far beyond the traditional 9-5. After all, if your laptop is there, what’s the harm in checking your emails before you go to bed? As an employer, you may need to dissuade staff from logging on out of hours. Interestingly, in France, employees have a ‘right to disconnect’.
Remind staff of the importance of regular breaks so that they aren’t sitting at their desks for too long. When you work in an office, you take for granted how often you move around, whether you’re walking to the kitchen or heading into a different department to speak to a colleague. However, when you work from home, staff may not have moved for several hours! One idea is to launch a team competition to encourage people to get their steps up. It would also remind them that they aren’t working alone, encourage collaboration and help to rebuild some of the office-based social relationships that may have fallen by the wayside.
Collaborate, connect and communicate.
There are shared working tools available to help people collaborate, feel connected and communicate well, such as SharePoint, Slack, Basecamp, Teams and Google Drive. When working in an office, people will naturally strike up conversations and bond over ‘water cooler’ moments. These social interactions may seem inconsequential, but they contribute to team harmony and help cement relationships. Shared working tools can help to replicate these moments by bringing remote workers together. Simply being able to facilitate some form of ‘typical’ office conversation can provide an element of normality. It can also remind employees that they are not alone.
Another way to communicate and build relationships is to set aside some time to just chat to your colleagues, whether it be about what box set everyone's watching or to talk about home improvements! This allows people to continue to keep relationships strong whilst not seeing your co-workers. This could be done once a week, set aside half an hour for a coffee and chat and you'll be surprised how much it cheers people up.
We all understand the important role internal communication plays so now may be a good time to consider how you communicate. Are you relying too much on emails or webchat at a time when video conferences or phone calls can make all the difference, particularly if people are feeling isolated? Tone is also important. The CIPD explains that “People can be more sensitive if they’re feeling isolated or anxious, so take this into account when talking or writing. Communicate regularly, not just when things go wrong, whether it is information, praise, or criticism.”
Ultimately, it’s about encouraging managers to take the time to look beyond an employee’s outputs and external facade to see what is really going on and, when necessary, to step in and provide any additional support they may need.
If you or anyone you know is facing challenges with their mental health due to isolation, please visit Oxfordshire Mind's 'Getting Help' page to find out more information. We're in this together.