How to ensure psychological safety in a remote working world

Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing at Generali UK Employee Benefits speaks with Alison Pay, Managing Director of community interest company Mental Health at Work

“Shall we jump on a call?” It seems like such a simple request. And it’s great for those who like to think out loud. But what about those who need the time and space to think things through? Or those who are living in a bedsit or flat-share and balancing their laptop while sitting on the edge of the bed? Or those that just don’t like looking at themselves throughout an entire meeting? (When does that ever happen usually!). Then there’s the problem of broadband speed and sharing. Plus, the fact that breaks have all but disappeared; no chance to walk between meetings, have a casual chat, grab a coffee or even go to the toilet…It’s staggering how working lives have changed. And while the mass shift – literally overnight – to remote working was a tremendous feat, with the availability of video calls ensuring the survival of many a business, it has also brought with it extra challenges when it comes to ensuring psychological safety.

Everyone ‘made do’ last year as the situation was seen as temporary. But now that home or hybrid working is becoming a permanent feature for many, the time is ripe to consider the mental health of the organisation; to put in place the safeguards to ensure that your people can do their best work, while still maintaining a good work life balance.

In body, but not spirit

Presenteeism (physically at work but not able to do your best work because something is stopping you) can represent a strong indicator that something is wrong on the mental health continuum. And with 83% of people saying they’d observed presenteeism in the organisation in a pre-pandemic survey1 the challenges were already big. Once everyone retreated behind their screens, they just got bigger.

For example, research2 has found that:

83% worry about having tech/audio problems and now knowing how to fix them

67% of people report difficulty reading body language

56% feel they are not heard

41% worry about not having time to prepare their appearance

34% worry about the unprofessional nature of their background

The ‘Zoom fatigue’ effect

And the impact of all of this on wellbeing? It’s generally a given that we use more energy on video calls than we do face-to-face, due to the need to focus more, to process non-verbal cues and to focus on many people at once. It’s more difficult to engage with people thanks to the lack of body language, the inability to see people if they have their camera off, and connectivity issues causing delays, drops and freezing. In short, the issue of so-called ‘Zoom fatigue’ is very real. It’s not unusual to feel too drained to actually do any work after a series of calls.

So, what can you as a HR professional or Line Manager do? What are the signs that something is wrong? And do you and your managers know how to address the problem?

Support for Line Managers

First and foremost, be proactive and have some structure to the support you provide. Equip Line Managers to understand their duty of care with regards to noticing the signs that something might be wrong with an employee. Most importantly, where to go from there and the skills to do this; from having a casual conversation and listening, giving people an opportunity to ‘empty their bottle’ to looking at adjustments and/or signposting to professional help where needed.

Considering using a Wellness Action Plan. Position this to your people as helping them: look at ways to allow boundaries to be set, providing separation between life and work; to look at what they need, to be mentally or physically healthy when working from home or hybrid working; and, crucially, to look at what you can do together to make adaptations or, if necessary, reasonable adjustments3 – such as number of days in the office or travel time.

Some useful questions to ask as part of this might be:

  • Would you like to share details about your current working situation?
  • In your usual working environment, what helps you stay mentally healthy whilst working? And what triggers barriers to that in the home?
  • How can we together make adaptations? Are reasonable adjustments needed?

Equip your line managers with the skills, so that they feel confident to have such discussions. These conversations sound simple, but we know that most managers do not find them easy.  Help them understand what reasonable adjustments are, and in what circumstances they might be relevant.

This all sounds quite straightforward, but such proactive and personalised support was only really starting to gain traction before the pandemic hit. Then, add another layer in the shape of remote working, and it becomes ever more complex. That said, it’s all infinitely doable. Supporting Line Managers is key, to help them get better at noticing, asking questions and considering appropriate adaptations and adjustments.

Generali UK Employee Benefits partners with Mental Health at Work as part of its Wellbeing Investment Matching initiative. We can help our group income protection clients fund a full and bespoke ‘Behind the Screens’ workshop for HR and Line Managers with Mental Health at Work, or indeed any of their facilitated training services. Please contact us for more information.

1 CIPD, Rise in stress at work linked to poor management, new research finds, April 2019

2 Buffalo 7, What is zoom anxiety and what can we do about it? [Accessed July 2021]

3 Gov.UK, Equality Act 2010