Rachel Nayani: Health and wellbeing support needed in times of crisis

Covid-19 has seen record numbers of employees working from home for the first time, or for a prolonged period of time. Keeping employees in good mental and physical health is critical for business’ sustainability, so how can managers help?

Prior research has identified many and varied risk factors for home-based working.

For mental health, the most obvious is the potential for isolation and lack of workplace support structures. The wide-spread use of video communications can help considerably, perhaps with regular virtual team meetings and online social events.

Another risk is the potential for greater intensification of work, as the usual cues; commuting to work, structured working day, are absent and so workers can find themselves working longer than is good for their health. Having a separate and dedicated area to work and structured working hours can help with this issue. Without regular communication, there is also a danger of employees being unsure of their performance expectations.

On the up-side, however, there may be considerable opportunity to be flexible over when and how tasks are performed, as well as the potential for less intrusive micro-management.

Another key risk will be around musculoskeletal problems, such as back pain. Having a dedicated workspace with a decent chair will help, as will ensuring regular breaks with some standing time are taken.

In normal circumstances, many home-based workers have some choice in the decision to work at home, have the ability to visit workplaces a few times a week, will have a dedicated workspace and are supported by appropriate IT.

Often, childcare will also be organised too and people would be able to get outdoors with relative ease. However, in the present circumstances, such choices and supports are extremely limited. This makes it all the more important for managers to attend to the challenges of managing home-based workers.

Managers who are no longer in the same physical location as employees have to work far harder at maintaining good-quality working relationships to help staff stay engaged and in good health. Effective and two-way communications become key in helping managers undertake their responsibilities remotely. To do this, technology is an important enabler; where possible, video-based technology provides valuable face-to-face contact.

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The shift to home-based working means that managers need to ensure they schedule sufficient time for communications. Above all, managers need a clear understanding of the challenges of home-based working for each employee, in order to provide support and advice, set expectations, listen and respond to issues and challenges. Adapting to home-based working is challenging for managers as well, so taking care of their own health and wellbeing is of paramount importance.

Dr Rachel Nayani is a lecturer in human resources management and organisational behaviour at University of East Anglia.