Looming mental health crisis calls for new management approach to remote working

While lockdown regulations have relaxed slightly, most professionals who are able, continue to work remotely. However, a recent global study has cast a spotlight on the impact that the pandemic and sudden switch to remote work has had on employee wellbeing.

According to Genevieve Kieser Koolen, Human Resources Director at SAP Africa, the pandemic has brought with it immense challenges around employee mental and emotional wellbeing.

“While several industries were completely shuttered during lockdown, many professionals were lucky enough to continue working and earning an income. However, by bringing everything together under one roof – work, school, personal life – employees had to juggle between multiple roles while also coping with a very stressful global health emergency. What we are seeing now is a looming mental health crisis in the global workforce, requiring new thinking, the relaxing of traditional work hours and a kinder approach by employers.”

Koolen says the false divide between people’s work lives and their home lives quickly disappeared during the early days of lockdown. “Suits and ties were swopped for jeans and t-shirts, but for many professionals work pressure increased as employees felt an increased desire to prove their relevance to their companies, many of whom demanded greater productivity in an effort to maintain revenue. And while a lengthy commute was no longer necessary, working moms and dads had to blend work and home duties – including playing teacher and nanny to their kids, thereby creating a high-pressure situation during an already-stressful period.”

In a study of more than 2000 employees in March and April,  two in five respondents said their mental health has declined since the pandemic outbreak, including 44.4% of those now working from home. “More than two-thirds of respondents stated their stress levels have increased since the outbreak, leading to feelings of exhaustion, sadness and irritability. Nearly 40% also reported increased insomnia.”

Koolen believes employers need to quickly implement systems and policies that help stressed employees, especially while they’re cut off from the office. “The effects of the mental health shock of our current situation may even outlive the pandemic itself and have far-reaching implications for employers and employees alike. Here, a kinder management style coupled with new technology tools to help keep track of employees’ mental state could help employers determine when to provide additional assistance to under-pressure employees.”

Data shows that employers and management can make a positive contribution to employee wellbeing and help mitigate some of the stress and anxiety surrounding COVID-19. Koolen provides the following tips to organisations:

Make sure managers care

As employees’ direct connection to the organisation, managers have an invaluable role to play in alleviating employee mental health challenges. “Worryingly, nearly two out of five respondents in a recent survey said their company never asked them if they’re doing okay. These workers were also 38% more likely to say their mental health has declined. There are direct implications for the employer: of those who said their manager is not attuned to their wellbeing, 61% reported lower levels of productivity as a result. We must recognise that this is a very complex time for our people, so staying attuned to how they are coping is an important first step to helping them cope better.”

Set clear expectations

One of the challenges with the sudden shift to remote work is employees’ understanding of what is expected of them while they work from home. “We may have to make some tough choices about what’s important and improves productivity versus what keeps us busy,” says Koolen. “Setting clear expectations is critical to empowering your remote workforce and maintaining productivity. Without clear expectations of what their employers expect of them, employees are 75% more likely to quit their jobs. In contrast, employees who are clear about their employer’s expectations reported 30% higher productivity and are nearly half as likely to worry about losing their job.”

Listen and help

Remote work and social distancing measures will likely have a direct and profound impact on the work world for some time to come. Koolen believes it’s essential that employers utilise new tools to ensure they can listen to employees’ needs and provide the necessary help when needed. “New experience management tools can help organisations stay on the pulse of their remote workforce and identify areas where greater levels of employee support are needed. It’s not just about maintaining productivity: companies will need the best talent to ride the coming economic storm, and looking after your most valuable assets now can bring huge returns later on.”