HR managers fear rise in staff absence due to mental ill-health during lockdown

Survey of people professionals and workers highlights concerns that home working is causing a rise in employee burnout and ‘e-presenteeism’

Almost three in five (58 per cent) HR managers fear losing staff to sick leave due to the mental health impacts of working in lockdown, a survey has found. 

More than half (54 per cent) of HR leaders surveyed said they believed mental health issues such as stress, burnout, isolation and loneliness had increased among their workforce since the coronavirus crisis hit and most workers have had to do their jobs from home. 

The Mental Health Foundation and LinkedIn polled more than 1,000 HR professionals in medium to large UK companies with staff working from home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

More than three-quarters of HR managers surveyed (79 per cent) said they believed the widespread implementation of home working encouraged so-called ‘e-presenteeism’ – a culture where workers feel they should be online and available to colleagues as much as possible, even when feeling unwell or having already worked their contracted hours. 

Chris O’Sullivan, head of business development at the Mental Health Foundation, said staff working from home during the crisis were “at greater risk of burnout” as a result of the “high-stakes environment we find ourselves in both globally and personally”. 

“We cannot have the same business-as-usual expectations on ourselves or of our employees,” he said. “There simply aren’t enough hours in the day to work full time, look after children at home and keep up our other responsibilities.”

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Lisa Finnegan, senior HR director at LinkedIn, said that while workers able to do their jobs remotely were in a privileged position compared to those required to attend a place of work, they nonetheless faced serious wellbeing challenges. She encouraged managers and colleagues to open up about their experiences to support friends and co-workers in similar positions.

The study also polled more than 2,000 adults working from home during the lockdown. The vast majority (86 per cent) said remote working was having a negative impact on their health. 

Employees working from home reported putting in an extra 28 hours per month on average since lockdown measures were introduced. 

Almost a third of workers (30 per cent) polled said they were experiencing increased anxiety, with a similar number (31 per cent) reporting disturbed sleep.

Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, said there were a variety of reasons employees may be working extra hours and experiencing burnout during lockdown. These included increased workloads, picking up the work of colleagues furloughed or off sick, and the pressure of juggling work with parenting responsibilities. 

“It’s worrying that respondents say they’ve worked an additional 28 hours a month on average, which equates to around an extra full working day per week. Working longer hours is also not always conducive to greater productivity – we all need time to rest and recuperate to be at our best,” she said. 

“For managers, communication is even more important now than ever,” Mamo advised. “Create as many opportunities as possible for your team to tell you about any issues they’re facing, whether personal, professional or both.” She also highlighted the importance of including furloughed staff in any group discussions or socialising. 

The survey also demonstrated the benefits of remote working for employees, however. More than two in five workers (44 per cent) said they felt more connected to their families, and 54 per cent said they would like their employers to give them more opportunity to work from home when lockdown measures were lifted. 

O’Sullivan noted it was “encouraging” to see employees were also reaping the rewards of having more time at home, such as eating well, spending time with family and exercising. “It’s important to find time to decompress, set up a routine, and manage expectations of yourself and others to help get on top of your workload and stress levels,” he said.