The majority of people who started working from home during the Covid-19 pandemic have experienced adverse mental health as a result, according to new findings.
A poll of workers conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health’s (RSPH) found that two-thirds (67 per cent) of workers who shifted from the office to home during the pandemic felt less connected to their colleagues
The survey – part of the RSPH’s Disparity Begins at Home report – also revealed that more than half (56 per cent) of those who started working from home said they found it harder to switch off, while almost two in five (38 per cent) said the change had disturbed their sleep.
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Just a third (34 per cent) of the survey’s almost 700 respondents said their employer had offered them support with their mental health.
The survey also revealed the toll that working from home has had on employees’ physical health. One in four (26 per cent) remote workers were doing so from either a sofa or a bedroom, with just 15 per cent working from a desk.
Almost half (46 per cent) of respondents had been doing less exercise, while two in five (39 per cent) had developed musculoskeletal problems.
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Renée Clarke, director of the Work Well Hub, said the report highlights the need for organisations to build robust health strategies. “Workplace health cannot be a ‘one size fits all’. Keeping in touch with employees while working from home, having meaningful conversations and taking a genuine interest in how people are doing is vital in maintaining a healthy working environment,” she said.
Clarke added that protecting employee health and wellbeing was more than simply addressing issues as they arise. “It’s about taking proactive measures to prevent poor health in the first place,” she said.
The findings also highlighted disparities between different demographics. Women were more likely than men to report feeling isolated (58 and 39 per cent respectively) and more likely to develop musculoskeletal problems (44 and 29 per cent) as a result of working from home.
Similarly, those living in shared accommodation also reported worsening health and wellbeing than those living on their own or with a partner (29 and 24 per cent respectively).
The RSPH called on businesses to ensure all employees had access to mental health support to help them cope with isolation, and access to equipment and a remote assessment to support them with their physical health. It also argued organisations should encourage workers to block their work communications outside of work hours to better help them switch off.
Commenting on the findings, Sam Fuller, founder and director of The Wellbeing Project, said health inequalities generally exacerbated the challenges faced by those who made the switch to working from home. “Every phase or stage of the Covid pandemic has created a different impact on employee wellbeing,” she said.
“The first lockdown gave us that shock value, but at the same time many individuals were able to sit outside… As time has gone on and we’ve entered the dull months, bad weather is keeping us indoors, we’re balancing homeschooling with work and many are finding it hard to maintain that optimism.”
Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, also highlighted the importance of keeping lines of communication open with employees. “You should ensure that you and your team have regular check-ins virtually... Have some daily scheduled chat time with each of them and regular time in the diary as a team,” she says.
Mamo added that, while loneliness itself wasn’t a mental health problem, it was linked to mental health. “Feeling lonely can contribute to developing things like anxiety and depression,” she said. “If you regularly work alone, it may be more challenging for colleagues to notice changes in your mood or behaviour; therefore it’s useful to let friends and family know about possible triggers and what stress and poor mental health looks like for you, so they can spot any deterioration in your mental health.”
Elaine Carnegie, founder and managing director of Beingworks, said training and education were key to helping employees work from home better. “Education and training to build literacy and awareness can empower individuals to better identify things like stress, poor posture, lack of movement and poor self-care in themselves,” she said. Training can enable employees to put things into place to protect their own wellbeing and make them more comfortable asking for help, she said.
Despite the concerns around remote working, Conor D'Arcy, head of research and policy at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, called for employers to extend the offer of flexible working arrangements as a default for all workers during the pandemic. “Our own research shows that the prospect of going back to business as usual after lockdown – and losing this flexibility – is a huge worry for millions of workers with mental health problems in particular,” he said.