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by Viana Maya
23 March 2021
Comment: It’s okay to struggle with working from home

Comment: It’s okay to struggle with working from home

As we ease out of lockdown for the third time, I have been having conversations with friends, family and colleagues about wellbeing and mental health support (or the lack of) in the workplace. I have read articles, reports and research written in HR magazines and platforms warning about the potential dangers of employees suffering various mental health issues brought on by the pandemic and the government’s solutions to controlling the spread of the virus.

Let us not pretend that adverse mental health and wellbeing was not a problem before the pandemic.

But the pandemic has shone a light on the issue and the dangers of ignoring the creeping facts while dealing with other pressing issues. What could be more critical than preventing the deterioration of the very people we need to get the country and economy moving forward?

As an employability coach working with long-term unemployed people, I have noticed the impact of negative mental wellbeing caused by stress, anxiety and fear of lack of job opportunities or loss. It was made worse by difficulties accessing online training, counselling support, or proper daily conversations that involve saying and hearing the comforting words “how are you today?” or “how’s your day?”.

For those fortunate to have a job in these uncertain times, it can be hard to admit you are not okay working remotely. We seem to have lost the ability to say, “I am having a rubbish day”, without feeling guilty for voicing your feeling because other people have it worse than you.

There is an almost unspoken rule of who can and can’t ask for help; we don’t know where this rule popped up and who placed it on our virtual board! Was it the employees or our employers? Is it even there?

We are burning out from presenteeism (turning up to work when you are ill).

A word I have learnt in my research to understand better what’s happening and why employers, people managers and other people professionals should take the early signs of the perfect negative mental health storm brewing underneath this already fragile world of work.

The CIPD and the People Management website have created many supportive articles with suggestions backed by mental health charities such as Mind, but I wonder if we are paying attention. Will we wait for situations to become unbearable for our current employees before we act?

The signals to do something about it are there. ITV has partnered with various mental health charities to run the Britain Get Talking Campaign; the BBC has launched a selection of documentaries and content, including Headroom, to support people in coping with the challenges of lockdown.

I’m not expecting companies to blow budgets they don’t have. However, as you plan on building back better, why not put in wellbeing as part of that plan?

Check in with your employees, ask them what they need now to cope and how you can make it better if they are struggling. Since we are in this together, pause and put yourself in your employee’s shoes, create the space and environment for people to ask for help or take time out to properly care for themselves without feeling a sense of shame or letting down the team.

People need permission to care for themselves.

At the end of 2020, I experienced low mental wellbeing, brought on by prolonged stress managing and supporting people to navigate a world where we were all receiving real-time information.

However, because of my job title, the expectations and the label of being a strong-minded person, I found myself without a safety net to navigate my mental wellbeing while trying my best to balance work and home schooling. I searched online and even googled “where do decision-makers go to seek help?” In the end, I was lucky to find and join specific private Slack and Facebook communities where it was safe to discuss these issues and feelings.

This all came about after cooking Christmas dinner and enjoying a bit of family time. The new lockdown restrictions filled me with an unbearable dread. I remember thinking, I can’t work like early 2020 again. It was six months of continually trying to find solutions and ideas to motivate people, providing individuals with food resources or well-being support while exploring employment opportunities.

Although my work falls in the social sector, we are not part of the key worker or heroes list. I am part of a funded collective group of small and impactful organisations providing prompt and personal support – we had opportunities to share our experiences. Unfortunately, I couldn’t always join in due to my work schedule clash.

I found the “new normal” toxic. The remote working meant that we somehow found ourselves working longer hours, working through lunch and occasionally through dinner time. Some friends have shared that they have been expected to work later or during the weekend because “we are not going anywhere”, so why not work that extra hour, which usually turns into four hours plus.

An interesting result from a survey by the firm MHR conducted in April 2020, which polled over 5,000 UK workers, found that 67 per cent of workers felt that revealing a mental health problem at work could jeopardise their career. Only 22 per cent felt that sharing it wouldn’t impact their career negatively.

The research was carried out at the beginning of the pandemic during lockdown one. Imagine after two more lockdowns, rapid jobs and industry collapsing, high inequality issues, homelessness, home schooling and Brexit. Where are we now with how we feel about wellbeing and mental health in the workplace?

Listening to Meghan Markle’s interview, her saying it takes so much courage to ask for help when your mental health has been affected, can we make it easier for people to ask for wellbeing support in the workplace, not just employees, but management too?

When was the last time you properly asked your colleagues if they are okay, without following it up with a work-related question?

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