There may be light at the end of the tunnel, yet for now the UK remains in COVID-19 lockdown, as it has for much of the past 12 months.
The virus itself has left a devastating impact upon many of us, while government efforts to bring it under control has led to a sea-change in our daily lives – both in work and out.
The change in behaviours has thrown up many challenges, with mental health – already moving up the agenda prior to COVID – brought into even sharper focus. And the effects will remain long-term, with remote working set to continue to play a huge part in the future of many businesses.
With this in mind, five figures from the tech sector explain their approach to looking after themselves and their staff.
How has COVID-19 affected people’s mental health?
“As a result of the pandemic, the lack of ‘normality’ and increase in personal stress have caused many to struggle with their mental health,” Felicia Meyerowitz Singh, CEO of Akonihub, a London-based dynamic cash management platform, tells BusinessCloud.
“Stress–induced factors like worrying about COVID-19, national lockdowns and just general uncertainty have made coping with work demands far more difficult.”
Colin Hewitt, CEO of Float, a cash flow forecasting tool for small businesses, agrees. “There’s no denying that the pandemic has been tough on everyone’s mental health. From adjusting to remote working and having limited human contact, to wrapping your head around the daily news, uncertainty and all the global politics – it’s never been more important to pay attention to your own state of mind.”
There has been a rise in mental health problems in the last year, according to Sabrina Munns, head of people and culture at absence management software firm e-days.
“69% of people stated that the reason for their low moods or heightened anxiety were down to the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says, describing the figure as “alarming”.
How can businesses support staff who are working remotely?
Shane Lowe is CEO and co-founder at Vitrue Health, a HealthTech which provides musculoskeletal AI analysis.
“It’s important that employers look after employees’ wellbeing as well as their own in our WFH world,” he says. “Having a safe and healthy work environment is essential for wellbeing and productivity, but when we work from home we also lose some of the human connection, routine and equipment that make office life physically and mentally sustainable.”
Akoni’s Singh recommends regular check-ins with staff members. “Ensuring colleagues are not feeling isolated is really important to maintain productivity,” she explains.
“Schedule regular virtual meetings which are informal in nature, and make them aware of the support available.
“Technology is here to stay. For many start-ups and smaller companies, they already have the tools to work remotely. However, many larger organisations do not and therefore it can be difficult to support staff members and maintain productivity.
“By embracing digital platforms, this can make long-winded work easier.”
Look after your mind – and body
“It’s all too easy – whilst focusing on the bigger picture – to overlook how the environment employees work in can be impacting their health, happiness and productivity levels, particularly when working from home,” continues Lowe.
“A poor desk set-up can impact workers’ musculoskeletal health, resulting in serious health problems and a huge drop in productivity, which can in turn contribute to poor mental health.
“Investing in employees’ remote working set-ups – just as they would in a traditional office – is one way to boost productivity and mental and physical health: ergonomic equipment, good lighting and strong internet connections will facilitate quality work.
“Employers must also ensure that employees are educated on the health risks involved in working from home, and understand how good behaviours such as regular exercise, breaks and communication with team members can make all the difference.”
Physical activity is also recommended by Float CEO Hewitt. “Exercise makes a big difference to boosting endorphins. Having a buddy to hold you accountable really helps, or you could try out investing in a personal trainer to help you get started.
“And plan time off, even though it can feel like it’s not worth taking time off at the moment: extending your weekend by a day might be just what you need.”
e-days’ Munns adds: “Providing online resources, encouraging daily exercise and healthy hobbies are helpful, but what about moving your weekly team catch up via Zoom, to a group ‘walking’ call, so that you and your team have another opportunity to get some fresh air?”
Should I make working days more flexible?
Tom Lawson, CEO at digital transformation specialist Opencast Software, suggests taking a flexible approach.
“Many employees will feel as if their lives are out control at the moment, so businesses should focus on creating a culture of flexibility that allows staff to make sensible decisions about how they work – whether that means starting and finishing a bit later in the day, or working around their childcare responsibilities,” he says.
“Providing teams with this added flexibility will not only result in a happier and more motivated workforce, but will also encourage employees to deliver high–quality work that will help the company achieve its longer–term goals.”
Munns says that to protect teams and those leading them, it is crucial that absence is prioritised within the business.
“Whatever your level, you must be supported and encouraged to take time off,” she says. “The world of work has changed, but issues around managing absence and the impact to employees remain.
“We predict that despite working remotely, and employees being offered a more flexible work-life balance, that combating the thought process of ‘am I too sick to work?’ will remain a challenge.
“If your junior execs see their C-suite taking time off to rest and look after themselves, it is likely they will follow this example too.”
Hewitt adds: “In the winter I try to take a longer lunch and get outside in the afternoon before it gets dark. In the summer I’ll try and finish up earlier to make sure I get the most out of the lighter evenings.
“More flexible working hours means the team can plan days with plenty of breaks and daylight to support their mental health.”
Where can people get help?
“No matter who you are, whether you are a founder, parent or completely alone, do not be afraid to ask for help or seek a service to help you cope,” says Singh. “There are multiple ways to stay connected with services designed to support people during these times.
“For founders, joining social media support groups can be very useful to tackle common issues such as burnout and staff retention. For employees, using external organisations designed to support individuals with their mental health are great resources. For example, the charity Mind UK.”
Leaders should also look to their teams for help, says Hewitt. “Ask for help if you’re feeling the pressure. You might not know what you need – but your team might be experiencing something similar and might be able to help.
“At Float we started using a Slack integration called Spill which provides remote mental health support to the team, whenever they need it.
“From online video counselling sessions to downloadable resources, the service has been a big hit with the team.”