There has been so much written in the press recently about the state of the nation’s mental health over the COVID pandemic. It comes as no surprise that people are struggling; trying to juggle the needs of family, work commitments (if indeed they are fortunate enough to be in stable employment) and clutching guiltily at little snatches of time for ourselves …

The thoughts of Clare Benyon, Pro Drive IT Account Manager …

We are dealing with an unprecedented situation, and we are often dealing with it isolated from family, friends, colleagues and all the normal support networks that we’re unlikely to ever take for granted again in the future! (If you’re reading this Mum, I promise you faithfully to never criticise your parking and will hug you so hard when I see you your bones may crack!)

Managing mental health remotelyAnd no one can deny the worrying impact this is having on a future generation, both in terms of financial security, wellbeing and development.

I count myself extremely fortunate in the fact that I am blessed by not only having stable employment, but also a forward-thinking and supportive workplace. But despite these blessings, I will admit to episodes of anxiety and paranoia.

Adapting to remote working

Remote working brings very real challenges. The times when I missed the beginning of a meeting due to dealing with the world-ending crisis of a child’s dropped juice. The missed call from a client when the online shop arrived one hour early, un-bagged and unannounced. An hour spent tearfully begging a home broadband connection to ‘please God in heaven and all the angels, just work damn you!’ And so the list goes on…

I know too from listening to others’ experiences of trying to adapt to remote working situations that it feels like you are using an endless litany of domestic issues to somehow wriggle out of your commitments. I find it panic-inducing at times, which is absolutely ridiculous given how my company supports me and all of its employees (more of that later).

But that is the thing about issues that affect your mental health. You do not get to choose what eventually topples you over! People who end up in a mental health crisis did not ‘choose’ to wake up one day in a sea of despair. Honestly, who would make such a choice?!

A punchy, bullet-pointed list on ‘how to stay sane over COVID-19!’ is all very well, and looks great in a newspaper article, but it is naive to think this would really make a difference to those genuinely struggling. My particular irritation are those annoying ‘positive thinking’ memes that make me want to grind my teeth to powder. Like this little beauty…

(Quite frankly, Monday morning slumped over a cereal-strewn desk having been up half the night trying to retrieve a pea from a toddler’s ear doesn’t quite feel like a gift.)

‘OK’!, I hear you cry. ‘So what are you suggesting? Nihilism?!’ No, not at all, but I do think we can shift the focus here a little. I’m not saying that we do not have any personal accountability and cannot do everything we can to try to ensure we stay positive and manage the negative (regular exercise, a balanced diet and sensible alcohol intake spring to mind).

But rather than constantly bombarding people with what they can do to help themselves, I would like to see more said on what we can do as employers to adequately support the people that work for us in these incredibly challenging times.

The role of the employer

It is disingenuous to think that the relationship we have with our employees is purely transactional, and that by handing over a pay packet each month we have absolved ourselves of any responsibility for their wellbeing.

In the same way that we would not expect an employee to work in a rat-infested office that affected their physical health, nor should we be expecting employees to work in a culture of heartless indifference and unreasonable pressure that affects their mental health.

The fact is, we do bear a responsibility and the way we support our workforce has a trickledown effect to their families, including their children. Many male friends speak of their frustration that their employer is blind to the fact that home schooling or childcare is not simply the domain of the female of the species, putting enormous stresses on relationships at home. Working parents are beyond exhausted trying to balance the needs of an unsympathetic workplace and family.

And those without children do not escape. One of my acquaintances (who shall remain nameless to protect the guilty) works for a company that expected their employee to use their own personal laptop for work and berated them when they questioned the monitoring systems the company insisted on applying to the machine!

Another oft-cited frustration is the feeling of isolation; many people feel totally cut off from the outside world and in too many remote workplaces there are no frameworks in place to ensure regular communication with their colleagues. In truth, only a very select few enjoy working and living as an island!

Yet just a few simple changes could yield enormous benefits. I want to hold my own organisation up as a beacon for how to approach this. I want to share with you just some of the ways they are managing to support their teams: this via a punchy bullet pointed list on ‘how to not drive your employees even more mad than they already are over COVID-19!’

Teams – a powerful tool to keep you closely connected with your employees! If you don’t have it, consider getting it. If you do have it, learn to make use of its plethora of features such as ‘praising’ colleagues, sharing mood lifting gifs, letting people know when you are away from your desk for a coffee etc.
Good morning and goodnight! Again, Teams is excellent for this, but have some forum whereby you greet your team and wish them well at the end of the day.
Regular team meetings – once a week absolute minimum, twice a week optimum. Get your team together for half an hour. Shout about the wins! Ask about the pain!
Social events – yes they can still happen! Allow a budget per person for drinks, snacks etc and have a party. This Christmas, Pro Drive had a Zoom ‘Cook-a-thon’ together, and it was an absolute hit!
Banter sessions – put aside time for the laughter that used to happen in the office. Pro Drive have a regular daily drop-in video call slot. Entirely optional, but we can join if we need a quick 15-minute respite from the pressures of the day. In addition, ‘beer o’clock’ on a Friday is a welcome and relaxed get- together at the end of our week.
Homes have distractions – families get ill, animals need caring for, doorbells ring and children are no respecters of a calm and professional work space! Appreciate this fact and don’t unreasonably expect your staff to be able to work in an impenetrable bubble at home during lockdown!
Consider measuring your employees’ satisfaction. Your teams are your greatest asset, so track how well your company is perceived by those who are its most important ambassadors. Know about the issues before they snowball. Office Vibe is excellent for this purpose, and a free version is available.
Give your people the tools they need to do the job. Don’t be that company that expects silk purses from sows’ ears!
Create a supportive culture. Leadership must lead by example. Be quick to praise and reward – publicly! Celebrate employees’ achievements and encourage this behaviour in all the team. Communicate regularly and let your people know that you are aware of their issues and are there for them if they are struggling.
Consider bringing in an outside agency for advice. Oakleaf are a local mental health charity that we are proud to support. They offer talks and demonstrations covering all aspects of mental health and are experts in their field.

If you would like to know a bit more about the tools I’ve mentioned above or how to maximise those you already have in place, do please get in touch with us; we’d love to hear from you!

You may also like to join our live webinar on Wednesday 17 March at 12.30 pm, where we discuss the issue of improving staff engagement, motivation and productivity when remote working. Find out more here.

In the meantime, I shall leave you with these very deep and meaningful words from an old, wise woman …

Crush the food of babes
Prior to feeding
Lest the peas of discontent
End up in the ears of the innocent

Stay sane,
Clare 😊