Looking at mental health in the wake of Covid’s new ways of working
As vaccine passports open up more avenues and we wonder if we will ever be truly post-pandemic, the ‘new normal’ will have to be reviewed across companies and industry. Some companies are embracing home working with open arms on a longer-term basis, with lower overheads cited as a benefit as well as oftentimes increased productivity. Employees have been glad to see the back of lengthy (and costly) commutes, enjoyed the flexibility and felt workflow was equal at home as in the office.
However, as we all know it hasn’t all been roses. Reports say over 80% of employees have felt the pressure of the social deficits with home working. A quarter have struggled with connectivity and Wi-Fi issues. Many feel that as well as being more productive, they have not been able to switch off adequately from their work and this has led to a large amount of unpaid overtime across the UK workforce.
A survey of 2000 workers by LinkedIn in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation found that a loss of boundaries between work and home life and additional job-based pressures have meant that those working from home during the crisis are working on average 28 hours extra per month. These stresses have disproportionately affected women, who are 43% more likely to have increased their hours beyond a standard working week.
These issues are where flexible working comes in – at least in part. Working from home in situations where the employee wishes and it is feasible is one element, but it also includes hybrid working. This is a blend of working from home and in the office, which would help negate some of the less desirable side effects people have experienced working from home continuously during the pandemic. Workers already have the right to request this, but it is certainly worth reviewing more closely considering everything that has happened in the past 18 months or so. Labour have stated their intention to legislate making flexible working the default, giving employers a legal responsibility to accommodate unless they can prove it is not viable. MP Angela Rayner stated the aim is to ensure “work fits around people’s lives instead of dictating their lives”. But what about the mental health of those in professions where this simply isn’t possible? Or what if more lockdowns ensue and we are stuck at home again?
Right to disconnect
Enter the right to disconnect. With home working and flexible hours come a lack of clear boundaries between the professional and the personal; employees have been taking calls and responding to emails throughout their evenings and therefore elongating the workday. Will Stronge, the director of research at Autonomy, said the Covid pandemic has “accelerated the need to create much clearer boundaries between work-life and home-life”. Autonomy is a thinktank who have recently published a research paper entitled “The Right to Disconnect”, advocating that workers should not be expected to manage work correspondences outwith working hours. It is something the Irish government is looking at legislating currently, and they have distilled the issue into three key principles;
The right of an employee to not routinely perform work outside normal working hours
The right to not be penalised for refusing to attend to work matters outside of normal working hours
The duty to respect another person’s Right to Disconnect (e.g. by not routinely emailing or calling outside normal working hours)
This idea has also been picked up by trade union Prospect as the subject of a new campaign, after finding two thirds of remote workers would be in favour of such a change. Having seen other countries acting on the issue, they are calling on UK government to take action as well so that UK workers are not left behind.
The right to flexible working and the right to disconnect must go hand in hand; employees will ultimately be happier and more productive in jobs when they can establish healthy boundaries and do not feel that their other responsibilities, social life or hobbies are being compromised. One of the major silver linings from this pandemic in the world of work is the opportunity to reshape the structure of the nine to five in a way that benefits everyone if done with care.
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