Time to reassess

Dr. Asma Naheed considers how to get a work/life balance in a
post-Covid world

With the rise and rise of technology, work/life balance was always going to a matter of huge concern for everyone living through the 21st century. Indeed, in the heady days before the pandemic, many of us were struggling to achieve this balance. The never-ending emails, the early-morning Skype calls, or even work What’s App groups chirping at us long into the evening (recent research by Guild has shown that more than 50% of workers use messaging apps for workplace communication), contributed to a blurring of the lines long before ‘WFH’ became part of our everyday lexicon.

Then came the once-in-a-century pandemic and this blurring hit the accelerator. There was a quickly met need to develop a range of digital tools to support remote working and within weeks there was a huge shift in perception of what was possible to achieve without stepping into an office. In a recent study, Carl Benedikt Frey, Oxford Martin Citi Fellow and Director of the Future of Work Programme at the Oxford Martin School examined 483 occupations and found that 113 of them can be performed remotely. ‘Importantly though, those 113 occupations employ 52% of the U.S. workforce,’ he noted.

Seeing the opportunity for streamlined business models, many major employers are now considering making working from home a permanent fixture. The CEO of multinational food corporation Mondelez noted that coronavirus crisis has showed ‘we can work in different ways,’ and as a result, the company no longer needs all of its global offices. UK building society Nationwide, which has gone to 98% work from home during Covid-19, announced a permanent transition to a hybrid model, with working-from-office in four main corporate campuses and working-from-home in most other locations. While the CEO of global banking giant Barclays, Jes Staley, said crowded corporate offices with thousands of employees ‘may be a thing of the past.’

But with 9-5, office-based work traditionally making up a huge part of our identity (how often is ‘What do you do?’ your first question when meeting someone new?) what does this shift mean for our mental health and the day-to-day structure of our lives?   

At present, it is important to remember that we are still in the thick of things with the pandemic and stress levels are undoubtably heightened like never before. The surging unemployment rate is considered by experts to be a traumatic event that can cause measurable harm, while a 24/7 news cycle delivers the latest developments in the pandemic, the stock market rollercoaster and a slew of other scary realities causing very real distress. Consciously or not, most of us are all battling some level of fear and anxiety about this new disease, likely coupled with an array of emotions including uncertainty about money and job security, stress over working from home set-ups or home schooling and worry or guilt over those suffering more than us. Such emotions can be overwhelming, and along with more general workplace stress can easily lead to burnout, depression, anxiety, anger and helplessness.

To move forward, we must acknowledge these emotions without judgement and seek ways that can help alleviate our stress.

Industrial psychologist Timothy Golden, PhD, of the Lally School of Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York says, ‘It’s not a time to panic, but rather a time to harness the lessons we have been learning and to put them to good use.’

As employers’ close offices to slow the spread of Covid, industrial psychologists have been working hard to suggest how both managers and employees can work more effectively during this time. They have acknowledged the great responsibility on leaders’ shoulders, asking them to balance the need for productivity with the extraordinary circumstances in which we are all living.

It has been suggested that employers should also set the tone in office culture – destigmatising mental illness and promoting a culture where people seek mental health services with confidence. Check out your companies HR policies and see if there are opportunities for help.

From the employee side, it is important to recognise that work may feel different than before. Studies show that remote workers tend to log more hours than their office-based counterparts and experience a blurring of boundaries between their home and work lives. Employees and employers should therefore have clear goals and boundaries for their jobs. Workers should aim to stick to the same schedule each day and if possible, stop checking messages and email when the workday ends.

With watercooler moments no longer an option, you will need to make a clear communication plan and seek out social connection with your colleagues. Staying connected to other co-workers, managers and customers is paramount to successful communication, especially during this stressful period. 

Industrial psychology emphasises that lasting cultural change always starts from the top down. If you run a company or a team, now is the time to look into training to help mangers and leaders to understand the importance of mental wellness, as well as to recognise the signs of mental and emotional distress. By identifying how attitudes and behaviours can be improved in the workplace and ensuring that morale remains high during periods of change, companies will be better placed to thrive and attract the best talent in the future.

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