In normal times, working from home can offer many benefits: no commuting, space to focus, more time with your family. There are challenges too: uncomfortable working setups, not taking enough breaks and limited face-to-face interaction.
But these are not normal times. Although lockdown restrictions are slowly starting to lift, a year of pressures and limitations has taken a toll on the mental health of many of us. There’s no one solution that fits all, but there are five things you can try to improve your wellness, and five more to help you look after your team:
Looking after your needs
Everyone’s challenges are different, whether it’s dealing with living alone, juggling childcare alongside a demanding work schedule, or sharing a home office with an enthusiastic partner. Each one of us faces a whole different rollercoaster of emotions, all of which are fine to feel.
Some people will want to research and gain lots of information, others may want to hide away, and sit on a lovely island of denial. We will all react in different ways and these may change over several minutes, hours or days.
The following ideas are not intended to form a comprehensive list, but instead, give you some thought on how you can look after yourself.
Remember when you crammed on to public transport with thousands of others on their daily commute? For many people the first thing on their mind is to reclaim that extra hour in bed, delaying the inevitable start to their day and the dread of confronting their to-do list.
Rather than sleeping through lockdown, rushing to get ready and forcing down that last piece of toast as you start your 9am meeting, try to re-establish those old routines and claw back some of that time for yourself. Use the time to get some exercise, listen to music read a book or do something else that you want to do, preferably away from a screen. A more relaxed start to your morning will help put you in the right frame of mind and ensure you start the day alert and refreshed.
2. Get comfortable
Home furniture is meant for relaxing. It’s not designed for working extended hours. Bad posture caused by spending extended hours hunched in front of a screen at your dining room table increases tension in your muscles and can add to stress levels, impacting your wellbeing.
While it’s more convenient to make the most of office equipment designed for specific purposes, there’s no need to spend hundreds of pounds online in kitting out your home workstation with a raised desk and ergonomic chairs. If you don’t have everything you need at home, try these ideas:
- Use books, boxes or packs of paper to raise your laptop screen to eye level.
- Use a cushion or a rolled-up towel to support the curve of your lower back.
- Use a cushion to raise your seat height if you need to.
- Use a box to support your feet if you can’t put them flat on the floor.
- To avoid that sofa slouch, try a garden chair for back support if you have one.
- Make a makeshift desk by adjusting the height of an ironing board.
- Use a kitchen counter or breakfast bar to work from a standing position for part of your day.
“[Short] breaks can help avoid mental and physical weariness, allow time to process ideas, improve engagement, disrupt poor postures, increase circulation and lower the risk of aches and pains.”
3. Get (mindfully) moving
Getting out for some fresh air during a lunchtime break can boost your concentration and improve your productivity by giving your brain a rest. When out, be mindful and pay attention to your surroundings and what is going on around you. Even on well-known regular routes look for details that you don’t normally notice and make a mental note of them.
During the day, breaking up your screen time with regular micro-breaks can help keep your mind alert and break the monotony of a long day. Cutting meetings short by 10 minutes gives you time to stretch your limbs and keep your mind active by giving it something else to distract itself on. Get away from your screen, get a cup of water, make some tea, open the window for some fresh air, stand up and walk around during phone calls.
These breaks can help avoid mental and physical weariness, allow time to process ideas, improve engagement, disrupt poor postures, increase circulation and lower the risk of aches and pains.
4. Don’t be a hero
It’s easy to feel alone when working from home. Support for complex tasks can be difficult to find and you feel the need to demonstrate you’re working hard by putting in longer hours. Many of us feel that asking for help is perceived as a weakness, but admitting where you’re falling short is actually a sign of strength.
It can be really helpful to share your feelings with your teammates. If you struggle with this, try thinking of how a best friend would help you in certain situations. By sharing and discussing your work with colleagues, you can help to normalise how you are feeling and share ways of coping. Take a few moments to appreciate and think of your positive qualities and things that have gone well, rather than things that haven’t, and things that you appreciate.
5. Spot the signs when you are struggling
Those who are responsible for the welfare of their teams often fail to find the time to look after themselves. It is important that you strike the right balance between responsibilities you might have for others, such as family, friends and work colleagues, and your responsibility to look after yourself.
There are early warning signs that will help you spot potential problems as soon as possible. Resources such as the Mental Health Continuum, a self-check tool that can help you track your wellbeing, can be a good indicator of when you should seek further support. The interactive tool helps you identify changes in your mood, thinking and attitude, behaviour and performance, addictive behaviours and physical health. The signs are not the same for everyone, so it’s important that you learn to recognise your own.
The good news is that once issues have been identified, often a few small lifestyle changes can help make a big difference. Activities such as practising diaphragmatic breathing can help you feel calmer and reduce stress levels. Remember the flight safety oxygen mask rule: if you look after yourself first, then you can look after others.
People often feel they shouldn’t bother others who may also be under pressure. When working remotely, how else would you know they are struggling? By creating the right culture of support, team members will feel far more secure in their roles and flag when they need help.
Looking after your team
A study by Deloitte revealed that poor mental health in the UK cost teams more than £45bn in 2019. While some of this can be put down to absenteeism, it is presenteeism, when people work when they are not at their most productive, which is on the rise. Presenteeism is one of the symptoms of employee insecurity and leads to rising stress levels and a loss of productivity.
The top three issues of presenteeism can be targeted at a team level, rather than at an individual. They are:
- The pressure of having too many priorities or targets
- Excessive workloads – working overtime, rarely taking leave
- Insufficient support for staff
With boundaries more difficult to define when working from home, it’s easy to slip into an “always-on” culture, with laptops at hand during the evenings and over the weekend. That can make it difficult to switch off and increases the likelihood of burnout. Lives suffer, on a work and personal basis. It’s important you learn to recognise these warning signs and put measures in place to look after the wellbeing of your team.
1. Become a role model for others
There are fewer things that discourage your team from following a good mental health regime than watching their leader suffer. It’s important that you practise what you preach, and just as important that your team can see you do so. Regular check-ins with your colleagues provide a good opportunity for you to share what you are doing to keep yourself sharp while allowing you to monitor the wellbeing of others.
Talking about what you saw on your morning walk, finishing meetings early to encourage others to take a few minutes off and being transparent about your own downtime can encourage others to follow suit.
When organising meetings invite people to suggest an alternative time if they prefer. Don’t assume others can be flexible and remember that all home situations are different - some may find it difficult to meet during school hours and prefer to break their day up, working earlier or later than normal hours. Be mindful of times when you send out communications – it can have an implicit message that you expect your team to always be on and that you expect a response even when you don't.
2. Be more sensitive to your team’s emotional needs
One of the most common pitfalls in leading a team is in assuming you know what they need. The only way you can truly gain their trust and understanding is by being curious and testing your assumptions by speaking to colleagues. While it can be more efficient to meet in larger groups, shier team members, who can be the most vulnerable, may find it difficult to speak out in front of others. Make sure you take the time to meet one-to-one as well as in larger groups.
Once you’ve listened, check your understanding of what you think is needed. When we are left alone with our thoughts and assumptions during periods of lockdown, people are far more likely to read into things and misinterpret guidance. Be explicit about the intention behind your requests or decisions to leave little room for ambiguity or a negative misinterpretation of your intent. Review your actions on a regular basis and be prepared to change as they see fit – what worked last week may need to change this week.
It is presenteeism, and not absenteeism, which can lead to rising stress levels and a loss of productivity.
3. Create the right culture
Being open about when you aren't on top of it yourself, when you messed up, or have simply had enough will make it clear to your team that it’s ok to feel vulnerable and helps them feel more comfortable with being fallible. Creating a safe space and having conversations about what the telling signs are for a drop in performance will make it easier for them to reach out to each other.
People always say “I'll tell you if I need help,” but they often feel they shouldn’t bother others who may also be under pressure. When working remotely, how else would you know if they don’t say anything? By creating the right culture of support, team members will feel far more secure in their roles and flag when they need help.
4. Lower your expectations
Lockdown has caused workloads to shift dramatically. In some cases, colleagues are facing unprecedented demand as work moves to new channels, while some face anxiety as their previous responsibilities evaporate. For others, changes to childcare arrangements have loaded additional challenges to working from home, or the desire to help colleagues has seen new challenges being taken on.
Now more than ever it’s important to be clear with your team that you understand the additional pressures that they face and adjust your expectations of them. Spreading workloads across the team, extending deadlines to fit in with their timelines, and providing additional training to inexperienced colleagues taking on new roles will help relieve the pressure.
5. Remember to have some fun
Cast your mind back to the beginning of lockdown and you’ll remember the flurry of ‘organised fun’ that flooded home offices. From quizzes, online games and team socials to sharing baby photos and giving people tours of your homes, we couldn’t get enough of it. While the novelty has worn off, it’s important to reignite the spark of having fun with colleagues so it’s not all work, work, work.
Challenge team members to organise events, pairing people who don’t normally work together to squeeze the creative juice out of them and take the pressure off. Share bloopers and gaffes that you’ve made, embarrassing moments caught on camera or inadvertent interruptions from children that are keen to share their latest creation with you while you’re on that important client call.
Breaking the monotony and giving people something to chuckle about will help lift their mood and give them some time away from thinking about work.
For mental health support in England, visit the NHS’s Every Mind Matters website.
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