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Perspective

Workplace in-Brief: 30 October 2020

Andrew Douglas
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Wellbeing, COVID-19 and WFH

The pandemic may be invisible in its transmission but not in its psychological impact. How do we unpack the evidence around work from home (WFH) and the pandemic and the economic impacts of the pandemic? The answer is not easily divined but the lessons we draw from the data are much easier to glean.

The pandemic and mental health

The Australia Bureau of Statistics (ABS) undertook a survey utilising data collected in the months of July and August 2020. It estimated, based on the data, that 40% of Australians (the cohort) experienced feelings associated with anxiety and depression. Tragically, only 17% of the cohort discussed them with a treating professional. One wonders what percentage of the cohort discussed it with their supervisor. History tells us – a lot less. That is a massive impact upon employee mental health and loss of productivity.

The data of the ABS survey is supported by related data that shows:

  1. The Lifeline daily average of crisis calls is around 3,200 calls per day compared to 2,500 for the comparable period last year (an increase of over 20%).
  2. Victoria has experienced a 20% increase in mental health crisis calls to various agencies in the second lockdown.
  3. Parents are deeply troubled by the impact upon their children with 65% of US parents expressing concerns about their children falling behind socially, emotionally and academically and 50% not being able to earn enough or give their children the attention they need because they WFH (Kaiser Family Foundation Mid -July 2020 tracking poll)

The Black Dog Institute says the evidence over the pandemic reveals that those with an existing mental health condition, health care workers, those in quarantine, or those who are unemployed/casually employed are at a higher risk of experiencing these feelings. Segmentation of this cohort shows women are at a significantly higher risk than men, primarily because of their assumed caring responsibilities.

Does any of this surprise you? The fact that the pandemic has had a deleterious effect, NO.  But the magnitude of the impact does surprise me.

The most recent data supports the data referred to in our earlier article Mental Health Impact of COVID by Nes Demir.

WFH and mental health

There really is no accurate data of how many people worked from home ‘pre-COVID’. It is corrupted by people like me, and my fellow principals, who have always worked flexibly. We don’t say we work from home because we work everywhere – at airports, home, cafes, wherever there is Wi-Fi or 5G,4G or more sadly 3G.

The best guess, excluding our professional class, is around 12% (ABS Data March 2020). Up until a week ago it was 31%. That is 19% increase in people forced to WFH (notice the correlation between the mental health spike and the changed numbers of forced WFH). Unquestionably, if you include the professional class that figure is much higher.

The evidence from the available data is as follows:

  1. People who choose to WFH, and are supported and nurtured by their employer, enjoy higher consistent productivity and wellbeing
  2. Employees who are forced to work from home enjoy an early fillip in productivity which falls beneath at work productivity after a short time and has higher risks of mental health impact
  3. Improvements in productivity are often associated with a reduction in travel, working in a familiar and comfortable space and being around those who care about you.
  4. The downside of WFH includes the loss of connection, engagement, and work associated pleasures.
  5. WFH, according to Australian Psychological Society, has 5 specific hazards (and remember our obligations as employers to do everything reasonably practicable to eliminate these hazards or at least manage them)
    • Conflict between work and home: Homes, especially with children and other people who are cared for is not an ideal workplace. The conflict is obvious, and as noted above more likely to impact women. The conflict not only impacts mental health but has associated risks of increased domestic violence.
    • Workload and overworking: The transition between home and work often involves other amenities (gym, after work catch ups and travel with friends, etc) and created a simple barrier between work and home. That barrier is at best porous when someone WFH. Work is at your fingertips and can always be accessed. The need to prove productivity means people over work to win comfort from their alienated supervisors. As quality of production falls with the pressures and interventions of home, the volume of work increases-leading to the paradox of constantly working badly. The impact on mental health is obvious.
    • Uncertainty about the future: Bricks and mortar is a comfort. Being alone at home increases employee’s anxiety about the role and importance within their employer organisation. There is overwhelming evidence that the key to employee wellbeing is NOT yoga, fruit and gym memberships, it is the feeling what you do is valuable and valued. When the world is turbulent and disrupted the absence of colleagues to feel tribally safe has a profound impact.
    • Isolation: The sense of being cut off from work, disengaged from other staff and disconnected from resources and information to maximise job performance. These issues undermine an employee’s ability to perform well, and as said before, feeling good about what we do goes to the heart of workplace health, productivity and happiness.
    • Loneliness: A painful and psychologically distressing emotion that results from a person’s subjective feeling that their intimate social needs are not adequately met (Cacioppo and others: Loneliness within a nomological net: An evolutionary perspective). WFH commonly leads to loneliness and virtual connections do not replace the richness of face-to-face contact. Loneliness impacts employee alignment, mental health and productivity.

Please note there is emerging anecdotal evidence of increased alcohol and drug usage both during the pandemic and non-voluntary WFH.

Untangling the lessons

The pandemic, with its forced WFH and increased uncertainties, has unquestionably compounded any normal adverse impact of WFH. But non-voluntary WFH always has risks for both the employee and employer.

The lessons:

  1. In future, employees will be asked to work from home more frequently. It will not be voluntary. That is a warning sign given the abundance of evidence above.
  2. The world will never return to the ‘old normal’. Partly because it never really existed. The old normal had 12% of the working population (not including the professional classes) working exclusively from home. I suspect the number of people who worked away from work and sometimes at home was always closer to 30-40%. Activity-based working environments are built on this hypothesis. They are commonly configured on a 60-70% attendance basis. The best estimates are that they will drop to 50% or below to reduce overheads and meet the new realities.
  3. The pandemic exploded a grenade into an already disrupted working environment. The old normal was neither normal nor understood. Rather it was a mirage from the 1990’s that people hung onto to feel safe and comfortable. We dreamed of being the Flintstones and lived like the Jetsons.
  4. Technology has jumped a millennium in 6 months. We did innovate to work remotely.
  5. The key to successful flexible work is to manage it so people do get the socialisation, engagement and tribal feeling critical for productivity, health and happiness. That requires deep thought, deliberate strategies, consultation with careful listening, and clarity. It means you need to look at the above risks and use risk assessment tools to develop the evidence you need to start the process of evaluation and strategy development. It is only when you have the evidence that you can start the journey. Please see our risk assessment tools designed to help you adjust based on your staff and the nature of work.
  6. Do not let it drift back to an easy sense of what is normal, as there is no ‘normal’, only ‘now’! People crave clarity. People want to succeed so help them.
  7. CARE for your employees. Please.
Andrew Douglas
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