It’s a new era in balancing mental health and remote work


Firms must create mental health strategies to raise awareness and reduce stigma

Millions of professionals had to suddenly embrace full-time remote working as the Covid-19 pandemic intensified.

While it decreased commute times and resulted in higher productivity for some employees, the hours of digital meetings made maintaining a work-life balance more challenging than ever.

“Seeking the right balance between the job, household chores, childcare and, in some cases, financial uncertainty, were issues of major concern before the pandemic. However, in the last year and a half, mental health has become the focus of most ‘employee wellbeing’ conversations,” says Jiten Vyas, regional group chief operating officer at VFS Global.

“In the weeks following the initial national lockdown in 2020, Lifeline South Africa recorded over 4,000 calls a day – the amount of calls they would usually get in a week. Further to this, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) have also recently stated that more people had reached out for help since the start of 2021, and that one in five calls received a day are suicidal.

“Burnout, anxiety, and a feeling of isolation, if not handled at the right time in the right manner can snowball into more serious, long-term consequences that are harmful not just to the employee but organisations as well. And according to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health is expected to be the single largest global crisis we will face by 2030,, says Jiten.

The causes of mental health problems
Working in the same place you live may feel like your life is playing on a loop. Most remote workers follow a routine while being confined to the walls of their homes. Vyas says that such a lifestyle coupled with pertinent issues like job security, losing a loved one and being completely isolated, has only intensified mental health struggles.

He believes that another contributor to employee mental health concerns is the blurring of personal and professional lives, resulting in employee burnout. According to Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index survey, one in five global survey respondents say their employer doesn’t care about their work-life balance, while 54 percent feel overworked and 39 percent feel exhausted.

Jiten adds that the idea of working from home has made employees feel like they should work longer hours to prove that they can be effective from the comfort of their homes with no time spent on commuting anymore.

“With hybrid work models becoming a part of the new normal, it has become imperative that organisations have a more holistic approach to employee wellness, and not evaluate corporate wellness programmes solely by their return on investment (ROI). Moreover, it is important for businesses and leaders to look into the changing paradigm of how they view workforce productivity and create a resilient workplace, one that places mental health at the core of it.”

Can organisations help?
According to Jiten, the very first step in dealing with the stress of working from home is to reassure employees that they are not alone in this situation. It is important to remember that human capital after all is ‘human’ first and requires care and support to thrive.

A recent analysis by Deloitte on the stock performance of the S&P 500 Index companies found that the companies that scored high on health and wellness, appreciated 135 percent compared to their peers.

While corporate organisations are increasingly becoming aware of the need for safeguarding their employees’ mental health needs, driving a change will be possible with the support and participation of top management.

At an organisational level, Jiten advises that firms adopt a company-wide mental health strategy to raise awareness and work towards reducing stigma surrounding mental health discussions.

Employers must assist their employees both in the short term (such as return to work) and in long-term situations. HR heads should encourage free communication, allow longer breaks and come up with creative ways to hold engaging meetings and events.

The efficient use of technology can also help understand employee health better. For instance, using mind-mapping tools to assist their employees manage tasks and communicate more effectively.

A good example can be seen by GitLab – a firm based out of San Francisco that encourages their remote-only employees to take “virtual coffee breaks” during work hours to stimulate collaboration and create a more comfortable work atmosphere.

“Similarly at VFS Global, we organised Wellness Wednesdays, an initiative wherein employees received fortnightly newsletters with information and emphasis on stress management, hydration, sleep, mindfulness, self-care, walking, health and safety, and mental health. This was supported with an activity called Walky Talky, where employees went on a 15-minute walk with a colleague or friend to check on each other,” he says.

The Covid-19 pandemic has in many ways impacted mental health but Jiten believes that it also gives organisations the opportunity to redefine the success of their human capital initiatives, and along with it, the way employees work and live.

“Employees are no longer associating long work hours with success and it’s important that organisations acknowledge the situation at hand and work towards making an industry-wide shift that places employee wellbeing at the centre,” concludes Jiten.


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