A recent BCS LinkedIn poll revealed that mental health was at the top of managers’ list of WFH concerns. As author and troubleshooter Carole Osterweil explains, mental health is something you ignore at your peril!

COVID has abruptly forced many more of us into working from home (WFH) and has shone a spotlight onto the associated challenges. It’s highlighted a chasm between good and poor practice and it’s introduced a raft of new issues for organisations and leaders to deal with. For good or for ill there is no going back. WFH is now mainstream and the question, ‘How do you manage an invisible workforce?’ has gained a new relevance.

Why worry about mental health and wellbeing?

Anne Archer, executive coach and Mental Health advocate says ‘We shouldn’t be surprised. COVID has highlighted problems with remote working that were always there.’ She points to research by Deloitte published in early 2020.

‘Presenteeism and leavism are becoming increasingly common as working remotely and flexible working have become easier thanks to technology. Both lead to overworking, a reduction in workforce morale and burnout...’

Presenteeism is people feeling they need to work when they are unwell - even if they are far less productive.

Leavism is being unable to ‘switch off’ from work, for example when you are meant to be on leave, have a flex day or a rostered rest day.

Rates of both have risen rapidly in the UK since 2017, contributing to a significant decrease in mental wellbeing at work. The report estimated that the costs to UK employers of poor mental health had increased by 16% in the space of two years - and that was before lockdowns and the mass move to WFH.

We cannot continue viewing mental wellbeing as ‘just an HR issue’, it has a significant impact on productivity, outcomes and the bottom line.

What has COVID-19 added to the picture?

A report by the NeuroLeadership Institute (NLI) three months into the pandemic quantifies the additional challenge. It notes 50% of those surveyed ‘experienced increased anxiety levels from one week to the next as a result of the sudden shift to WFH’. Interestingly, the rise in anxiety was not distributed evenly. NLI found it was concentrated on those with childcare management issues, direct experience of COVID-19 or dealing with workforce reduction and furloughs.

I’ve seen a similar pattern in my own coaching and consulting. WFH works really well for some and not so well for others. The move to remote working has brought a new challenge - managing team members whose productivity is sky high.

‘They don’t seem to understand that others have domestic issues to deal with and cannot work at this pace. Their impatience to get onto the next thing adds to the pressure.’

Humans have a fundamental, biological need for connection

Archer explains why WFH is so difficult for some. 'Humans have a fundamental biological need for connection that’s face to face and in the same room. The fact is, many people struggle without it. We underestimate the difference it makes to mental health, wellbeing and productivity. When there isn’t an opportunity to be physically together in the same room, we must seriously consider what we can do to give people the best feeling of connection, so no one feels invisible.’ 

The NLI report, The Mind in Crisis points to the science. When we are anxious, our need (perceived or real) to survive takes over. ‘We start thinking and acting in our own self-interest and we no longer work as hard to consider others’ points of view.’ This makes collaboration even more difficult. However, the same report highlights ‘a silver lining: when working remotely, employees who felt like they were part of a team were significantly less anxious.’

Why? Because we’re social animals. We have an innate need to belong to groups that can offer us safety, shelter and acceptance. We need all three in order to thrive. Physical isolation threatens this basic need. Without it, we find it hard to regulate our emotions and our fight and flight response is triggered more easily, adding layers of complexity to projects and additional risks to delivery.

Where should we start?

Some say we should start by addressing the long hours. Tell people to set clear boundaries between work and not-work, they should attend to their own needs and learn to manage stress, by taking up mindfulness and exercise, for example.

Whilst these activities can be helpful, they are not enough. If we want to succeed in managing an invisible workforce, we cannot rely on an approach which places all the responsibility on individuals. Work design must also take into account our innate drive to belong.

How can we give people a sense of being connected when they feel invisible?

The first step is to recognise that we’re talking about changing culture. And we all know actions speak louder than words. Here’s one example of a successful approach from an IT programme manager:

‘I’ve worked for over 15 years in a big, financial services company with a workforce of thousands. Historically, they’d announce a cultural change initiative and shortly afterwards it would be forgotten.

‘This time it’s quite different. They’ve launched a Wellbeing Charter which reads like a mission statement. But the thing is, the seniors are following it through by living the behaviours set out in the three pillars of the charter. It’s powerful because we can see they are taking it seriously.’

The Wellbeing Charter reads as follows:

  • Work-life balance. We respect each other’s personal time and needs. Just because we can be connected 24/7 it doesn’t mean that we should be.
  • Meetings that matter. We respect each other’s time and busy schedules and understand that not everything has to be a meeting.
  • Email etiquette. We don’t fill each other’s mailboxes unnecessarily and try other ways of communicating. ‘The MD told us very openly at a Town Hall that he is monitoring how well his direct reports are sticking to the 9-5 rule and he’s following up where they don’t. The impact on me has been huge.

‘I feel a lot less stressed about stepping away when I know that everybody else is trying to do the same and I’m being urged by my bosses to do so. I now log out at six almost every day. I used to feel I was stealing if I took an hour out to take my daughter to the doctor, or went for a run at lunchtime. The Charter has given me permission to do these things and to look after myself. It’s amazing!’

Work/life balance

Respecting each other’s time is key. Tips to accomplish this from the Charter include:

  • Being mindful when you plan meetings.
  • Only planning them from 9-5. Meetings outside of this should be by exception only and only if you have agreement of everybody invited.
  • Not setting up regular forums or team meetings outside of these hours.
  • Making time for lunch and avoiding scheduling meetings from 12.30 to 1.30 across the whole team.
  • Blocking out 3-5 every Friday in everyone’s calendar to stop others putting meetings in and to allow time for uninterrupted work.

Taking ten

Anne Archer describes a different approach, called Taking Ten. ‘Taking Ten means taking 10 minutes on a regular basis to talk to someone about how things are going. It’s NOT about tasks or deadlines. It’s a check-in which focuses on you and what’s going on at work and at home. It’s about how you are feeling.

‘These check-ins happen so regularly at an individual level and at team level that they’ve become a normal part of business.

‘With Taking Ten, nobody feels invisible. Everyone has chance to speak about what they need AND to think about each other. People routinely ask, ‘What can I do this week to help you?’ and act on the answer. It’s workable, straightforward and doesn’t have to be a big deal. The impact is mega.’

What have these stories got in common?

They recognise:

  • We are all human and have fundamental social needs.
  • Successfully managing an invisible workforce means attending to those fundamental needs.
  • Actions and behaviours speak louder than words.
  • Getting it right has a huge impact on outcomes and productivity in addition to well-being.

I’m picturing some of you thinking ‘Does it really matter?’ It matters, even when you forget the soft, fluffy human benefits. The Deloitte report considered the annual costs of poor mental health for different industry sectors. It noted that information and communication was one of the worst performing sectors, with poor mental health costing employers an average of £2,175 - £2,573 per employee - and that was before COVID.

What’s more, with a return on investment of £6 for every £1 invested for initiatives like those I’ve described, you ignore mental health at your peril!

How to approach difficult conversations

If you are not sure how to approach a conversation about how someone is feeling, a sliding scale can be useful tool. The scale goes from ten, ‘I’m on top of everything’ to one, ‘I’m struggling’. The questions that go with it are straightforward: ‘Where are you on the scale? What will it take to move you up? What do we need to put in place to stop you moving down?’ But remember — there’s a secret to making this work. You can’t expect people to reveal all if they don’t believe that you:

  1. Have their interests at heart and can be trusted not to judge what they tell you.
  2. Want to know the answers.
  3. Will act on what you agree with them.

When using this tool with teams the same applies, but there’s another dynamic to take into account: psychological safety. Team members must be confident that they won’t be embarrassed, punished or rejected by the team for speaking the truth as they see it.

About the author

Carole Osterweil is a transformation troubleshooter, coach and author of Project Delivery, Uncertainty and Neuroscience - A Leader’s Guide to Walking in Fog. A prolific writer and webinar provocateur, her recent work can be found on the Visible Dynamics website and also on LinkedIn: When high performance turns toxic.