Looking back on the past 12 months, it’s incredible how much has changed in such a short period of time. While the world has come a long way in the battle against COVID-19, it’s increasingly clear that many of the things we took for granted less than a year ago aren’t going back to the way they were any time soon, if ever.
One of those things is traditional office-based working. Organisations across the UK have spent the last nine months perfecting their approach to home working, and for many it’s proved a very pleasant surprise. Not only have concerns about productivity and accountability failed to materialise, but it’s also produced a wealth of benefits such as improved work/life balance and higher levels of employee satisfaction.
However, a future dominated by remote or hybrid working does not eradicate the historical shortcomings of office life overnight. In particular, the emphasis placed on the notion of being constantly ‘busy’ remains a major source of stress for millions of employees everywhere. Remote working may have addressed some negative aspects of office working, such as long commutes and workplace politics, but being overworked still remains a foundational pillar of working culture wherever you turn, which is a big concern.
There’s strong evidence supporting the need for change too. According to Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis of the Understanding Society study, mental health has worsened substantially (by 8.1 percent on average) as a result of the pandemic. What’s more, new research shows the number of people applying to be signed off work for mental health reasons has jumped 6 percent during lockdown.
UK employers have a legal obligation to protect employees’ mental health
From an employer’s perspective, the mental health of employees isn’t an optional extra or a ‘nice to have’, it’s a legal requirement. Both the 2010 Equality Act and the 1992 Health and Safety at Work Regulations state that employers have a duty of care for employees' health, safety, and wellbeing whilst at work, including mental health.
Despite this, many employers take a very lacklustre approach to monitoring the mental health of their employees. Some, don’t do it at all. As the light at the end of the tunnel begins to appear in the fight against COVID, there’s never been a better time to revisit this issue and start putting effective policies in place that will make a genuine difference going forward.
The roots of change are taking hold, but more needs to be done
The good news is that things are starting to change. However, while it’s promising to see more companies training up health and wellbeing champions, plenty more work still needs to be done. For example, rather than leaving employees to their own devices at home for weeks on end, businesses need to schedule regular check-ins via video conference or phone to help keep them feeling connected. Not only does this increase productivity, it’s also proven to help reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness that can otherwise develop.
Employers should also be encouraging employees to take regular periods of annual leave, rather than stacking it all up to use ‘when this is all over’. Doing so will help prevent a huge influx of holiday requests at the same time, as well as burnout throughout the workforce.
Performance reviews must account for the realities of the current situation
On a more formal level, quarterly/annual performance reviews can be nerve-wracking for employees at the best of times, but this has been taken to a whole new level during the pandemic. Many employees have been forced to take on additional child care duties including homeschooling, as well as caring for sick or self-isolating family members, all in addition to performing their work duties from home. This will undoubtedly have an impact on performance, which must be taken into account when reviews come around. As part of this, it’s vital that employers create an open dialogue with their workforces to ensure expectations are properly aligned with individual employees’ actual capabilities at any given time.
The last 12 months have delivered challenges on an unprecedented scale, forcing organisations and businesses all over the world to fundamentally change the way they operate in order to survive. However, while many of these changes have been more positive than originally anticipated, ultimate success rides on an employers’ ability to finally abandon the notion that simply being busy is some kind of badge of honour. Instead, those who can objectively look at their workforce at any given time and effectively match resourcing with workloads will not only improve productivity and morale amongst existing employees, they will also be ideally positioned to attract the best new talent in the future.
Kathryn Barnes, EMEA Counsel Europe
Kathryn has worked in the legal field for over 18 years. Since being called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2010 after successful completion of her legal studies, Kathryn started to practice in Employment Law. During practice, Kathryn has represented Employers and Employees in Employment Law matters in many different settings and understands the challenge supporting a workforce can bring for any business. Kathryn has worked within International Employment Law and HR for over 10 years, finding the excitement and diversity of International Employment Law not only a thrill but a welcome challenge.
Based in the UK, Kathryn is the EMEA Counsel for Globalization Partners. Kathryn deals with all legal matters pertaining to Employment Law within the EMEA regions in the support she provides to the company’s ever - expanding HR Specialists and Operations teams. Kathryn’s diverse and substantial background in EMEA Employment Law and business, allows her to close out complex issues in a short space of time.