Three ways to support your WFH employees

Johannesburg, 26 Jul 2021
Dr Abhinanda Gautam, Academic Dean, CTU Training Solutions.
Dr Abhinanda Gautam, Academic Dean, CTU Training Solutions.

As employees keep moving between the home and work office as the lockdown levels change, it’s important that businesses handle this process carefully and be cognisant of the pressures that their employees are under, ensuring employee mental health and that they support their employees along the way.

Dr Abhinanda Gautam says since March 2021, employees have been experiencing a fear of the unknown. “During 2020 they asked themselves how far COVID-19 was going to go and whether we’d have access to vaccines, and I think we’re still very much in that space. South Africa is seeing unprecedented unemployment and it’s only natural for people to feel vulnerable in terms of what the future might hold. Added to that are lifestyle challenges such as working full-time from home or having to adapt to a hybrid model – and worrying about whether they have the technology skills required.”

As much as employees might have been asking for work from home privileges for a while, the reality is that it does affect work-life balance – and not in a good way. “Pre-COVID-19, we spent more than a third of our lives at work. Now, we aren’t able to step away and feel that we need to be always on because we’re working remotely. It’s very important to understand where to strike a balance. The phrase work-life balance is no longer a buzzword, it’s intrinsically linked to human health.”

Dr Abhinanda advises employees to create a detox space. “The home office doesn’t offer a space that’s constructive to work. People have to deal with children, pets, spouse and even employees. And because they’re working from home, they don’t get a break from those. When they were travelling to and from the office, people had detox space while they were commuting, as well as a clear end to the workday. When you work from home, that doesn’t happen. As a result, people’s ability to connect and collaborate is being affected, as well as their emotional and mental well-being.”

Work from home has reduced social interaction between colleagues, who are now unable to chat over a cup of coffee, affecting workplace rapport. People are missing that connection between line manager and employee, as well as the resulting feeling of empathy and communication. These are just a few of the factors that have influenced employee mental health over this period.

Do we stay or do we go?

Companies have to decide between two approaches: people to work or work to people. Dr Abhinanda clarifies: “Previously, people were hungry for a job and would agree to any conditions imposed by the employer around workplace attendance. But today, as a result of demand for critical skills, they can decide how they want to work. Businesses need to classify roles into employee segments according to the skills required. Then they need to define whether that role requires a remote worker, a hybrid remote worker or someone who is in the office full-time. This decision has to be skills-based and not just a blanket office policy. Balance is key here.”

Where the employee works from can have a significant impact on their performance. “Not everyone is mentally healthy; all too often people keep performing regardless. But it must be remembered that employees’ home conditions differ and having to work from home might exacerbate any pre-existing mental health conditions. This can particularly impact employees that live alone and who are now also isolated from colleagues and their daily work routines. This can result in social anxiety and depression.”

However, businesses will have to manage the balance between office- and home-based workers carefully, as Gartner says that 75% of hybrid or remote knowledge workers say their expectations for working flexibly have increased, and four out of 10 employees are at risk of leaving if their companies insist they return to an office environment.

There are ways in which companies can support their staff and help them cope with the new challenges they face. She says: “First and foremost, companies have vital roles to play in terms of communicating with their employees as well as showing trust by believing that people are working from home. The culture in smaller companies is often such that if people aren’t seen to be at their desks, it’s implied that they aren’t working.”

She goes on to say that workload, work pace and work scheduling have to be specifically and separately demarcated. “Companies don’t always understand individual work paces. This needs to be individualised so that managers understand that there are three different aspects that impact an employee’s output.”

Businesses also need to strongly encourage work-life balance, as well as instilling a sense of job security. “It’s important to prevent employees from developing negative coping mechanisms and to encourage them to participate in activities that promote health and well-being. Providing psychological support is key here.”

The top three things that companies can do to support their staff

  1. First and foremost, businesses must recognise people’s effort, acknowledge that they are working hard, and show them appreciation for their dedication in difficult times.
  2. Dr Abhinanda is a firm believer in emotional and spiritual intelligence. “It’s essential to keep reminding people of their purpose. We can’t forget our own purpose, why we exist in this world. Consider what do we contribute and how do we touch people’s lives?”
  3. Finally, the business needs to share the path forward with employees, instead of making decisions in the boardroom and telling employees what the board has decided. “This causes a lot of stress among employees. It’s key to reinforce the company’s commitment, outline the strategy that it has to cope, and make it clear that it’s considering people while making these decisions. Fact-based information should be given to employees on a regular basis.”

As a parting shot, Dr Abhinanda points out that helping employees negotiate a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic is not solely the purvey of HR. “The business needs the support of line managers, who are in daily communication with their employees. Both line managers and senior management have a vital role to play in managing relationships with their employees. Social intelligence comes to the fore here – managers need to be able to manage their own emotions before they can manage others’ emotions. While HR creates the overall environment, the personal touch comes from line managers.”

In this digital era of ever-increasing stress and pressure to perform better, training programmes for students and employees can play a crucial part in helping them to identify their emotions and emotional responses. Training on how to practice emotional intelligence can act as a big step towards effective solution generation to work dilemmas, role-conflicts and societal expectations. Moreover, it equips individuals to practice self-awareness, self-regulation, wisdom and orientation to deal with the issues of maintaining work-life balance and social and emotional well-being.

Dr Abhinanda Gautam’s bio:

Dr Abhinanda Gautam is an accomplished leader possessing 18 years of success stories and best practices in the field of education and running institutions in the international market. She holds three master’s degrees in the field of management and her PhD in Commerce & Business Administration.