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'Out of Office: Supporting staff wellbeing when the home becomes the workplace'

Dr Mark Elliott, Associate Professor

Institute of Digital Healthcare, WMG

How do we define wellbeing? It is a word that is used a lot during this period of restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic and can often refer to many different aspects of physical and mental health.

In 2011, the Office of National Statistics, ran a large-scale study to determine what the UK population defined as wellbeing and specifically what things in life mattered to them. The top responses to this question were:

  • health
  • good connections with friends and family
  • good connections with a spouse or partner
  • job satisfaction and economic security
  • present and future conditions of the environment

Many of these have clearly been impacted during this pandemic, increased risk to health, isolation from friends and family and anxiety around the subsequent economic downturn and its impact on job security.

There have been positive impacts on our wellbeing however, the accompanying word-cloud above show the main keywords mentioned in responses to interviews and open text questions, with community being another important factor. In this situation, there has been many examples of communities coming together to help each other during the period of restrictions.

The change to working from home

For those people who have continued to work during the restrictions, many are experiencing the new norm of working from home. A recent ONS survey found that 45% of employees worked from home at some point in the previous week during the period 9-20 April 2020. Comparing this to figures prior to the lockdown period, when approximately 12% worked from home at some point in a working week and it is clear that a large proportion of UK working adults are having to adapt to home working. It is therefore useful to consider how wellbeing is effected, both positively and negatively, in the large portion of the UK working population, who have suddenly switched to a new working routine

Working from home certainly has its positives. Cutting out the daily commute being one key example. When employees are asked about the main positive in the switch to working from home, a large proportion mention dropping the commute. Commuting can impact on productivity as well as wellbeing, with one study finding that happy commuters were more productive, and short distance and active travel commuters were more likely to be happy (compared to long-distance commuters).

altHowever, for those who were active commuters prior to the switch to work from home, where the commute involved physical activity such as walking or cycling, losing that period in the day can have a negative impact on health and wellbeing. Indeed, maintenance of physical activity is one of key pillars in maintaining wellbeing in this period of restrictions, but also becomes a challenge as old routines are suddenly no longer possible. Data from apps that track step-count indicate that activity levels in the UK reduced by as much as 50% (relative to the month of February) after the government announced the restriction on the 21st March. The ease of remaining in front of the laptop all day when working from home can quickly result in a significant drop in physical activity levels. Hence, it is important for employers to encourage and remind staff working from home to allocate time for physical activity, therefore developing new routines,which over time can become new habits.

Of course, two months in, it is becoming clear now what the major impacts of working from home are on mental wellbeing. For some, living alone, loneliness and isolation plays a big factor, with work and other outside activities removing the social contact. For others, it may be dealing with the demands of home schooling whilst continuing to work. Against a backdrop of the issues effecting what people define as important factors of wellbeing, mentioned above, it is likely a high proportion of the UK working population are experiencing higher levels of mental health related problems, such as increased anxiety, stress, low mood and sleep. It is therefore an important time for organisations to re-evaluate their wellbeing strategies under these new working practices. A useful framework for this is the NHS “Eight elements of workplace wellbeing” , which highlights that it is not just interventions that are required, but also effective leadership, clear communication and staff-engagement in an organisation’s wellbeing strategy.

Measuring wellbeing and delivering interventions to a remote workforce

A challenge in this remote working environment is how staff wellbeing can be measured and interventions delivered. There has been a substantial growth in digital workplace wellbeing platforms in the last couple of years, and the current situation could push these platforms into the centre of maintaining and tracking employee wellbeing, particularly for remote working. The number of companies offering digital workplace wellbeing solutions is growing rapidly, ranging from those focussing on specific areas, such as mental health, through to more extensive platforms that cover all aspects of wellbeing. Users interact by completing short, regular surveys on their current wellbeing and often can link up their activity and/or heart rate data from a smartphone or wearable device to provide objective data alongside self-reported results. The vast majority offer personalised interventions and educational material often based on models of behaviour change.

The question outstanding is whether these digital platforms are effective. Given the recency of many of these platforms, there is currently little evidence on the longer-term outcomes in terms of measures, such as reduced absenteeism and productivity. One such project hoping to provide greater insight into how digital interventions can be used for supporting mental health in the workplace is the Midlands Engine Mental Health and Productivity Pilot . This is a 3 year, £6.8m project, which will engage with over 1,600 businesses, train 45,000 staff and offer online resources to allow early identification of mental health problems and provide a range of bespoke interventions.

It is certainly likely, that in one form or another, digital wellbeing platforms are likely to play a major part in delivering wellbeing initiatives to the workplace, and a more fundamental aspect of their success will be employee engagement. Trust and privacy are important factors to consider. For example, are employees willing to share the types of information the platform requires? Are they willing to receive and participate in the interventions? Hence, it is vitally important for employees (or representatives) to be involved in the procurement of these platforms from the earliest stage, to maximise the likelihood of engagement and, hopefully, a workforce with high levels of wellbeing.

Dr Mark Elliott is an Associate Professor at the Institute of Digital Healthcare, WMG and PI of the WMG Motion Capture Laboratory.