11 August 2020

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As employees face reduced social interaction and become remote workers, what steps can you take to support their mental health?

Measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 caused almost all businesses to re-shape how their employees work, travel and interact in March, with no clear timeframe for a return to normality. It’s left many millions adapting to reduced social contact, either carrying out their roles from home or visiting workspaces with significantly fewer staff on site.

As the economy begins to gather pace and workloads ramp up, we asked what businesses can do to support a workforce coming to terms with the socially distanced ‘new normal’ of post-pandemic working.

Anticipate nervous drivers

Traffic declined rapidly as companies pivoted to home working and meeting virtually, falling 66% between the first week of February and the last of March, according to Department for Transport data.

But the situation is changing. Allstar Business Barometer data showed fuel consumption increased between 34% and 275% across industries in late June, compared with peak lockdown in early April, with an estimated 2.51 billion extra miles travelled by businesses in June versus May.

As volumes pick up again, IAM Roadsmart is warning fleet managers to be mindful that drivers could be anxious or out of practice.

Rebecca Ashton, the organisation’s head of policy and research, says even once-frequent drivers may not have encountered heavy traffic or travelled long distances in almost five months. Some less experienced road-users may also end up driving more than they were, having been displaced from public transport for the near future.

She comments: “Stress and time pressure can increase distraction, tendency to speed, and also promote poor sleep patterns which leads to increased fatigue and reduced concentration, creating a vicious circle. If your drivers aren’t sleeping properly, if their eating patterns have changed, if they’re finding it difficult to concentrate, you need to be on top of that.”

Research carried out for Hyundai UK reinforces those concerns. Almost one in five (18%) of the 2,000 British motorists surveyed admitted they had found it hard to get back behind the wheel, and almost half (48%) said they were worried about other drivers’ standards slipping as they fell out of practice.

Keep talking

Increased home working is a likely medium-to long-term trend following the pandemic, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD). Its statistics show home-working more than doubled during lockdown, with 37% now doing so regularly and 22% no longer office-based.[1]

The Mental Health Association says it’s vital for employers to ensure co-workers stay connected, including creating informal channels on intranet and messenger tools and established one-on-one communications to ensure concerns are raised. It suggests that these calls are carried out via video link where possible, to avoid employees feeling isolated.

In a survey carried out by the organisation in April, a quarter of respondents reported feeling lonely during the previous two weeks, compared to 10% before lockdown. The organisation is concerned that loneliness caused by social distancing may have long-term mental health impacts.

“The key thing is to talk,” continues Ashton. “Look out for signs of stress in colleagues, for example short temper, distractedness, reliance on alcohol, or prescription drugs. Mental health is something people often won’t talk about, but stress is not something you should hide. People should take this seriously and certainly not laugh concerns off. The worst thing anyone can do is say ‘don’t be so stupid’.”[2]

Provide clear guidelines for remote workers

The most recent CIPD survey results suggest half of British employees feel anxious about returning to their work place, and 44% said their employer had communicated guidelines about changes that had been made since March [3]. It advises close consultation with employees to ensure they are comfortable returning and understand the changes and what’s expected of them.

This dialogue is also vital for professional drivers. The Mercedes-Benz Vans UK Business Barometer polled 2,000 van drivers, owners and operators in May. Half said support of the van community had helped improve their outlook, while 43% said clear communication from employers had made new rules easier to adapt to.

Steve Bridge, managing director, Mercedes-Benz Vans UK, added: “The van community adapted extremely well during such challenging circumstances. While their workload went up, it was thanks to the clear communication on new working guidelines from their employers that meant [so many of them were] able to adapt more easily to the ‘new normal’.”

Maintain a balance

The longer-term working life impacts of Covid-19 are likely to be as unbalanced as experiences to date. While many businesses paused travel plans in March, key workers were driving throughout, and commercial vehicle traffic volumes recovered more quickly than passenger cars, despite dropping off at the start of lockdown.

This means many drivers are facing added pressure. According to the Mercedes-Benz Vans UK Business Barometer, average working weeks for commercial vehicle drivers had already increased by almost five hours, while a third of reported an impact on their work/life balance during the pandemic.

As traffic builds up again, the Mental Health Foundation has warned that employees in essential services could face additional time pressures having not had time to process trauma or recover from an intense period of work. It advises businesses to support them doing so.

Sources:

[1] https://www.cipd.co.uk/news-views/news-articles/cipd-news-flexible-working-covid

[1] https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/coronavirus/divergence-mental-health-experiences-during-pandemic

[3] https://www.cipd.co.uk/about/media/press/work-return-gradual

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