How do we maintain a positive work-life balance while not allowing our mental health to suffer during a global pandemic?

This question is currently at the centre of many HR team’s business priorities, yet it’s only in the past 10 months or so that this phenomenon has entered our lives.

With much speculation since March on the pros and cons of remote working, flexible working arrangements, and the short- and long-term impact of COVID-19 on working life, what should HR teams be doing to encourage a healthy work-life balance?

How Working Life Has Changed

According to the ONS, in April of this year 46.6% of people in employment worked from home. Of those people, 86% did so as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

What has this meant for the average worker who suddenly found themselves working out of a bedroom or makeshift home office? No commuting, no spending half our wages on Nero coffees and Pret sandwiches, and a new-found love for loungewear and slippers.

All positives, surely? But what about the two factors that modern economists consider key components of socio-economic wellbeing?

Social and Intellectual Capital

Social capital, or our working relationships, has taken a significant blow as a result of having less face-to-face interaction with colleagues. With the CIPD reporting that 41% of people now feel less connected to their teams than pre-COVID-19, employees are more likely to feel isolated from their organisations.

Intellectual capital, or our creativity at work, has also been impacted by working from home. While some of us may be enjoying a quieter home life with fewer distractions, that’s not the case for everyone. An abrupt end to office life means we’re no longer as stimulated by different surroundings and perspectives.

The Work-Life Blur

Pre-COVID, only 5% of the UK’s workforce regularly worked from home, so for most this was a huge shift in dynamic. Thankfully, 70% of workers reported that they felt they had been positively supported by their companies in the shift.

However, as the ‘new normal’ becomes firmly established and the prospect of not going back to the office for some time sets in, many are finding poor work-life boundaries to be affecting their quality of work, and more importantly, quality of life.

Pressure to Be Always Online

If we take away the commuting, the fixed hours and the ‘good mornings’, all we’re left with at the beginning of each day is our employers’ trust that we’re doing the job we’re paid to do.

It’s therefore no surprise that some people feel the need to replace their physical attendance in the office with an unabating online presence – scared that they’ll be ‘caught’ absent from their computers. ONS figures from April show that around a third of people working from home were working more hours than usual.

Luck is All Relative

Andy Haldane, Chief Economist and Executive Director at the Bank of England, recently published an article in which he describes his experience as one mirrored by the majority, saying that he was “lucky to get to work from home”.

But would everyone consider themselves lucky? Someone sharing a house with five others and no shared living space might not. Nor would the single parent who now has the challenge of juggling a full-time job with a toddler who can’t go to nursery.

Majority Want to Return to the Office

While not everyone sees working from home as a psychological and logistical burden – myself included – those that prefer working from home full-time are in the minority. For every person who luxuriates in the cosy clothes, cost savings and low-maintenance beauty regimen of working remotely, there are many more who are climbing up the walls.

Polls suggest that while the majority of the UK workforce is looking forward to going back into the office for a proportion of the working week, if not all of it, they expect it to be on their terms, with more freedom to choose where and how they work.

Are Employers Asking Too Much?

We asked a selection of people for their opinions on how to achieve a better work-life balance during COVID. The responses revealed a common theme – no emails after hours.

In order to achieve a healthy work-life balance, we need to have a sense of when our working day starts and ends. If our downtime is constantly interrupted by the ‘ping’ of professional obligations, what balance is left?

Another issue was the need for breaks between Zoom meetings, with many complaining of back-to-back video calls without so much as five minutes to make a cup of tea.

The heightened need for virtual meetings during a pandemic is no surprise, but if we wouldn’t expect people to sit in a boardroom for six hours straight without so much as a toilet break, can we reasonably expect this at home?

How Can HR Teams Support Employees?

For many people, this new way of working continues to be a venture into the unknown, with adaptations still being made and questions still being asked.

Keep Channels of Communication Open

It’s the responsibility of HR teams to provide clear, open and transparent communication for the workforce, asking questions to ensure employees feel supported and ensuring that options are available to those who need them.

Train Managers to Deal With Mental Health Problems

Often the biggest learning curve has been for managers, who in some cases became overnight counsellors, presented with their employees’ lockdown-related mental health problems as the sole remaining link back to the company. As such, it’s imperative that managers receive the appropriate training needed to offer the higher level of support they now find themselves responsible for.

Lead by Example

Don’t arrange back-to-back meetings with your staff. Discourage sending work emails after hours. If your own flexible approach means that you naturally start and finish late, make it clear that you don’t expect an immediate response.

Keep Company Culture Alive

Perhaps the most important responsibility of the HR team is to ensure the sense of company culture endures, despite the lack of in-person contact. HR teams should look to provide a channel of communication in which company culture and camaraderie can continue to thrive and everyone can feel part of the team.

The Future is Flexible

At the time of writing, we’re on the cusp of getting a vaccine, which if administered as quickly as the government hopes, could see a shift back to more office-based working for those who want within the next six months.

There’s no denying this pandemic has caused an almighty shift in our attitude towards remote and flexible working. Companies who had no desire to entertain the idea prior to March 2020 are now realising that it might not be so bad after all.

Flexible working requests will likely become the norm, if not already offered as standard. Companies unwilling to concede could struggle to attract the best talent – or hold on to the talent they already have.

When the pandemic has passed and the dust has settled, we must be mindful to avoid the emergence of a two-tiered workforce whereby those who choose to be present and visible in the office are given preferential treatment to those who work from home.

In the end, it’s a matter of trust and communication. Once established, companies adopting progressive flexible working practices stand to reap the benefits in the form of improved engagement, wellbeing and productivity.

Written by Sarah Humphreys for 3R Strategy