Mental health and working from home during the pandemic
For many businesses, the requirement to physically attend the workplace has significantly altered following COVID-19. As we have seen, the unpredictable nature of the pandemic (by way of sudden outbreaks and abrupt lockdowns) has made working from home a necessity across many industries and workplaces. As home becomes increasingly transformed into a place of work, individuals need to be aware that working from home, especially for prolonged periods, can affect one’s mental wellbeing.
A recent SafeWork NSW study concluded that a significant proportion of NSW workers feel mentally unwell, over-worked and under constant pressure to perform well. The study found that:
- 27% of employees and 38% of supervisors felt mentally unwell in the 12 months leading up to end of 2020
- half of these respondents reported that it was directly due to COVID-19;
- 22% of employees and 20% of supervisors who felt mentally unwell said their condition has worsened since they started feeling unwell, while about a quarter of workers and supervisors reported feeling isolated;
- 28% of employees and 32% of supervisors said they felt stressed or under constant pressure to perform;
- 43% of those who WFH reported that their employer genuinely supported flexible work arrangements and about a third stated their employer ensured there was good and regular communication with staff;
- Only 14% of home-based workers stated that their employer consulted with them on aspects of work that might affect their mental wellbeing; and
- Only 17% said their employer ensured they disengaged from work at the end of the day.
These findings indicate that working from home is an inevitably isolating experience and it is beneficial for employers to schedule regular virtual catchups or check-ins with their employees.
WHS risks of working from home
Some factors that may affect the WHS risk of workers working from home or remotely include:
- communication frequency and type between the employer and worker
- management of the work program, workload, activities and working hours
- surrounding work environment
- workstation set up
- work practices and physical activity
- pre-existing injuries the worker may have
- mental health and wellbeing of the worker, and
- other responsibilities the worker may have such as facilitating online learning for children or a caring role for children or family members.
Managing a mentally healthy workplace at home
While there has been a focus on maintaining physical health during the pandemic, mental health is equally as important. Working from home can pose psychosocial risks that are different to the risks in an office or your regular workplace.
A psychosocial hazard is anything in the design or management of work that causes stress. Stress is not an injury, but if prolonged or severe it can cause both psychological and physical injuries. Some psychosocial hazards that may impact a worker’s mental health while working from home include:
- being isolated from managers, colleagues and support networks
- less support, for example workers may feel they do not have the normal support they receive from their supervisor or manager
- changes to work demand, for example the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and a move to working at home may create higher workloads for some workers and reduced workloads for others
- low job control
- not having clear boundaries between home-life and work-life
- poor environmental conditions, for example an ergonomically unsound workstation or high noise levels, and
- poor organisational change management, for example workers may feel they haven’t been consulted about the changes to their work.
Note: In NSW a New Code of Practice has been issued by SafeWork NSW addressing psychosocial risks – find our article here.
Under WHS laws, employers have a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of their employees not only in the workplace but also when employees are working remotely. It is also the employer’s responsibility to ensure that risks that arise from working from home can be effectively managed. Employers should:
- provide guidance on what is a safe home office environment, including what a good workstation set up looks like, why workers should not be sedentary all day and how to avoid this
- allow workers to borrow any necessary workstation equipment from the office to take to the home as agreed
- require workers to familiarise themselves and comply with good ergonomic practices, consistent with any workplace policies and procedures
- assess employees working from home set up, best practices being via video enabled virtual sessions
- maintain regular communication with workers
- provide access to information and support for mental health and wellbeing services
- appoint a contact person in the business who workers can talk to about any concerns related to working from home.
Some things that you can do to protect your mental health when WFH:
- set up a routine and structure for your workday – create boundaries between ‘work time’ and ‘home time’
- if possible, create a specific place in your home where you work (avoid your bedroom)
- stay connected with co-workers by scheduling virtual or phone meetings
- try a digital detox in the evenings
- take breaks, try to get some fresh air and exercise at least once a day
- use EAP services if they are available
If you are working from home, employers or employees alike, please ensure that you dedicate some time to taking care of your mental health. Remember to take breaks, exercise, socialise and access EAP programs if needed. A healthy work-life balance is crucial to maintaining productivity during these difficult times.
This article was co-authored by Theresa Au, Law Clerk.