We have heard a lot about the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) since its introduction in March this year, but employees who have remained in work have been faced with significant challenges as their employers battled with the issues of continuing to trade and keeping their workplaces safe and productive.
As of 28 June, approximately 9.3 million jobs, from 1.1 million different employers had been furloughed as part of the CJRS. Organisations have had to make rapid changes to how they operate, including how and where jobs are carried out.
The Government’s message was to only go to work if there was no way to work from home – and employers became very creative in facilitating remote working for some of their employees. Those employees have embraced the new ways of working in support of the Government message and to protect and support UK Key workers and, at the same time have had to adapt to juggling responsibilities and changing circumstances in their personal life.
As we slowly emerge from lockdown, there are some early signs of recovery and ONS business surveys show that 79% of UK businesses were able to remain in operation.
Employees are returning to COVID Secure workplaces and the Government is trying to balance the continuing decrease trend in the R-rate along with an increase in economic activity to boost our depressed economy.
The COVID-19 outbreak and containment measures will have a long-lasting impact on the economy, businesses and working lives. So it’s important that we take time to consider how we are going to adapt to work going forward.
Now, we can begin to reflect on the impact that these changes have brought to the world of work and to those who have continued to work.
The impact of home and remote working
There is no doubt that the ability to work from home and remote working can significantly enhance employee’s lives with the flexibility to work whenever and wherever they prefer.
Technology is an enabler which gives quick and secure access to data, systems, people and product. As a result, daily and weekly productivity is increased. However, with the removal or reduction in daily social interaction, unless the human interface is managed appropriately with structure, work can and does continue past normal working hours. Now, the downsides to the future of work are starting to reveal themselves and we need to be looking at measures to avoid job burnout.
The boundaries between our work and non-working lives have become blurred with little guidance on when and how to disconnect from work. In a 2017 UK survey of 4000 adults, over 55% indicated that they check their work emails after they have left the office (AXA 2017). The Chartered Institute of Manager’s corroborate this finding indicating that 59% of bosses also do this and that it can lead to stress, anxiety and depression.
The CIPD Good Work Index has tracked mental and physical workplace health since 2018, revealing a steady decline in health which continued through the pandemic. COVID-19 is having a direct impact on mental and physical health: around four in ten workers say their mental and physical health has worsened since the pandemic. Those with existing health conditions are finding this time particularly challenging.
So, what is job burnout and how can it be avoided?
Various studies have been undertaken into this subject and although there is no single, agreed definition there is a general consensus that it is characterised by exhaustion, adoption of a cynical attitude towards work and a loss of efficiency.
The Mayo Clinic describes Job Burnout as a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.
Job burnout can result from various factors, including:
Lack of control. An inability to influence decisions that affect an individual’s job — such as schedule, assignments or workload. A lack of the resources needed to do any work required.
Unclear job expectations. If an individual is unclear about the degree of authority they have or what their supervisor or others expect from them, they are not likely to feel comfortable at work.
Dysfunctional workplace dynamics. An individual may feel undermined by colleagues or the Manager micromanages an individual’s work. This can contribute to job stress.
Extremes of activity. If a job is monotonous or chaotic, constant energy is required to remain focused — which can lead to fatigue and job burnout.
Lack of social support. If an individual feels isolated at work and/or in their personal life, they might feel more stressed.
Work-life imbalance. If work takes up so much time and effort that individuals don't have the energy to spend time with their family and friends, they might burn out quickly.
Consequences of job burnout
Ignored or unaddressed job burnout can have significant health consequences, including excessive stress, fatigue, insomnia and even lead to high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
When home working or working remotely after hours, workers can become invisible and it becomes harder for the manager to observe when a staff member may be struggling.
It is important that employers and managers check in on employee health and wellbeing regularly, and ensure the right support is in place, recognising each individual’s own circumstances.
The workplace is changing, and technology is now impacting the way in which we can and do prefer to work. Part of the solution to avoiding job burnout could therefore be digital resilience and it is important that organisations keep pace with technological changes. This includes making sure that policies are reflective and working practices are managed to avoid stress and poor well-being. Policies alone are not enough; giving ‘permission’ to reduce expectations and not to check emails outside of normal working hours or when on leave.
Managing technology so that work and health outcomes are managed equally, effectively and importantly, sustainably is essential now. It means that individuals can continue working in a flexible manner, but at the same time realise when it is time to switch off and focus on other important aspects of lives, such as well-being, relationships and being present in the moment.
A simplistic definition of ‘switching off’ means to stop giving your attention to something or somebody. In the case of technology, it means ensuring that you know when to do this appropriately.
Encouraging healthy remote working
Organisations are trying out different methods to reduce workflow, including cutting off emails after hours (in France, Italy and the Philippines) and in some cases deleting emails during holiday periods. Any strategy or intervention needs to be considered from the perspective of the individual, the line manager and the organisation. Unless all levels are reviewed, it is unlikely that changes will be successful.
It is important that all levels in the organisations set a good example and therefore set expectations for the working culture. This is particularly important for executive and senior management teams as key influencers.
The CIPD have also produced some really helpful top tips for healthy remote working on their website, which can be implemented in your workplace.
On a final note, it is becoming clear that the ease with which we can connect to others and the ability to work for longer periods of time and at differing hours can be very productive, but it can also be counter-productive for our well-being.
It is important that organisations work with individuals to produce guidance that is effective for all. Individual differences and requirements for flexibility can make providing policies that apply to everyone difficult but what is most important is to ensure that everyone can benefit and that a supportive culture is developed which focuses on the well-being of all staff members.
If you have any questions related to the above, the Alcumus PSM HR team are here to help. Talk to one of our experts by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 01484 439930.
Alcumus PSM (People & Safety Management) specialises in Human Resources (HR) and Health & Safety (H&S) consulting for small and medium-sized enterprises.
Written by Sally Grundy, Senior HR Consultant