How COVID-19 improved mental health in the workplace

I believe mental health in the workplace could be drastically improved if we learn the lessons COVID-19 has forced upon us. We’ve got a unique opportunity to reinvent work to work for us. But only if we accept that work has to change and that remote work, flexible work environments and more autonomy are benefits to our productivity.

Here’s how we can redesign work and improve productivity and mental health in the workplace in the process

Accept workplace flexibility is here to stay

On the side of a brick building in NYC, there is a big poster that reads "how are you really?" In this context, it's meant to allude to mental health in the workplace.
Photo by Finnyc on Unsplash

Before COVID-19 hit, I was spending a lot of time talking to businesses about the benefits of remote working. As a freelance advocate, my focus is on talking about the benefits of using freelancers. When you talk about using anyone in a remote work situation, you invariably come up against questions about surveillance. The assumption was if you have someone working from home or as they travel, they’ll goof.

There are a few issues with this kind of thinking:  

  1. It assumes productivity is tied to being visible at work. This kind of thinking is the same that creates a culture of presenteeism.
  2. It implies workers can’t be trusted to complete tasks without someone standing over their shoulder. Remote or otherwise, this is about a workplace culture that is ailing. Micromanagement or a fundamentally demotivating working environment is the real problem here. Not the location of the worker.
  3. It falsely attributes ability to hours taken. It takes the focus from the quality of the work product and back on the hours used to create it. What you want is the result of the labour. Not a clock to count the hours involved. Why penalise people for being efficient?

Then COVID-19 came. All of a sudden, we had to learn how to work from home. Managers and executives accepted that their workforce could be remote.

Sure, there may have been teething problems. And there are certain tasks that do benefit from the face-to-face touch on occasion. But Australia learned what large tech companies, start-ups and freelancers have known for aeons. That you can easily work remotely and kick goals.

Presenteeism, micromanagement, demotivating cultures and the focus on hours over output lower productivity. They infantalise workers and take away autonomy. This leads to increased stress and an increased likelihood of poor mental health in the workplace.

Workplace flexibility improves your outcomes. Learning from 2020 and adopting remote work as part of the modern working mix is a no brainer.

Think outside your four walls

You know what else happened with remote working situations? A lot more people got out of Sydney and Melbourne to the country. For the first time, workers weren’t wedded to the idea of the major cities for employment.

This is such a great change that companies, large and small, should embrace.

By discarding anything outside the capital cities as places for companies to take root, we place a focus on cities that doesn’t align with worker mental health.

Mental health in the workplace is often seen as this siloed endeavour. Companies trumpet their morning yoga, wonderfully welcoming team, wellness program and office dog. But what’s the point of having these things if people arrive already unhappy and stressed?

Like a venue stating they are accessible because the building meets disability design standards that neglects to take into account the too steep a hill no person with a physical disability can navigate, workplaces that only take into account the wellness found within their four walls do themselves an injustice.

Outside the four walls of your workplace, the commute causes stress. Traffic is huge impact on your worker’s stress levels. Whether they are on public transport or driving in, the impacts of travelling in Sydney and Melbourne to work are well documented.

You also have to consider how easy it is for your workers to be their best employee. If they are commuting or working so late, they never get to exercise, eat well or see their kids, I promise you they won’t care about your morning yoga or Friday beers.

If they don’t have the opportunity to learn as their capacity grows and stretch themselves, there’s only so much chewing on the same job cud someone will do before they leave.

Mental health in the workplace is about not making work needlessly stressful. Going home late at night with nothing but work on your mind with no opportunities or reprieve does not a healthy, inspired worker make.

Instead, look for opportunities to provide working from home and the ability to test skills in other areas as a part of workplace wellness strategies. Screw the ping pong table. Invest in a training budget and make strides with virtual work initiatives.

Adopt a policy of reflecting on good work

One of the most interesting side effects of COVID-19 is to see how much reflection has occurred. Nothing throws life, career and goals into focus quite like a pandemic it seems.

Admiring the work that we do, having a real connection with projects through to competition, and having a moment to reflect on the work we do is healthy. Freelancers often do this as a matter of course. We have to package up the project and send it off to the client, together with invoice. Some even take holidays to reset the clock.

Freelancers have to do this as it stops the work from bleeding into some amorphous tangle of endeavour.  It’s needed in standard workplace environments, too.

Being able to reflect on your projects after seeing them launched in the wild is good for mental health in the workplace. You get to see where your efforts have collided with the real world. Yet we only ever focus on situations where the awards are present. Or to win more work.

It doesn’t have to be massively involved, either.

You can reflect on your work by:

  • Team reflection. Having a six-month team retrospective on large, impactful, or interesting projects. You can also update your case studies with the results to win more work
  • Charting progress. Including a giant DONE LIST in your break room or similar to demonstrate the progress the team has made over the weeks, months and year
  • Individual reflection. Asking staff what they learned from working on a particular project in tangible and intangible ways to get your workers in the habit of reflecting on the good they do outside the traditional measurements
  • Measuring intrinsic goals. Incorporating measurements into your reporting and analysis on return on investment (ROI) that create space for softer skills and other qualities you may not find at the bottom of an analytics spreadsheet.

The more we move away from simply doing work and moving on, the greater our ability to increase productivity and connection to the work will be.

Mental health in the workplace matters

While we need to learn to live with a virus, we may as well do what we can to explore the by-products and side effects and use them to our advantage. As Beyond Blue says, for every dollar spent on mental health in the workplace, you receive a return of $2.30. It also makes it easier to retain your workers, attract talent and feel proud of the workplace you’ve created. Not to mention proactively dealing with the side effects of dissatisfaction and unhealthy culture can bring.

Want to transform your workplace? Check out my culture services now.




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