Monday, 6 April 2020

Managing Mental Health and Performance During Extended Working from Home Periods

Ordinarily working from home arrangements require careful planning and consideration of job requirements on a case by case basis.  However, the impact of coronavirus may mean these arrangements have been swiftly implemented without the normal preparation and discussions with employees.  It is not however too late to consider these issues with employees working from home, such as how your business may manage mental health of employees as well as manage employee performance from afar.

Managing Employee Mental Health

Employers have a legal obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment for all employees, as far as reasonably practicable.  This includes the consideration of both the physical and psychological safety of employees, and these obligations extend to where an employee is working from home.  It is particularly important that employers and managers keep this front of mind given large portions of our workforce are currently working remotely.  Employers should adopt a measured approach.

Working from home for extended periods can be isolating, particularly in this uncertain pandemic environment where individuals may be concerned about contracting coronavirus, the health of loved ones, children unable to attend school, elderly relatives at risk, together with fears about their own job security and economic stability.  This can increase the risk of employees developing, or exacerbating pre-existing, mental health issues.

Given primary modes of communication will be via technology rather than in person, employees may feel reticent to discuss feelings of loneliness and/or isolation with their managers and colleagues.  There may be a heightened risk of employees experiencing post-traumatic stress symptoms, confusion, and anger once exposed to periods of isolation.  There may also in turn be an increased risk of developing a mental health condition when combined with concerns that may arise during the coronavirus pandemic.

Most at risk individuals may include those with pre-diagnosed mental health conditions, employees who live alone, and new employees who do not have established networks.  Employees used to working in a team environment, may be particularly shocked when they are disconnected from each other.  Employees who are not technologically skilled may also be particularly vulnerable as they may not know how to virtually connect with their colleagues.

Managers will play a pivotal role in managing employee mental health.  Managers are encouraged to take proactive steps to support employees and monitor the mental health of employees while staff are working from home. Some suggestions may include:

  1. Daily Team Check Ins – At least daily, check in with your team via videoconferencing software. This conversation can be to discuss everyone’s workloads and capacity; however it is implicitly reminding your staff they are still part of a broader team, working together to achieve the same goals.
  2. Weekly Individual Check Ins – At least weekly, individually check in with your direct reports either by phone or videoconferencing. More regular check ins may be considered for those more at risk individuals.  It is important for leaders to understand there is an expectation they will check in with their direct reports not only in a team environment, but also on an individual basis.   It is a lot harder to gauge how an employee is feeling when interactions are not face to face, as the visible indications of stress/distress cannot be seen.  It is more important now than ever for employers to facilitate a workplace culture that is encouraging of discussions around mental health.
  3. Social Engagements – Facilitate and encourage social engagements. In a world of physical distancing, this can mean facilitating virtual avenues (such as a discussion board) for employees to chat about non-work-related content.
  4. Non-work-related Chat – Make time for social conversations with your staff that do not involve work content – for example, talk about what Netflix shows you are currently watching, or what novels you would recommend. Share your own tips for finding ‘down time’ in our new realities of isolation eg online exercise videos, other home-based hobbies.
  5. Be vulnerable (within reason) – Be prepared to acknowledge to your team that this is a challenging time and that no one is immune to the uncertainty. Encourage staff to reach out if they are struggling.
  6. Mental Health Policy – Implement a mental health policy if your business hasn’t done so already and remind employees of the policy if it is already in existence.
  7. Employee Assistance Program – Remind your staff of any available employee assistance programs they can contact while working from home.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, employers and employees may need to spend more time during work hours engaging in activities that assist employees’ mental health than would normally be done working in an office environment.  While this may come at a small cost to employers, inaction could result in a much greater cost, to both the individual and the business.  Importantly, demonstrating genuine ongoing support to staff during this time is likely to result in excellent outcomes for both the individual and for the organisation – with greater engagement, productivity and loyalty in the long term.

Managing Employee Performance

Managing employee performance is another challenge for employers when employees are working from home for extended periods.

While working from home presents its challenges, employers should still be able to manage the performance of their staff while working remotely and if required conduct performance management if an employee is not performing at the necessary standard.  We make the following suggestions to assist in managing performance and performance management of your staff who are working from home:

  1. Workloads – Communicate daily with your team regarding capacity and workload to ensure staff are not over or underworked. A digital planner or tasks list for your team is a great way to monitor workloads and the progress of tasks.  There is of course a higher degree of trust which is needed when employees work remotely.
  2. Re-visit goals/KPIs – Employers also need to be more realistic and flexible in their expectations of what can be achieved in the current climate, both in terms of the economic conditions and limitations where employees are working from home. Additionally, employees with parental and caring responsibilities will require flexibility and understanding, with expectations around productivity adjusted accordingly. Where appropriate, if an employee is unable to continue working their usual hours because their children are at home full time, temporary flexible working arrangements can be discussed.  
  3. Performance concerns – If, despite adjustments in expectations appropriate to the current environment, an employee’s performance is not meeting expectations, it is important to communicate openly with the employee, ideally via video conference. Discuss the concerns and depending on the discussions, try to come up with strategies and measurable objectives to improve their performance.  Also ask the employee to identify any barriers to them meeting the performance expectations, as there may be factors in this ever-developing scenario which the employer had not considered.  Seek to address these factors while also reinforcing reasonable expectations of productivity and performance.

Employers should be conscious that there may be other issues at play where there is a reduction in an employee’s performance, including wellbeing factors, such as struggling to balance working from home and caring responsibilities (particularly given the closures of schools), to mental health issues caused by increased isolation.

It may also be that employees are struggling with the mindset to adapt to working from home, they may be having technological or connectivity problems, or even logistical issues in being distracted by having other family members at home.

Communication is pivotal – managers need to frequently have constructive conversations with their staff about performance expectations and work processes, which will include adapting to the practicalities of working remotely and in particular during the evolving circumstances arising from this global pandemic.


This article was produced by HR Legal. It is intended to provide general information only in summary format on legal issues. It does not constitute legal advice, and should not be relied on as such.