Webinar: The stresses and strains of a virtual environment

13 October 2020

With the UK now battling a second wave of coronavirus, and many workers back working from home, perhaps for many more months, how employers can support - long-term - the mental and emotional health of their remote virtual teams is becoming a pressing health and wellbeing issue.

A highly informative webinar, organised by health insurer WPA, brought together two speakers to discuss the health and wellbeing challenges posed by virtual working, from 'Zoom fatigue' through to the risks of burnout, presenteeism, and carving out a sustainable home-office work-life balance. It highlighted that:

  • With home working now set to be a long-term, perhaps even permanent, transition for many, it is imperative that employers are putting in place strategies and tools for supporting the mental and emotional health of their teams. This can include encouraging virtual workers to be demarcating work from home life, limiting video calls, and focusing on day-to-day 'recovery' - such as regular breaks, exercise and properly switching off - as much as work.
  • There is no 'one size fits all' solution. It's important that employers prioritise individualised solutions for both employees and their organisation.

Webinar: The stresses and strains of working in a virtual environment

Psychiatrists Dominic de Souza and Filippo Passetti review their experience of lockdown, what happened in clinic, psychiatric provision and the impact of COVID.

Back in March, when the lockdown emptied many physical workplaces, the prospect of suddenly having to work from home, while unsettling, was something many of us imagined would be little more than a temporary adjustment to a one-off public health emergency. However, eight months on and with coronavirus restrictions being tightened once again and employees being encouraged to work from home if they can, it is clear virtual or remote working will be with us for many months yet, and may even become a permanent transition for some.

There can, of course, be positives about home working, such as no longer having a long or tiring commute. But, as the WPA webinar in October highlighted, virtual or home working can create its own challenges that employers need to be managing.

The webinar, 'The stresses and strains of working in a virtual environment – a clinical perspective' brought together two clinical psychiatrists and attracted over 200 participants.

The first speaker, Dr Dominic de Souza, a consultant psychiatrist with both the NHS and Cognacity, highlighted how coronavirus has transformed how and where we work. "I think we can all agree coronavirus has forced the majority of us into a very different living and working situation; it has upended our usual routines," he said.

As well as not having to commute, home working can result in better work-life balance, more family time, often greater productivity. For others, the transition has proved more of a struggle. "People have been more socially isolated, coping poorly with the lack of structure and routine, dealing with uncertainty and not having a good work or office space at home.

"For many, it has also been complicated by childcare issues or dealing with the health of family members; so it has been a very mixed bag. This is especially relevant now, given that we are entering into a second wave and potentially a second lockdown," he added.

One particular problem can be so-called 'Zoom fatigue', he highlighted, or the mentally draining effect of constant daily video calls. "Conversations can often feel stilted. There is little opportunity to decompress between meetings and increased self-awareness of how we look - we are staring at ourselves," he explained.

"There can be a volume issue; we tend to over-schedule the number of meetings we can manage. It can take more effort to gauge non-verbal cues and body language. We may have IT problems that lead to speech transmission delays, and people may misinterpret what the other person is saying," he added.

Another issue can be presenteeism, or perhaps more accurately for home workers 'e-presenteeism'. Home workers may feel less able to say 'no' to work demands or to switch off from work. Or, perhaps worried about job security, they may try to work through illness. Presenteeism can be early warning sign of burnout and last year was classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as an "occupational phenomenon". Much like the WHO, Dr de Souza defined burnout as being when employees become disillusioned and mentally exhausted. Common signs can include persistent tiredness, a sense of distance or 'depersonalisation', not 'feeling yourself', being more cynical, negative or irritable.

Dr de Souza illustrated the extent to which many virtual workers are struggling generally with their mental health by referring to a survey of more than 2,220 adults carried out in May. This found more than half had felt anxious or worried in the previous fortnight, one in five had felt lonely, one in six hopeless, one in eight panicked, and 10% had even had suicidal thoughts. Women had been disproportionately affected, along with younger generations.

Support tools, tips and strategies

What then can employers do? Dr de Souza outlined some practical support tools, tips and strategies in the second part of his presentation. "What we want to do is set up the appropriate policies and procedures and think about staffing in order to manage this properly," he said.

He highlighted how employees need to be managing and optimising workplace recovery as much as performance. It is very easy when working from home for the recovery periods we instinctively build into a face-to-face working day, and often barely notice, to become eroded or diminished. "For example, maybe people don't put in their usual coffee breaks or walk to get a sandwich. You can see how that might impact on performance," Dr de Souza said.

When it came to tackling burnout, the best approach was a combination of addressing individual and organisational issues, he recommended. "It is really difficult to anticipate what is going to happen in the next six months. But an organisation needs to be thinking about what changes might occur. What, for example, might happen over Christmas?

“As we're entering a second wave, what do we need to think about? It's things like, is the workload too much, or too little? Is there flexibility? Are we considering the issue of children or childcare? What is the level of control; are people working way over their hours? Are people involved in decisions? What is the reward - and not just the financial reward; is there acknowledgement for good work? How have promotions been organised during coronavirus? Do people tend to blame others or is there a supportive culture? Is there a sense of fairness, and what are the values within the organisation?" Dr de Souza said.

While solutions such as referral to a specialist or counselling could be valuable, at a more basic level it was about making sure that, as an employer, you are having those one-to-one conversations with your team about how home working is working for them. "Are they emulating their usual work routine, for example, or has it all gone to pot?" he highlighted.

On virtual meetings, limiting the number held and occasionally just talking on the phone instead was one obvious solution. Social and daily check-in meetings could also be useful. "It is important employees think about their work environment and how and where they work. For example, are they working in their bedroom? Often what we are seeing is this impacting on the quality of their sleep. Do they have a dedicated workspace? The right skills and tech set-up? Or even just a separate login for work and personal stuff? You want to be having these discussions about their recovery activities," Dr de Souza emphasised. Resources such as Mind's wellness action plan, the Mental Health at Work website and Maudsley Learning could also be valuable.

The second speaker was Dr Filippo Passetti, also a consultant psychiatrist at Cognacity, who highlighted how the past year - the initial lockdown, easing and now a re-imposition of restrictions - could be creating a cumulative build-up of anxiety. "There is this legacy of six months of uncertainty, and this is a problem. Most people can sustain a great deal of pressure for a limited, specified period of time, but not indefinitely. Our stress responses are designed for short-term physical challenges and not for prolonged ones," he said. "If we are forced to stay in a period of stress for a very long time, we are all liable to slide down the trajectory that goes through fatigue, exhaustion, burnout and then further down the line stress-related disorders such as depression, generalised anxiety disorders and so on."

Like Dr de Souza, Dr Passetti emphasised the need for employers to help employees to introduce 'pockets' of rest and recovery into their day. "You should learn from elite athletes, for whom rest and recovery after a competition is part of their 'job'; it is not something to do only 'if you have time'. It is what you do to perform optimally next time," he said.

People needed to find ways to incorporate these recovery breaks into their day-to-day work, to learn when to switch off from work completely and focus on recovery, he added.

"It is about thinking creatively in order to create those recovery periods during your working week, and really focusing on them, just as much as you would do work," agreed Dr de Souza.

To illustrate this, and in conclusion, Dr Passetti highlighted how lockdown had forced him to adapt and rethink his own personal 'recovery' strategy. "I learned how to kitesurf a few years ago. But this summer I couldn't do that. So, instead, I learned to skateboard, which I could do in the street in front of my house, which was enormously helpful from a resilience and recovery perspective," he said.

Actions to consider

  • Limit 'Zoom fatigue' by encouraging/planning for short breaks between virtual meetings;
  • Encourage your teams to mark a clear end to their working day; to separate 'work time' from 'home time';
  • Consider one-to-one conversations to talk about how home working is working for them;
  • Reassure and engage regularly with your staff so they feel confident to take time off if they're unwell;
  • Remind your teams to take breaks during the working day and allow for 'recovery time'.

About the author

Nic Paton is one of the country's foremost journalists on workplace health, safety and wellbeing, and is editor of Occupational Health & Wellbeing magazine. He also regularly writes on the health and employee benefits and health insurance markets.