Coronavirus: managing the emotional impact of long-term physical distancing in the workplace

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Employers need to recognise the risks of loneliness and isolation in our newly socially and physically distanced workplaces as well as for those still working from home, highlights Brendan Street.

Employees returning to the workplace are discovering a different landscape to the one they left at the beginning of the nationwide lockdown. Individuals are finding themselves resuming their normal workload while also facing new health and safety requirements.

While distancing measures are being introduced to protect staff against the spread of the coronavirus, adapting to the “new normal” of physical distancing could take its toll on their emotional wellbeing.

About the author

Brendan Street is professional head of emotional wellbeing at Nuffield Health

In fact, researchers have claimed the psychological impact of physical distancing is similar to the effects of large disasters on human beings, with its trauma leading to depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorder and other mental and behavioural disorders.

Don’t stand so close to me

Routine lends itself to creating healthy habits. This is because anxiety stems from the unknown, with stressed employees repeatedly asking themselves “what if?”.

Constant disruption – like one-way traffic routes around the workplace, queueing for the toilet, cleaning requirements and restrictions in the kitchen – are stressful for employees, as individuals often rely on a familiar structure to regulate their emotional wellbeing.

At present, it’s still recommended to continue offering remote-working opportunities, where possible. Just because staff can return to the office doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue to reap the rewards flexible working can bring.

Nuffield Health research, for example, has found that up to two days working from home per week leads to positive employee emotional wellbeing without deteriorating co-worker relationships.

Combating loneliness

One benefit of communal office space that needs to be considered, however, is the dopamine spike we get from social interaction – it makes us feel happy, improves attention and motivation and plays an important role in our mental wellbeing.

Loneliness can be toxic to the body and we know the impact it can have on anyone who is disconnected from the people around them. However, we can continue to maintain positive remote-working habits through daily video chats and calls, all of which help to alleviate feelings of isolation in those who are struggling to adapt to new measures.

Another issue is that, while some employees are now able to return to their previous places of work, not only are they physically distanced from colleagues in the office, but face-to-face meetings are still banned. Employees are even discouraged from having social conversations, as simply talking is believed to put people at risk.

In this new environment it is important employers nurture employee relationships while staying safe. Embrace the tools that worked well during the lockdown, for example dialling into conference calls or video chats.

If office space allows, consider holding a socially distanced “huddle” – an office floor chat for all employees, where you can catch up about work issues and have personal conversations.

Providing emotional wellbeing support

As employees come to terms with this “new normal” it’s important businesses put in place the right emotional wellbeing support for those who find themselves struggling to cope with changes.

For example, online manager wellbeing training raises awareness of emotional wellbeing needs. Managers are equipped with the skills to spot signs of struggle in others and send them a message, starting with simply asking “are you okay?”.

Similarly, online mental health awareness training lets employees work through modules at their own pace and gives them the confidence to talk about mental health and support others in need. This is particularly helpful while employees are physically distanced, as some may be less likely to openly speak about their feelings over the phone or online.

If possible, invite a mental health specialist to deliver a socially distanced seminar in the office, providing actionable tips for those struggling with feelings of stress or isolation. This also helps to naturalise conversations around emotional wellbeing in the workplace and encourage employees to seek support.

Finally, businesses must track Covid-19s impact on staff mental health. This data should include evaluations from mental health professionals as well as reports from employees sharing their daily experiences with line managers and HR support.

Findings should be shared across disciplines, so businesses are alert to the concerns most affecting employees.

At Nuffield Health, for example, we’ve found pointing individuals towards employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and telephone CBT sessions gives them remote access to speak to a specialist and are some of the most effective signposts for emotional wellbeing support in the workplace.

References

“What are the side effects of social and physical distancing?”, News Medical Life Sciences, April 2020, https://www.news-medical.net/news/20200412/What-are-the-side-effects-of-social-and-physical-distancing.aspx

“The effects of remote working on wellbeing, stress and productivity”, Nuffield Health, https://www.nuffieldhealth.com/article/the-effects-of-remote-working-on-wellbeing-stress-and-productivity

“Covid-19 may spread through breathing and talking – but we don’t know how much”, https://www.livescience.com/covid19-coronavirus-transmission-through-speech.html

“What is Dopamine?”, WebMD, https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/what-is-dopamine#1

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