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What has lockdown done to your employees’ brains?

This article was published in People Management

Of all the unexpected things to happen in 2020, the emergence of websites streaming office sounds such as ringing phones and coffee machines brewing is one of the more whimsical. Yet there’s a serious dimension to their popularity, with sites such as bringing comfort to lonely members of the virtual workforce – and its founder claiming to have attracted a million visitors globally, 75,000 of them from the UK. 

So while organisations are busy reviewing their remote working strategies or planning the return to the office, what about the emotional and psychological toll the pandemic has taken on employees over the past six months? The Office for National Statistics found that the rate of depression in adults doubled during June compared to at the start of lockdown, with financial worries ranking highly on the list of factors influencing symptoms. Another survey, from recruitment firm Robert Walters, found 47 per cent of managers worried their employees were at risk of burnout, and 87 per cent of employees felt under pressure to be more productive while working remotely. While many managers have been praising the resilience of their teams and making the case for extended home working, others have been hearing stories of social isolation, increased stress and anxiety about an uncertain future.

“Our brains are naturally designed to hate anything uncertain – it’s a guessing machine that makes a rapid assessment of what’s dangerous and is predisposed to negative bias,” explains Dr Helena Boschi, an expert in applied neuroscience and author of Why We Do What We Do: Understanding our brain to get the best out of ourselves and others. “Coming into a pandemic when we were already suffering from an influx of information and technological bombardment, and mental health issues were on the rise, to something where there’s increased uncertainty and no end point, our brains struggle to cope.” At the same time many employees are spending hours on video calls, she adds – where pressure is placed on the areas of the brain that influence our attention spans – or responding to the dopamine hit of the latest Teams or WhatsApp notification on their phones.  

So for many employees, the ongoing situation poses risks for their mental health, says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser for employee relations at the CIPD. “The uncertainty is affecting some people who had good mental health and no anxiety previously. We’ve still got the fear of infection, and there may be related factors such as bereavement, the prospect of local lockdowns, and the fact that the isolation of working from home might not be as temporary as we first thought,” she says. In a survey carried out in August by the CIPD, 27 per cent of employees reported their alcohol intake had increased during lockdown, with those with high workloads or caring responsibilities more likely to be drinking more. “Alcohol has definitely been a coping mechanism for some,” says Suff. “And managers don’t always know the range of support their organisation offers on this.” 

For Gemma Dale, wellbeing and engagement manager at the University of Manchester, it was crucial to support managers as soon as lockdown was imposed. The university offered online sessions focusing on specific issues such as the relationship between work and identity, and how to support those on furlough. “We know that for some people work is very central to their sense of self and self-confidence. So while we cannot know how people have experienced furlough, we believe it may contribute to a loss of purpose and of the social structures and meaning that comes from work, and we wanted managers to have an understanding of these very specific issues,” she says. 

Offering targeted support for physical wellness was also a priority: “External surveys showed quite quickly into lockdown people were taking less exercise, and some were drinking more and their diet had got worse. So we worked with an external wellbeing provider, with an emphasis on getting back into fitness and getting your diet back on track.”  

With the majority of employees working from home at many organisations, one of the biggest factors affecting many people’s emotional wellbeing has been isolation. While in many ways arguments in favour of flexible working have emerged victorious from the pandemic, HR teams and managers must also consider that working alone does not suit everyone. Rebecca Seal, author of Solo: How to Work Alone (and Not Lose Your Mind), says people who feel in control of their isolation – rather than having it imposed on them – tend to cope better. “Enforced solitude as a punishment is something humans find hard to tolerate,” she explains. “We can handle it better if we perceive it as something we’ve chosen. Our options may be more limited but there are still freedoms in home working, such as setting your own hours and starting at a different time – the more structured autonomy managers can give the better.” 

An added issue with home working is setting boundaries. Where once many employees would use their train or car journey to mentally prepare for work or offload work-related thoughts at the end of the day, these “transitional moments” don’t exist in the same way, says Seal. “I’ve seen lots of evidence of organisations providing ergonomic chairs and the like, but what if you live in a tiny flatshare? They’d be better off giving workers a way to hide their work at the end of the day, so they can visually park it in the evening and it’s not the first thing they see in the morning.” Making sure employees are booking time off and not expected to give instant responses to every email are small ways employers can ‘nudge’ people to create and stick to boundaries, she adds. 

So, with a full-scale return to the office not on the cards yet for many businesses, what can organisations do to promote contact beyond the weekly Zoom catch-up? “Remote-only teams that meet up occasionally might find it harder to form bonds and build trust,” says Dr Naeema Pasha, director of careers and professional development at Henley Business School, explaining that face-to-face interaction promotes production of the hormone oxytocin, which builds trust and relationships. In some ways employees have gained a more human view of each other as they communicate from their own homes, but this needs to be sustained as and when they return to the office. “If we continue working remotely or in a blended way, leaders need to continue to demonstrate and role model this behaviour. We need to see more learning around how managers create engaging video calls or how employees promote their own visibility when they’re a in little square,” Pasha advises. 

Crucially, organisations must avoid a blanket approach to helping employees get used to whatever their ‘new normal’ is, remembering everyone will have different personal circumstances, comfort with uncertainty and health considerations. “It needs to be a person-centred approach,” argues Richard Reid, psychologist and founder of Pinnacle Wellbeing Services. Unable to pick up on nuances of body language over video, managers need to feel safe broaching mental health conversations, he says. “They need to create the space for people to get in touch with what they’re feeling, and they can’t do that if they’re busy all the time – so maybe chat informally, organise fewer meetings. You might have mental health first aiders but you still need that glue in between; that’s the bit that’s missing.” 

Lisa Wynn, who runs coaching company Corporate Potential, has been working with electronics firm Bosch in China on supporting managers to offer an “even keel” to their teams by building their own resilience. The programme, called ‘Thriving in difficult times’, explores the nature of trauma and the effect of lockdown, and is a combination of teaching and mindfulness. “We learn that there are three key stages to trauma: emergency, regression and recovery. Many of us are excited by the challenge at first,” she says, reflecting on the ‘emergency’ stage and how many people felt energised at the start of lockdown. “Then many of us fall into a sense of regression, going back to numbing activities such as drinking more alcohol. Or we get stuck in regression or moving between regression and recovery.” 

Reid adds that employees will be at different stages of acceptance regarding their experience of the pandemic, particularly the longer it takes to return to normality. “With lockdown ending we have a tendency to want to put this negative experience behind us – the part of the brain that deals with fear has been in overdrive,” he says. “But it’s the experiences we don’t choose that help us grow and become stronger. It’s a great opportunity for organisations to reset things.”

This is especially poignant as organisations look to develop more inclusive and compassionate cultures moving forward. For many employees, 2020 has not just meant a global pandemic and its economic fallout but also the emotional impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example. “This year has been overwhelming,” says Charlotte Armitage, a psychologist who works with media companies. “The messages are bleak at the moment – the focus is on recession and unemployment – and people are all soaking it in on some level. Then when people return to work there will likely be a range of problems as people are used to a slower pace of life; they may struggle with changes in the workplace such as wearing masks or keeping a distance. People may get emotionally drained and exhausted more quickly.” 

Dr Amy Bradley of Hult Ashridge Executive Education says that, for this reason, it’s crucial to meet people “where they are” rather than applying catch-all mental health strategies. “It’s really important to acknowledge that this is still fluid for many people. There’s a concept called wide-angled empathy, which shifts our thinking beyond the immediate (as it has been for the past few months) and on to our connections and their connections.” Even difficult conversations around redundancy or restructuring need to be empathetic and human, she adds: “Managers need to display competent compassion, where they notice things in others that need attending to and make themselves available to listen. They step into others’ shoes and then find a way to respond appropriately.” 

There’s also a role for HR in reminding people when they’re coping well and sharing positive stories. Regular check-ins and good feedback can activate the reward centres in our brains, says Boschi: “Employees won’t forget what people have done for each other during this time as their emotions are heightened. This is an important time to extend kindness.”

Different workers, different pressures

A key difficulty facing HR teams providing post-lockdown mental health support is the wide variation between different employee experiences…

The furloughed worker 

In a survey by executive coaching firm Zingg in April, almost 80 per cent of workers said being on furlough made them fearful, with 63 per cent experiencing a loss of connection with their employer. Now, with predictions that unemployment will top two million once the scheme ends, broader worries about job security will increase. But “feelings of anxiety about [connection to their] own workplace may have decreased” as the length of their time away from work has extended, says Zingg founder Janine Woodcock. These external fears may make it difficult for returning furloughed workers to concentrate, she adds.

The vulnerable worker

Certain workers could be experiencing a range of specific anxieties around a physical return to work, such as fears about germs or social anxieties after a long time at home, says Charlotte Armitage, a psychologist who works with media companies. “They’ll be using lots of their psychological resources to scan the environment for threats, operating on high alert,” she says. Those who have been shielding may need particular support. The CIPD recommends organisations ask their occupational health service or the employee’s GP for advice on specific conditions. 

The working parent 

Beth Mason, research officer at the Institute for Employment Studies, says that, while most parents will have struggled to manage the balance between childcare, schooling and working, young women have felt this most keenly. “They’re trying to juggle work and childcare, and they’re probably more likely to be doing shopping for neighbours or taking responsibility for elderly relatives,” she says. “That all impacts on their work-life balance and the structure of their work. Plus, without the typical support they would have got from paid childcare and their family, this will have had a negative impact.” 

How isolation affects the brain

It might feel as though staff are getting more done without the interruption of office interaction. But how has being alone – with some living and isolating on their own throughout lockdown – affected their brains? Studies of animals and humans show that isolation can have many effects, including: reduced brain volumes in the prefrontal cortex (involved in decision-making and how we socialise); a smaller than normal hippocampus (which supports learning and memory); and a correlation between the size of the amygdala (which processes emotion) and decreased social interaction. 

A study published by the University of Surrey and Brunel University found that loneliness and isolation can be associated with increased physical inflammation in 

the body, while a Spanish study recently revealed that this is associated with cognitive decline. And MRI scans of a crew returning from the Antarctic following a prolonged lack of contact with the outside world showed they had reduced levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps us deal with stress, and performed worse in spatial awareness and attention tests than they had before.

What about HR’s own wellbeing?

“There were times when I felt like bursting into tears,” admits Nicola Bassett, regional HR adviser at SOCOTEC, regarding her mental wellbeing since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Not only was Bassett studying for her CIPD Level 5 when the crisis hit, she was also changing jobs and looking after two small children. “I was trying to homeschool, and to keep going with my normal day job with two kids running riot – all while hoping that I could still start my new role, and every day trying to anticipate what the next development would be. It was an absolute nightmare,” she recounts. 

People professionals have been by no means immune, then, to those pressures they’ve been tasked with supporting employees with over the last six months. In Bassett’s case, this wasn’t for want of an empathetic employer, with SOCOTEC “understanding and supportive” of her circumstances. But nonetheless, the situation had a profound impact on her mental health, she says.

Again, just as for the general employee population, the other extreme has had equally serious repercussions for HR professionals’ own wellbeing. While many people practitioners across the country have found their workloads much increased – contending with furlough, redeploying staff, restructuring and much more – one HR professional at a London university, who did not want to be named, reports the opposite. “We didn’t have a lot to do once staff were on furlough so the boredom kicked in. I had a bad diet, I was sleeping too much and I was binge watching TV shows,” she reveals, saying she then became depressed (but fortunately is doing much better now that she’s busier again and has established a better routine, including daily walks).

Yet, as challenging as 2020 has been, the profession has always been subject to a fairly unique combination of stressors, many of which have only been exacerbated by Covid. “People professionals often have a challenging role anyway as they are balancing the needs of the organisation and employees,” says Rachel Suff, senior policy adviser at the CIPD. She warns of a temptation on HR’s part to be so dedicated to looking after employees’ interests – including their wellbeing – they, somewhat ironically, overlook their own work-life balance and mental health: “We know HR has been working incredibly hard to put support in place, but it’s really important they don’t forget their own needs as well.”

So while people professionals have been furiously tending to the needs of others, who looks after HR? According to Ngozi Weller, co-founder at Aurora Wellness, “very few people in organisations care about HR, they just expect them to know what they’re doing”. This is evidenced by the popularity of her workshops targeted specifically at HR professionals, she says: “We have run four wellbeing workshops and one with the CIPD. They have been so popular because nobody looks after the people looking after everyone else. Whoever is responsible for the management and wellbeing of others is the one who is struggling because they have to be the conduit between leadership, employees and the government.”

This view is shared by Sarah Giles, who left her HR career of 15 years to focus on wellbeing after becoming frustrated with a lack of focus on the subject in relation to the profession itself. She points out one of the many pressures faced – and the lot of those currently tasked with overseeing redundancies – is that “sometimes in HR you have to do things that aren’t pleasant and you take that emotion home with you, which can be tough”. She admits her first disciplinary action, for example, made her “want to cry”. 

And even the most robust and experienced professionals won’t be immune to the stress and anxiety brought by a global pandemic. “Sometimes I had entire days responding to enquiries, and it was probably 16 hours a day. We had to work horrendously long hours because we had 2,000 people to look after,” says Karen Bates, people director at BrewDog. 

Adrian Rutherford, head of HR services at Surrey Police, says sobering conversations about what the country might face couldn’t fail to have an impact: “The police plan for every possibility and some of those were pretty horrific. You come out of those meetings with that stuff in your head thinking: ‘Oh my god it might get even worse than everyone is predicting.’”

So how can people professionals support each other through such tough times – and ensure the many spinning plates, tough interpersonal situations and heavy workloads demanded of HR even in so-called ‘normal’ times don’t impact their own wellbeing? Bates and Rutherford both cite good levels of personal resilience and a supportive network both inside and outside their organisations. But neither of these can be left to chance, Giles says. “We need to start coaching resilience early on so when people climb the ladder they are in a better place to be able to cope,” she says, adding that resilience training “doesn’t fall under any formal HR qualification” currently, however.

Suff stresses the importance of practitioners tapping into professional networks for support. “It’s good that we have an active community within HR and networks where we can share learning and that can act as a sounding board,” she says, pointing also to the range of resources on the CIPD’s Coronavirus Hub and its wellbeing helpline with Health Assured, which provides free 24/7 support for members. 

She adds the all-important advice to “practise what you preach with self care”: “HR should be mindful to not blur the boundaries between work and home – and don’t shore up your annual leave. It’s really important to have a break.”

Weller is also pushing the self-care agenda, but admits “breaking this lifetime habit of [HR professionals] putting themselves last is very hard, especially now because they have so many expectations on them”. “I have been trying to reframe that problem for them,” she adds. “And I keep telling them to not think of self care as selfish.”

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