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How lockdown upset the work-life balance

Updated 19 January 2021

6min read

Nick Green
Financial Journalist

The line between the office and the home has blurred for many of us since the start of the pandemic. Whether you love home working, hate it or don’t really mind, there’s evidence that this blurring is bad for both employers and workers – but there are some simple remedies. Article by Nick Green.

Work life balance

We used to come home from work; now we work from home. Anyone with a role that can be carried out remotely is performing it from their bedroom, kitchen table or Harry Potter cupboard, to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. Even though we know it’s just a temporary thing, not even the experts can say for certain how long it might be necessary, nor how often it might be needed in future. It’s also fair to say that some are coping with the current set-up better than others.

After nearly a year of Covid restrictions, many are feeling the strain of adopting enforced working practices that they never planned for or expected. Research by insurer Aviva has revealed the hidden costs of remote working, both for the employees themselves and for their employers. And while none of them are as severe as catching the virus can be, they shouldn’t be dismissed. For companies and staff alike, there’s a growing need to take a look at these negative impacts, so that they can be fixed or mitigated.

The emotional impact of home working

Aviva has found that more than half of workers feel the line between their home life and working life is increasingly blurred. Serendipitously, Aviva began their research before the pandemic fully hit, finding in February 2020 that 40% of workers already felt that work was seeping into their home life. But by August this figure had shot up to 52%, showing the effect of widespread home working.

This isn’t to say that people don’t like home working. On the contrary, more than half (53%) say they prefer it, and there are undeniable benefits such as saving on travel costs, a less formal atmosphere and so on. But this leaves 47% who don’t prefer it, and by August 44% of workers were saying they were feeling ‘disconnected’ from their colleagues. At the same time, staff feelings of loyalty towards their employers have declined since February – which is telling, given the uncertainty in the job market at the moment. And although more workers now feel that their employer is trying to help them maintain their mental wellbeing (55%, up from 38% in February), only 26% believe their employer genuinely cares about this.

Most worryingly of all, employee mental health has noticeably declined over this period. By August, 43% were ranking their mental health between ‘very bad’ and ‘fair’, compared to 38% in February – despite the winter-summer contrast which would normally reverse this trend.

Combined with this new sense of distance and detachment is the unpleasant feeling of being ‘always on’. One in five (19%) now fear that work is directly encroaching on their personal life. So even as workers feel more remote than ever from their employers, they paradoxically find that they cannot get away from them.

Aviva researchIs anyone still taking time off sick?

One symptom of this ‘always on’ culture is the startling fall in the number of sick days people have been taking recently. By August 2020 84% of workers had taken zero days off with illness in the previous three months, compared to 67% in February.

On the face of it this looks like a good thing – and may partly be explained both by summertime and by lockdown reducing the spread of germs. But such a dramatic change suggests that many who were ill were simply not admitting it to their employers, and were either working through their illness, or pretending to and staying online while doing the bare minimum. Neither of these is a welcome result – suggesting as it does that workers don’t feel comfortable admitting to illness or asking for time off to recover. This ‘presenteeism’ is very likely due to the lack of job security that many see all around them – which in itself is an obstacle to good mental health among workers.

It’s hardest for young workers

Those who say they prefer remote working cite reasons such as spending more time with their children and relaxing at home. Of course, this is cold comfort to most young workers (aged 18-25) who are still living in house shares or with their parents. Over a third of this demographic are confined to a single room for both working and sleeping. At an age which is traditionally about broadening horizons and meeting new people, this has inevitably hit hard. And it comes on top of the doubts over job security, with junior staff traditionally seen as the most expendable for the business (on the ‘last in, first out’ basis). This age group is by far the most likely to suffer from work-related anxiety now (53% versus an average of 34%), and 17% rate their mental health as bad (the average being 11%).

Resilience is key – the difference that personality type can make

How well you’ve coped with remote working may depend a great deal on your personality type. However, the popular assumption that ‘introverts like home working, extraverts don’t’ has been shown by Aviva’s research to be a lazy one. A third (36%) of people identifying as introverts say they are still concerned by a lack of face-to-face interaction with colleagues. And though more extraverts than introverts appeared to be missing office life (68% versus 56%), it’s clear that the majority do feel detrimental effects from a lack of personal interaction.

The report also identified four broad ‘working personality types’ that cope with remote working to varying degrees. People seem to fare best when they can combine emotional resilience with a high degree of personal organisation – this type is labelled ‘Resilient completers’. Those who find it hardest are those who have low levels of personal organisation and low emotional resilience – in other words, those who have relied most on the support of management professionally, and of colleagues socially. On the whole, however, the most important trait to have appears to be emotional resilience – the ability to cope with change, keep busy and tolerate adversity in the knowledge that it’s just temporary.

What employers can do to support their workforce

Ask most employees what they think of their bosses, and the results are often less than flattering. But workers seem to have become even more than usually estranged from their employers. Only 15% of employees think their bosses are trying to understand what motivates them, and happiness levels in the workforce have almost halved since February 2020.

Given that happy workers are (according to an Oxford University study) around 13% more productive, this should make employers sit up. As staff morale drops, so too may productivity, and ultimately the company’s bottom line. The absence of the physical office has made it much harder for bosses to ‘kick the tyres’ and gauge the mood of their team. A lot of businesses may discover to their cost that their workforce’s motivation has slowly bled out over the course of lockdown, resulting in a considerable financial cost and a sluggish recovery at best.

Employers would therefore be well advised to act promptly to boost morale, and not wait for the problems (which may have simmered for months) to become visible. Solutions might include group events online, small tokens of appreciation given out to staff, personal messages of encouragement, and a programme of employee feedback and consultations where staff can voice their wishes and concerns without fear of being judged. Employers can also subscribe to organisations that staff can contact in complete confidence to discuss any personal issues, including mental health.

What employees can do to help themselves

Employees themselves can also play their part in helping to restore the work-life balance. Although one of the perceived advantages of home working is being able to work at any time of the day or night, in practice it is far better in all respects to have clear blocks of time for work and leisure, and avoid overlaps except in emergencies.

As an employee, set yourself clear hours and aim to work within them – this usually means working more intently for a shorter block of time, but then logging off as if you had left the office. If you wouldn’t normally attend the office at weekends, don’t work weekends. If you have to, schedule leisure activities in order to ensure you clock off at the right time.

Both the body and the mind need long unbroken periods of downtime in order to recuperate to maximum performance. This means you are doing no favours either to yourself or your employer by working all hours, as all your work will then be sub-par. Similarly, if you’re an employer, it’s better to have your employees either ‘on’ or ‘off’ – not flickering like a light with the switch pushed halfway.

It’s everyone’s hope that offices will get back to something like normal later on in 2021. However, it’s likely that home-working will remain more popular and permitted than it was before the pandemic. That may be one of the few positives to arise from the pandemic – the recognition that neither the office nor the home is the perfect workplace, but that the right blend of the two just might be.

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About the author
Nick Green is a financial journalist writing for Unbiased.co.uk, the site that has helped over 10 million people find financial, business and legal advice. Nick has been writing professionally on money and business topics for over 15 years, and has previously written for leading accountancy firms PKF and BDO.