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Working from home during the Coronavirus pandemic: Practical advice for employers and employees

By Paul Hinckley, Occupational Health Advisor at Staywell Occupational Health – 6th April 2020

COVID-19 has presented us with enormous challenges in terms of how we all work, play and generally live our lives. Many of us are no longer able to attend our usual, familiar working environment. For some, working from home will be regarded as a blessing, but for others, especially those with family commitments to older relatives or children in the home, it will be a curse. Then of course there will be people who, due to the nature of their jobs, are simply unable to work from home.

Key workers such as the emergency services, NHS staff and those who maintain the country’s transport infrastructure and food supply chain, continue to work on the very frontline, often under very difficult and stressful circumstances. They have our continued support and gratitude.

But what about those of us who are now faced with the challenge of working from home, often for the first time? This is a guide aimed equally at both managers and employees, and is designed to make the transition to working from home at this time as smooth as possible. Perhaps the most important key to success is to establish a routine and stick to it, but more on that later.

There will, of course, be changes to our work and the way that we do it, so now is an ideal time to break down the main components of our new roles, and think about how we may be affected in six key areas: role, demands, control, change, relationships and support.

1.      Role

  • Are you clear on what your role at work is, and what is expected of you? Has this changed now that you may be working remotely?
  • If your working environment has changed, and you now work from home, are you fully equipped to deliver the responsibilities entrusted to you? Think about the need to establish a routine, the hours you will actually be working, and the need for privacy when working. Consider this in balance with the need to relax after work, spending time with others in the household and/or the need to provide childcare.
  • Do you have a suitable environment in which to work effectively? Think about the ergonomics of your home workstation, especially your desk and seating arrangements.
  • Are your skills being used to full effect? Can you offer any additional skills within this new role that were not previously required? Think about how these can be best utilised and implemented.

2.      Demands

  • Does your workload feel achievable now that you are working from home? Think about which tasks take up the most time and how you prioritise these efficiently and effectively.
  • If you are expected to work to deadlines and achieve performance objectives, are these still realistic given the change of working environment? Think about work-life balance, and the need to attend to other domestic matters such as childcare, or arranging to collect or receive food and other provisions.
  • Don’t forget about the needs of your family and others living with you in the household. Explain to them why it is necessary for you to be working from home, and that you will need some time alone to concentrate on your work. This will help to reduce any domestic tension, and will reassure younger children who are bound to be wondering why things have suddenly changed at home.

3.      Control

  • Not everyone can have full autonomy over how they work, but most people like to have at least some element of control over how they personally do their work. Think about how this situation may be affected by working from home.
  • Is working from home providing you with more control over the way you work? Think about how you structure your working day, and what you are achieving during the set working hours.
  • Are you given the opportunity to make comments and provide suggestions as to how the work is done? Are these acknowledged, and do you receive sufficient feedback from your line manager?

4.      Change

  • Not everyone handles change well. How does your employer handle change?
  • Do you feel you are properly consulted when changes are made which affect you and your role? Think about how it would feel to be more personally involved in the change process.
  • Going from office-based to home-based working is a big change. Do you feel the reasons for the change have been well-explained?

5.      Relationships

  • Do you maintain positive, supportive relationships at work? Think about how these might be affected if you are working away from a group environment.
  • Are you able to keep open good, honest channels of communication with managers and colleagues whilst you are working from home? Think about what methods of routine communication can be used to maintain and promote good working relationships whilst isolated from each other.

6.      Support

  • Do you receive enough, information and training to be able to carry out your role effectively? Think about access to refresher training, and whether this can be accessed remotely. Ensure that any professional competencies do not lapse during this period of isolation.
  • Do you receive enough guidance and constructive feedback when you are required to improve your performance in some way? Think about how this is given, and how it is received.
  • Are you valued for the good work that you do, and receive positive feedback and praise? Again, think about how this is given, and how it is received.
  • Do you have enough opportunities to discuss any emerging issues or pressures? Think about who to talk to and where to go when you need support, and whether you would feel confident and comfortable in doing so.
  • Finally, what support mechanisms could be put in place to help you to cope with any issues arising from any of the above points? Think about how to raise any concerns through your line manager.

The six areas looked at above are from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) management standards on work-related stress, and provide an excellent, evidence-based method of approaching and dealing with any issues that may lead to stress and anxiety if left unchecked.

If you’re having to work from home, I recommend that you consider them now, before any greater concerns arise, and do as much as you can to make your change of role and environment a positive and pleasant one.

Practical tips on health and wellbeing whilst working from home.

Create a comfortable but suitable workspace.

Find as quiet a space as you can, away from the television and (if possible) the children. Ideally use a desk with a suitable chair as this will help you to maintain the mindset of working in the office, and will assist with good posture. Aim to have your laptop or keyboard on a flat surface, so that your lower arms are parallel to the floor when you are using it; if the seat height isn’t adjustable, consider using a cushion if it is comfortable. If you don’t have a desk, a kitchen table and chair make a good alternative, but schedule your workload away from mealtimes.  Try to find a space with good ventilation and plenty of natural daylight. Avoid working from the sofa or armchair, and don’t use a low coffee table as a desktop. Never use your laptop actually on your lap!

Stick to a regular routine.

Wake up at your normal time and get dressed into proper clothes. Avoid the temptation to stay in pyjamas, shorts or leisure wear all day as this will conflict with your usual work mindset. If you usually work from 9 til 5 in the office, then do your best to maintain these same hours when working at home. Don’t be tempted to work late as this will impact on your work-life balance, and may disturb your sleep pattern. When you’ve finished work, change into clothes that will allow you to relax. Make time for a reasonable fitness routine at home. If you do not normally exercise, then consider taking a thirty-minute walk three times per week, whilst the current Government restrictions permit it.

Eat well and take proper breaks.

Once you’re washed and dressed, start your day with a suitable breakfast. Something like porridge is excellent as it provides slow-release energy throughout the morning. Take a proper lunch break. Have some food and take the opportunity to go outside (if you’re not self-isolating) to stretch your legs and get some fresh air. If you do go outside, remember to maintain social distancing, and wash your hands in soap and water when you return home. Take extra breaks away from your workspace during the day in order to stand, stretch and keep mobile around the house. Keep well hydrated at all times and take regular toilet breaks and again, remember to wash your hands!

Don’t isolate yourself too much.

Whilst it’s important to find a workspace at home away from obvious distractions, don’t spend all day locked away. Maintain good communications by phone, text, email etc, with those colleagues you would normally interact with at work. When at home, maintain good communication with your partner, if you have one. If you have children with you at home during this time, dedicate some specific time to be with them during the day. Explain to them why you have to temporarily work at home as, especially if they are young, they may find the situation confusing.

Set yourself a realistic work schedule.

If you work as part of a team, keep in contact with them to ascertain what tasks need to be completed, by when and by whom. Creating a “to do” list will help to avoid distractions, and will provide evidence to your line manager about what work you have achieved, if requested. If there is an unavoidable problem at home that must be dealt with during normal working hours, then be sure to inform your line manager straight away. Don’t try to muddle through and do too many things at once.

Be aware of what’s going on in the world around you.

Tune in every now and again to keep up to date with what the latest Government response to the pandemic entails, and whether it requires your personal input or action. Whether you perceive that time is passing quickly or slowly for you, keep an eye on any monthly deadlines, such as paying utility bills, credit cards, house insurance, subscriptions and whether your car tax, insurance or MOT is about to expire.

After work, make sure you have time for yourself and your family.

Aim to finish work on time, and then spend some quality time with those in your household. Switch off your computer and tidy away paperwork and other items. Don’t go back to your workspace until it’s time to start work again the next day. Set aside ample time after work to get shopping and collect any medications as required. If you live alone, make sure you catch up with friends and family via phone, text, messaging, email and/or social media. Keep your alcohol intake to a sensible limit. If you have any concerns about your own mental health, or just need further information, please seek advice from reliable internet sources such as the NHS (https://www.nhs.uk/oneyou/every-mind-matters/), Mind (https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/coronavirus-and-your-wellbeing/) and Living Life to the Full (www.llttf.com).


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