From today, the government’s new Plan B rules say that we should once again work from home “if we can”. These stepped-up measures are of course designed to fight the Omicron variant of Covid, but they will bring an extra later of anxiety for many.

For the small business owner, such as a city-based café, bar or shop, dependent on office workers and passing trade during the incredibly important Christmas trading period, the timing is especially challenging.

For the office home worker, the latest Plan B move has the potential to create another bubble of pressure and isolation as Tracey Paxton, managing director at The Employee Resilience Company Limited, explains:

“The way most of us now work has changed beyond all recognition. Businesses who are not culturally open to home working are becoming susceptible to emotional and social dynamics such as workplace bullying and burnout.

“When working from home, workers can experience an increase in anxiety and increased self-isolation may create a climate where effective communication is undermined as teams that started to again work together in close proximity of each other, now interact on a virtual basis.

Out of sight, out of mind

“There’s a real danger that increased self-isolation may create a climate where bullying is harder to pick up and where effective communication deteriorates because some team members are ‘out of sight, out of mind’.

“That there are no firm boundaries when it comes to communications outside of business hours creates added pressure for the home-worker where there is a greater reliance on ‘always on’ technology. Where instances of bullying are directed at a worker who is working from home, a place that they would normally associate with safety and ‘quiet enjoyment’, the effect can be heightened as the worker has no ‘safe haven’ to retreat to at the end of the day.

Responsibilities and risks

“Employers have the same health and safety responsibilities for home workers as for any other workers. When someone is working from home, permanently or temporarily, an employer needs to consider how they keep in touch with remote workers and whether additional training or specific mental health support is required.

“Detailed project scoping should be considered, along with whether additional control measures are required for protection such as timesheeting, opportunities for dialogue with HR teams, plus specific training and more informal connections.

“There will always be greater risks for remote workers with no direct supervision or anyone to help them if things go wrong. Presenteeism is another concern; working from home can potentially encourage employees to work through illness rather than take appropriate time off in order to fully recover. Line managers should regularly keep in touch with remote workers to make sure they are healthy and safe. In addition to more formal interactions, virtual breaks are also a good way for employees to touch base with their colleagues, in an informal social setting for 10-15 minutes of ‘water cooler’ talk, to see how they are coping and whether they are suffering from bullying or other inappropriate conduct.”

"Businesses who are not culturally open to home working are becoming susceptible to emotional and social dynamics such as workplace bullying and burnout."

Ongoing evolution

The location, look and feel of workplaces and work patterns will continue to evolve far beyond these uncertain pandemic times, but the constant needs to be that employers put their workforce’s health and wellbeing centre stage. Navigating through the challenges that the working population faces, whether at home, in the office or working across both, requires specialist skills and strategies.

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