Lockdown: Deciding between physical safety and mental health

Today my adult daughter popped in. We had not seen each other for seven weeks. As she caught sight of me, she burst into tears. I knew exactly how she felt. She’s in a happy relationship in a shared home and has been handling lockdown well… until she saw someone she’d been missing.

Lockdown has taken more of a toll on us than we realise and we underestimate this at our peril.

Humans are social creatures and when we suddenly don’t have access to other people, our mental health suffers. In a recent buffer.com survey, 20% of people reported that their biggest struggle with remote working was loneliness. So seriously does the Danish government take the mental health problems caused by isolation that they have asked citizens to return to work.

In South Africa, where we have had one of the severest lockdowns in the world, there was an explosion of people on our streets as soon as we got to level 4 and were allowed out of our properties. It’s heart-warming to see strangers greeting each other and enjoying public spaces together, proving once again that humans need interaction in order to thrive.

Yet as employers we are not permitted to let our staff return to the workplace if they can work remotely. This could result in some people being alone indefinitely.

Last week I checked in with a staffer who lives on his own. Instead of his usually positive answer to my routine question about how he was holding up, this time his answer shook me. ‘Actually, I’m not holding up,’ he admitted. He needs to return to the office. For him, the benefits of doing so outweigh the benefits of staying home.

It’s our responsibility to ensure that our employees are safe and healthy, and we’ve put a number of things in place to ensure the wellbeing of those who need to return to work and those who simply can’t leave home.

For those coming into the office:

  • First, we need to understand their fear of infection and address it. We’re ensuring that our workplace policies and setup adequately protect staff and clients: constant sanitation, insistence on face masks, sufficient space, no touching, no sharing of facilities… by now, we all know the drill.
  • We have worked with our landlords to ensure that the shared spaces in our office block are maintaining the same high sanitation standards that we have set.
  • We worry that the shopping mall adjacent to our offices is a hotspot for contagion. We insist that our staff don’t spend time in the mall and that they bring their snacks and lunch from home.
  • We insist that if anyone feels in the slightest bit unwell, they stay home and get checked out if their symptoms persist.

For those continuing to work from home:

  • We’re maintaining our regular, fun, company-wide meetings. Sometimes we wear crazy hats or attend town hall meetings in our pyjamas. Other times we keep it simple, getting everyone to talk about the highlights of their weeks or something they’re looking forward to.
  • We’ve assigned each person a buddy with whom they keep in touch outside of scheduled work meetings. Buddies don’t assume the other is fine, they probe and have that conversation. They’re not expected to provide solutions, but to listen and escalate if there’s a real problem.
  • We underestimate how much ad-hoc learning happens in the workplace through observation. In an effort to replace this we use shared documents as if they were get-togethers, encouraging people to question or comment in real-time as teams work.
  • When working remotely it’s easy to inadvertently exclude team members from conversations. We ask our teams to always strive to include all stakeholders. A good way of making sure nobody gets left out is to insist that if anyone has to dial into a meeting, everyone has to dial in – even from their desks in the same office.
  • We don’t want our people to be in calls and meetings all day long, so we encourage work/life balance with breaks in the day. We also discourage people from working longer hours than they did when they came into the office.
  • We’re flexible about scheduling morning meetings, especially with the very popular level 4 exercise window and for family members who have to settle kids into virtual school.
  • We encourage staff to limit news intake, not least because it tends to focus on the negative.

Since we’ve been having meetings in our homes and have caught more than a glimpse of each other’s real lives – the children, the pets, the ageing parents – we’ve learnt to be more real with each other. Personally, I think this is one of the good things to come out of a horrific pandemic and I hope it helps us all become better employers and employees.

Martin Pienaar is the COO of Mindworx Consulting.

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