These are the oddest of times. Few of us are living our normal lives. We do not know what will happen next or when this insidious virus will go away. Will it come back again? If I catch it how will it affect me? And what about my loved ones? Naturally, people are stressed. As a workplace psychologist, I’m often asked about the psychological effects of Covid-19 on employees. With so many possible – and often dark – scenarios, Covid-19 is a breeding ground for cognitive dissonance. This is a world where a hug is now a threat, avoiding contact is a social nicety, and passing somebody a pitcher of lemonade could lead to a hospital stay.
Anxiety is ubiquitous, with restlessness almost a given. These have knock-on effects for the individual and the group. Of course, depression then becomes a risk and a rather nasty spiral can set in. However, stress, uncertainty, and lack of income all contribute to mental overload. Some people have had a good lockdown, of course. They have enjoyed the absence of the daily commute and not being monitored at work. But even here, a lack of normalcy seems to be eating at the corners. The upsides are decreasing.
My company recently released a survey and an experiment titled, “Covid-19: The Value of a Creative Culture,” supported by Obo Life, Tarkett and Art Acumen. We enquired about the population’s behavior, temperament and emotional temperature, as well as its intellectual performance as people contemplated a return to workplace. The project explored the upsides of working from home and the elements of the old workplace that employees were missing; which included the psychological effects of Covid-19 on feelings, performance and function.
We wanted to find the answers to the following questions:
• How have people coped during the Covid-19 pandemic while working from home?
• What lessons can we take from this time of home working to make the return to the office more bearable?
• What can be done to improve the office of the future, starting now?
• What can be done to make home-working conditions better in the future?
During lockdown, a happy employee was seen to be autonomous, and connected to both friends and colleagues. Pandemic notwithstanding, these psychological engines delivered a strong sense of wellness. This, in turn, meant better engagement across the organization, less stress, higher feelings of creativity and sustained performance. Unhappy workers, meanwhile, suffered across all fronts including their noticeably inferior intellectual performance. These findings carry immense implications for well-being, medical bills and the bottom line.
Our research found that organizations should allow conversations, stop monitoring and allow autonomy; all of which results in a happy and engaged employee. The results of the research were dramatic and found that happiness is engendered by a combination of active social and business connections, and of being allowed to manage the work flow as the employee saw fit.
A missed hypothesis was that the young would be less satisfied and unhappier than the older cohorts, but there was no evidence of this. In misery and joy, the lockdown – unlike the cause of the lockdown – has been even-handed. Managers, almost entirely responsible for the appalling conditions in so many workplaces, have yet to reach their ham fists into colleagues’ homes. Were this pattern to be repeated at work, so that everybody could share in the joys and failures and decisions, it would not only be interesting, it would unequivocally be better.
Employers and Employee Autonomy
To be bleak, there may be few reasons to be hopeful that things will improve in the workplace while the blinkered repackaged views, mongered by the same well-suited misguided hawkers as before, hold sway. Instead, in lieu of peddling pap optimism, let’s consider the following five things that need to change instead of:
• Infantilization: Nobody needs a slide in the workplace, or Fridays Filled with – for God’s sake – Fabulous ‘Funtivities,’ or success celebrated with pizza. If that is the kind of things managers want to do, they should arrange children’s tea parties. Treat employees like the adults they are. Ask them what they want.
• Trust: What are you monitoring your employees for? When was the last time anybody rang the C-Suite and heard, “This call may be recorded for training and monitoring purposes?” If you aren’t recorded at work, then have the common courtesy not to record anybody else.
• Space: Humans beings are an animal. And just like every other animal on the planet, humans react badly to being cooped up in minimalist conditions, monitored and made to act along standardized procedures. In other words, if you are running either a lean or Six Sigma operation (or are influenced by their philosophies: ‘clean desk’ anybody?) then you are doing so against every biological and psychological law that exists. Scrap these evidentially toxic practices, have happier employees, make more money. This isn’t my say so, by the way, it is the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence.
• Wellness: …is neither an exercise classes nor is it eating kale. Food fascism, or just screwing down one of the other forms of management control, is as pointless now as it was before the pandemic. Enforced activities and removing confectionary are punitive. Chocolate cookies are good for the soul, especially dipped in steaming hot tea. Wellness is feeling at ease in your space; being relaxed, enjoying a sense of being at home. If you generate wellness, then you generate happiness. Happy employees, stay longer, work better and are more productive.
• Mental well-being: Would you trust a Boy Scout to operate on your gall bladder even though he has his Whittling badge and a sharp penknife. The American and British Psychological Societies won’t recognize anybody as a Psychologist until they have at least a Masters qualification. That is a minimum of four years’ work. To manage a doctorate and the necessary badges takes ten years or longer. It’s only then that you begin to develop an insight into that most elusive human set of human faculties, the mind.
So, it is no wonder that we have so much mental imbalance in both society, and at work, when anybody can set themselves up as a therapist, an advisor or a mental coach with a diploma. If you wouldn’t trust the Boy scout with your vital organs, then for pity’s sake don’t trust anybody who has a diploma with your mental well-being. The latter will do far more damage.
If these five key areas are managed correctly, we will have superb places in which to work in the post-Covid world. But if we don’t…
The Best Medicine is Other People
People require other people. They also require freedom to make their own decisions. Give them access to those things and they will be psychologically well. If staff are psychologically well, they will thrive and so will the business. Most home workers that answered the survey, had a reasonably successful lockdown. These people had autonomy, they kept in contact with colleagues and friends. They did not socially distance (that most inept and inappropriate of phrases); they physically distanced and kept as socially close to others as they could.
Some, however, cut themselves off (or were cut off). They had few conversations and felt control over their life slipping away. These were the people who scored at worryingly low levels on the survey and just as poorly on the quiz. Misery and low performance seem to be lachrymose bedfellows. Strong network is important, people need support.
One of the problems of this pandemic is the awful term “social distancing.” This is the last thing we should be doing. Physical distancing keeps us safe, but social interaction saves lives. Setting up regularly scheduled video or analog calls with friends, family and colleagues help keep us engaged and informed – even if we are behind a screen.
Take control. If you are in charge of what is going on around you, you reduce anxiety. If it all seems too much, then break a task into chunks that you can manage. Doing something is always better than doing nothing. Never be afraid to ask for help or advice.
Exercise. There are many advantages of exercise, not the least of which is the triggering of endorphins which reduce pain and anxiety. And you don’t need to be a gym bunny either. The heart is a simple organ and will happily take any form of exercise that makes it pumps faster, but you must keep going for at least half an hour. And if you don’t want to disco dance, then 30 minutes of moderate paced walking each day is enough to bring benefit.
Do things you enjoy. Build a wall, read a book, paint, restore a full-scale airship— whatever you enjoy. Immersion in an enjoyable pursuit is engaging, enjoyable and anesthetizes the pain of the world. And on the topic, if a glass of the good stuff helps you relax before bed, then have a glass of the good stuff; a glass, mind you.
If you need to, seek professional help. Good help is invaluable. But check the practitioner’s qualifications, you want something relevant and postgraduate at least (a masters in nuclear physics is impressive, but, in this case, as useful as a kettle in a gun fight). Remember the scout and the penknife.
There should be no more searchlight patrols of internet activity, scouring for — or banning altogether — visits to social media platforms. Organizations who do this might as well take careful aim at their collective foot. Instead encourage conversations, give autonomy. This is not a soft approach; it is gloriously productive. Nobody is saying reduce targets. Just treat people like the adults they are. If they mess up, they go, but do not infantilize them.
The science, the wellness and the money are on the wavelength of adult working. Managers are not an evolved species. They do just as badly and just as well as their junior colleagues. The findings from this survey fit the social psychological literature that, essentially people are the best medicine for people and that people should be trusted within their own environments. Happy employees are less stressed, easier to manage and produce better performance than unhappy counterparts and working from home is generally a good thing, but so is working from the office. If the future treats people as sociable adults, then the pandemic will have brought some good in its wake.