Jake is acutely aware of his good fortune. News headlines reporting coronavirus infections and death tolls, as well as widespread job losses, are a daily reminder that the in-house lawyer is lucky to be in good health and able to work from home. Nor does he need to juggle Zoom calls with childcare, as schools in the UK are open.

Nonetheless, almost 10 months into the pandemic, Jake, who does not want to use his real name, is “physically fatigued, stressed” and disengaged from his work.

Pre-pandemic he would work long hours, but intense spurts would be followed by quieter times, allowing him to recover. Now colleagues don’t think twice about calling at 7am. Technology has ballooned communication. “When the ping of a new email arrives,” he says, “if I don't answer that email pretty much immediately then there’s a different ping of a new instant message arriving over Microsoft Teams. If I let that go unanswered, then you can bet on a phone call.” 

His experience resonates with consultant psychiatrist Dr Niall Campbell, based at the Priory’s Roehampton Hospital in London, whose clients report “‘burnout’ [due to] anxiety about work, with smaller organisations in particular under massive pressure, tethered to endless Zoom calls as well as emails. They talk of a ‘barrage of emails’, and if they go off sick, they come back to literally thousands of them.”

This is a marathon, not a sprint

While the end seems to be in sight following positive news on Covid-19 vaccines, remote workers complain of pandemic fatigue, struggles with heavy workloads, unable to switch off at home, ongoing uncertainty about their working lives and potential job losses. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, psychologist and chief talent scientist at Manpower Group, points out that while the crisis that marked the overnight shift from the office has faded and home-workers have adapted, “things are lasting longer than we thought. We used to work from home, now we live at work”.

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Brian Kropp, Gartner’s head of research in its human resources division, says that “early in the pandemic, companies had a reserve of goodwill from their employees that they could tap to help them get through all of the disruption, but the reservoir is empty and employees just feel tired.” Too many companies, Mr Kropp adds, have been slow to move off a crisis-footing and adjust their work processes to the demands of long-term remote working despite the pandemic-inspired rhetoric that the future of work will be flexible. 

The mass homeworking experiment has illuminated divisions among those employers who have good management and wellbeing policies in place — and those that do not. For some companies, it has been a wake-up call, says Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at Mind, the mental health charity.

Sarah Henchoz, employment partner at Allen & Overy, an international law firm, points out that remote work can breed anxiety. “Some people are quite isolated, feel excluded. If people are feeling paranoid . . . distrust can increase, and feelings of being ostracised.”

While some workers in cramped home conditions or dealing with heavy workloads and remote micromanagers might feel the strain, others are liberated. They are able to concentrate better away from open plan offices and politicking. Ms Henchoz says managers must not make assumptions, and when it comes to wellbeing policies “you have to find something that is inclusive so that people can pick the things that work for them”.

A recent survey of US executives by PwC, the professional services firm, found 31 per cent were worried about the effects on the workforce, more than double the number who were concerned about decreased consumer confidence (14 per cent). In response, 72 per cent of employers said they would expand benefits targeted at employee wellbeing, and 59 per cent are extending new benefits, such as reduced hours.

At the start of the pandemic, many companies launched online talks by wellbeing experts, digital meditation apps, resilience coaching and Zoom social meetups, on top of employee assistance programmes. As the months progressed, some employers tried to encourage employees to recharge.

Such initiatives include days off, meeting-free days or daily breaks to spur employees to leave their homes to take exercise in the daylight, particularly important in those countries with short days. Oliver Wyman, a consultancy, has recently launched paid “recharge days”, which are taken at the same time by all employees in a region. General Mills, a US manufacturer, has introduced Free Form Fridays, devoted to different aspects of wellbeing, in which employees are encouraged to use the corporate Headspace app and exercise, or get involved in community programmes.

Take action to lessen staff fatigue

Aaron Lamers, General Mills’ human resources director for northern Europe, says as rules have tightened “we have seen an increase in reports of mental health issues, serious fatigue”. 

What do experts know about lockdown wellbeing?

Alan Felstead, research professor at Cardiff University, found in the first UK lockdown, mental health declined for all workers between April and June, particularly those working at home. “However, as the lockdown wore on, those working at home were no more or less affected by social distancing restrictions, possibly because they were getting used to remote working — and may be uplifted by the possibility of returning to the office.”

He anticipates that the government’s U-turn in September — when it reversed a call for staff to return to offices — as well as the current stringent restrictions and lockdowns — are going to prove detrimental for mental health.

One US study found those with higher socio-economic status — based on education and income — experienced a greater decline in wellbeing than those with lower socio-economic status.

Connie Wanberg, professor at the University of Minnesota and co-author of the report, underlined the fact that affluent, more educated workers had greater life satisfaction to start with. Yet she says their day-to-day work was more likely to be disrupted, dealing with “stressful” business decisions and experiencing greater isolation. Higher news consumption could also be detrimental to mental health.

At Headspace, the mindfulness app provider, employees already benefited from a fortnightly no-meeting day and twice daily mindfulness breaks at 10am and 3pm. Since April, MinDays, which allows employees a day off, were introduced to alternate with the no-meeting Fridays. Yet as the pandemic continued, Jolawn Victor, its chief international officer, was concerned these were not being prioritised. “We have to reinforce that we are committed to MinDays and ‘no meeting’ times. You have to lead by example and refresh your commitment.”

The Priory’s Dr Campbell says that coaches can also help support the workforce. “People who know about a company’s ethos and work practices and can provide professional support, and an outlet for overburdened and stressed staff who are struggling.”

Employers need to recognise what worked early in the pandemic might not do so now.

Susan Bright, global managing partner for diversity and inclusion at law firm Hogan Lovells, says it is a challenge for managers to spot problems remotely. “It’s harder to tell if people are struggling over Zoom compared to face-to-face.”

Employee surveys are one source of information. In November Oliver Wyman introduced a digital app called Balance, a weekly digital survey that asks staff about their work — the spotlights and challenges. Gemma Porter, the consultancy’s global wellbeing manager, says “as a business we can determine themes. It’s anonymised but you can also select that you want to be named and a specific concern can be addressed. It gives people another channel to give feedback.”

59% Number of employers extending new benefits, such as reduced hours

A workplace counsellor who sees Hogan Lovells’ employees over Zoom helps to identify emerging issues, too. Ms Bright adds that talking to other firms and clients has helped inform best practice.

In regions where children are still unable to attend school, the dual pressures of home schooling and work weigh heavily on parents. Salesforce, the US software provider, expanded family care leave, allowing six weeks’ paid time off for parents and additional childcare support. General Mills has recently offered emergency childcare to support parents who need back-up. Mr Lamers says: “We need to reduce anxiety and potential triggers.”

One-to-one calls with staff are vital

Rather than additional benefits, sometimes the solutions are rather more straightforward. Dan Lucy, principal research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, says “the more contact individuals have with their manager, the better they feel and more committed they are to their health”.

Katie Jacobs, stakeholder lead at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says six months into the pandemic, some employees had not had a conversation about their wellbeing with a line manager. Over time, she says, work has become increasingly “transactional”.

In the worst cases, line managers undermine company policies. Jake, the in-house lawyer, says “despite messages from certain members of senior management about looking out for each other and safeguarding our wellbeing [and] mental health, in practice the exact opposite is the case.”

The discrepancy between rhetoric and practice is real — and widening as the pandemic goes on. Even if vaccines arrive early in 2021, organisations may find that productivity will be hampered if they do not reset their work practices. In a turbulent jobs market, employers may hold all the cards yet managers will find addressing workload and supporting exhausted workforces will pay dividends. 

The FT is exploring the impact of the pandemic on people’s work. Fill in a short survey to tell us about your experiences of working during the pandemic. 

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