Lawcare’s Elizabeth Rimmer provides some tips for employees and employers on how to mitigate the downsides of remote working.
We have now been living and working in a completely different way for 6 months and according to new data from the Local Government Lawyer/LexisNexis ‘Life after Lockdown’ survey, 89% of staff time now spend some or all of their time working from home compared with 29% pre-Covid.
Over the past six months we have had around 160 legal professionals contact us for support with issues to do with Covid-19, which makes up around 30% of all our contacts, and some common themes have emerged.
Many legal professionals enjoy working at home – the opportunity to work flexibly, no commute, a bit of distance from difficult colleagues or boss and saving money on travel and childcare has contributed to an improvement in their wellbeing. Others find it isolating, and miss the office environment, have struggled to carve out a quiet space or a time to work, and find the lack of clear management or supervision difficult.
For some lawyers spending more time at home has been very challenging, especially when there are relationship or other problems at home, or they have an existing mental health condition. For those people the office was often an escape or a refuge and provided a chance to switch gears and focus on work.
Issues with working at home
Worsening mental health conditions
15% of our COVID related contacts have been from legal professionals with an existing mental health issue such as stress, anxiety and depression which has been exacerbated by the pandemic. People have lost some of the routines and support structures that kept them on an even keel, and lack of social interaction, or conversely a lack of time alone combined with the daily news headlines and pressures of work and caring responsibilities are weighing heavy on their shoulders.
One of the biggest challenges for many legal professionals is the lack of social contact. For most of us, our everyday lives provide lots of opportunities to connect and be around people. Humans are tribal and social; emotional support, and the role of individuals, families and communities in delivering this, are vital to managing wellbeing. Many lawyers who have contacted us are experiencing emotional distress and boredom, particularly those who live on their own.
Managing staff remotely can be very difficult and many lawyers have contacted us feeling isolated and disconnected from work and their manager. We’ve all lost the opportunity to grab someone and ask a quick question, we can’t pop our head in to someone’s office to see how they are doing or pick up on those non-verbal cues that let us know how someone is.
One of the hardest hit groups have been trainees and junior staff who rely on regular contact and a close relationship with their supervisors. They are often reluctant to pick up the phone and call their manager as they don’t want to be a nuisance. Others are finding their manager or boss is micro-managing them from a distance to the extent they are finding it increasingly difficult to get any work done.
Many people who have contacted us have financial concerns. People are fearful of what happens when furlough ends and whether redundancies will be made. Others are struggling with commitments on reduced pay; some are not able to get work.
What can employers do?
This is a challenging time for employers and employees alike, but it is crucial in this time to stay connected and:
- Recognise everyone is different, is dealing with their own set of particular challenges and may require different levels of support and supervision over the coming months both personal and professional.
- Check in regularly. Managers should check in regularly, little and often works best, and informal chats are as important as work conversations. Ask how people are and how they are managing their workload.
- Ask what people need. Managers should make sure people have everything they need at home to do their job. In some cases couriering over equipment or ordering an office chair or better headset can make a real difference to an employee.
- Use technology wisely. Make sure staff aren’t on hours of video calls every day unnecessarily and recognise that for some people these are very challenging. Some people might find it useful to recreate the office environment on Zoom, with everyone typing away in the background and then occasionally asking each other a question. The shared silence can still provide camaraderie. Some may find a WhatsApp group or chat function for quick check-ins works better than email or calls.
- Look after juniors. They will often need more support, and are less likely to have a comfortable home working set-up, with those in flat shares or living with their parents often having to work from their bedroom. They are also missing out socially.
- Keep up the social side of work (for those that want it!). Team morale can be kept up by organising quizzes, drop in coffee mornings and other events over video call.
- Role model healthy habits and a commitment to wellbeing. Staff take cues from how leaders behave, so senior leaders should work healthy hours, take lunch breaks and annual leave, avoid working weekends and talk about their wellbeing and how they are looking after themselves.
- Peer support/mentoring is even more important at the moment when we are lacking human contact so if you notice someone is struggling, helping them to find a mentor or peer support network can help.
- Build in rewards. A surprise half day off, a treat in the post, a heartfelt thank you, an acknowledgement of a job well done - little things can really help to boost morale.
- Signpost to support. If you have a wellbeing programme, EAP, occupational health or other workplace supports in place, now is the time to make sure all staff is aware of how they can access them. And of course remember you can signpost all staff to LawCare.
LawCare’s tips for working at home
- Set up your space. It’s important to try and create space between work life and home life, and having a dedicated area to work in can help. Not all of us will have an office or spare room to work in, but try and find a quiet area of the house where you can set up a desk rather than working on your bed.
- Define your boundaries and stick to a routine. As tempting as it is to stay in your pyjamas all day or sit at your laptop at 10pm it’s important to get dressed and try and stick to a regular routine and your usual working pattern, where possible. This will help you stay focused and keep work separate from home life.
- Avoid technology fatigue. Most of us have spent the last few months glued to a laptop screen and smartphone. Our normal working day would have natural breaks away from screens but working from home and doing everything online has been much more intense. Too much time on screens can distract us and affect our sleep so try to use technology mindfully.
- Reach out. Keep in regular contact with colleagues, friends and family. It can be isolating working at home and we all need to feel connected to each other. It’s especially important to look out for those who live alone, make sure you are checking in with people.
- Disable notifications. Avoid constantly checking your emails, whats apps and news feeds. It’s very easy to get distracted and sometimes too much information will trigger feelings of worry. Turn off alerts and check them every few hours so you can stay focused.
- Take breaks. Take regular breaks, including a lunch break, just as you would if you were at the office. If practical try and get out for a walk every day.
- Prioritise self care. It’s easy to let healthy habits slip when we are at home but make sure you eat well, get to bed at a reasonable time and find time to do some exercise.
- Take a sick day if you’re ill. It can be harder to call in sick if you are at home anyway, and many of us will be tempted to do a few hours work even if we are unwell. If you are ill, you really should rest; follow any medical advice and not work to protect your future health.
- Be mindful. Mindfulness is about being in the present moment. None of us know what the future holds so try and focus on the here and now rather than the bigger picture.
- Seek support. We’re all in the same boat, but these difficult, uncertain times will affect some of us more than others. If you’re finding it hard to cope, just talking to someone, a friend, LawCare, or another helpline can make you feel less worried and many GPs are still offering online appointments. If you have an existing mental health condition you should continue with any treatment plan as far as possible.
Elizabeth Rimmer is chief executive of legal mental health and well-being charity LawCare.