Public awareness on the paramount importance of mental health is on the rise.
The issue has been front and centre in the media in recent years, with everyone from celebrities to the royal family joining the conversation.
In schools and workplaces, positive changes are being implemented to tackle the stigma, address the causes and provide support for those struggling with mental illness through growing awareness, mental health training and in-house counselling within organisations. And whilst Annual Mental Health Awareness Week is recognised every May, there’s still much progress to be made.
The pandemic has had a huge impact on mental wellbeing as many have found themselves confined and isolated during lockdown. As we emerge and adjust to our new normal, we must take steps to understand the impact this has on mental health, and how our new circumstances will affect our capacity for work, rest and play.
How Mental Health Affects Work
Workplace stress plays a significant role in mental wellbeing. The WHO states that key risks to mental health in the workplace include inadequate health and safety policies, poor communication and management, inflexible working hours and overall lack of support for employees, amongst other factors.
Going forward, employers must consider the influence that working from home will add to this mix in the long-term. In the many debates around remote working that have taken place in the past few years, there’s been no clear consensus on whether these arrangements are better or worse for employee mental health, but there are arguments that it could in fact be beneficial for many.
Tom Oxley of Bamboo Mental Health is a workplace consultant who helps businesses build support systems for employees suffering with mental health problems. In a 2018 Ted Talk, he stated that the flexibility of working from home could in fact be an excellent way to support struggling workers, especially if integrated with adjusted working hours and phased returns to the workplace.
However, the impact of full-time remote working on mental health paints a very different picture. Under lockdown it has been difficult to gauge these effects due to other factors of the pandemic, but for those who live alone, the office environment provides vital socialisation that’s missed – in a survey by Wildgoose, it was revealed that more the 50% of employees cited this as a major disadvantage of working from home, whilst 47% felt that a sub-optimal working environment was negatively impacting their mental health.
And yet 74% also stated that they would be happy to continue working from home after lockdown. With many businesses finding success in the setup, could the future see this flexibility extended upon returning to the office? Whilst it’s likely to be the final step in lockdown emergence, it’s entirely possible that the office could be obsolete. In this case, how do we maintain mental wellbeing in circumstances that inherently challenge our wellness?
Furthermore, it’s clear that the correct balance of communication between employees and management is also key, with over half the surveyed individuals citing either too much or too little contact from seniors, leaving them feeling isolated or too closely monitored. Consequently, employers will do well to support employee flexibility while home working, as failing to optimise the frequency and nature of communication can compound existing pressures.
Whatever transpires, work-life balance will play a crucial role in mental wellbeing in the future whether in the office or at home.
Rest and Play
As the saying goes, all work and no play makes us dull.
Dr Brian Sutton-Smith writes that, “The opposite of play is not work – it is depression.” Drawing on Sutton-Smith’s work, Dr Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play in California theorises that mental ill health derives from, amongst other factors, a lack of rest and play.
But as the rise of technological connectivity has blurred the lines of our work-life balance over the past few years, it’s more important than ever to ensure that our leisure time is safeguarded in an era where many of us live and work under the very same roof. How do we distinguish leisure time from work in an era where we’re home for longer periods than ever? Even as we emerge from national lockdowns, there are still a number of restrictions, including local quarantines which limit interactions between households.
Recent evidence suggests that during lockdown many of us have seen an increase in leisure time that was not exclusive to furloughed workers – a study by the Office of National Statistics revealed that those working from home utilised time saved for free time, gardening and DIY as well as sleep and rest.
One demographic that has quantifiably benefitted from these lifestyle changes has been teenagers – despite concerns around rising mental illness in school-aged children and young adults, a University of Bristol survey revealed this month that anxiety levels are dropping amongst teens.
With better mental health amongst young people, and a desire by many remote employees to retain their current arrangement, is it possible that the changes of recent months have enabled a greater work-life balance for all ages?
What Does The Future Hold?
If we can incorporate the positive changes of the last few months into our daily lives, we could establish a balance between work, rest and play which centres mental wellbeing.
A permanent retention of remote working models will require structured and integrated support in every aspect of society, from workplaces to schools.
And crucially, its positive aspects can only be accentuated if the emotionally intelligent and innovative ways we’ve recently been connecting with each other socially are applied to interpersonal dynamics with classmates and colleagues. Embracing this attitudinal shift alongside technology will ensure that remote workers benefits from the freedom of the virtual office, building mutually advantageous relationships between colleagues and management.
If you’re passionate about mental health, and feel you have what it takes to lead the future in organisations to bring about workable change and support, our Mental Health MSc or Child And Adolescent Mental Wellbeing MSc courses could be the key to a new career that truly makes a difference.