15 March 2021

Recognising the stress of remote working

Carey Olsen counsel and employment law specialist Natasha Newell explores the stresses that come with remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, and offers guidance to employers on how to support their staff.

The States of Guernsey advice, during this second lockdown, has forced everyone who can work from home to do so. With many of us understandably more anxious than usual, how are employers expected to spot stress in their workforce while staff are working remotely and how can employer support their workers? Picking up on stress might be particularly difficult given that people experience stress in different ways. However, employers can and should still provide support from afar. 

An employer’s legal duty to protect workers from stress at work subsists irrespective of whether work is carried out from the employer’s premises, from home or a remote location. This means that the issue of how and when to communicate with each other should be agreed at the outset. This will serve to encourage workers to ask for support if they feel that they are being exposed to excessive work-related demands and pressure. If everyone has the right tools to do so, regular video check-ins may help employees feel connected. Practising active listening, asking questions to clarify and demonstrate comprehension by repeating what the speaker said, may help draw out any stressors. Regular contact should also enable employers to recognise signs of stress as early as possible. An employer should be watchful of any persistent physical, emotional or behavioural changes in an individual. Red flags include whether someone is behaving uncharacteristically withdrawn, short-tempered or sending out emails in the middle of the night.

Acknowledging to an employee that you understand the particular demands of homeworking can pay dividends. As can showing that you appreciate that taking a work call while your children are vying for your attention in the background or respecting that your partner is making a work call nearby can be anxiety provoking. Demonstrating an understanding of the feeling of isolation that those living alone may experience is also just as important.

Remote working means that workers are not physically visible and cannot be seen carrying out their role. Employees may therefore feel obliged to show commitment by working longer hours than they otherwise would in the office. They may be affected by the old “shirking from home” stigma, which may eventually lead to burn out. Burn out does not happen overnight so unless employers are alive to the risk of it, it may go under the radar. Telltale signs include lack of motivation, irritability and depression. The risks can be reduced if employers limit contact with workers outside of working hours, encourage staff to establish routines, take regular breaks and have a change of scenery. Finally, staff should be informed of any available support such as employee assistance programs, online doctors/therapists and revised leave policies.

An original version of this article was first published in The Guernsey Press, March 2021.