Resource

Remote working:
a practical safety guide
for businesses

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Chapter 1.

An introduction to remote working

It can boost employee well-being, help with recruitment and speed up business expansion – with the numerous benefits of remote working, it’s no surprise this way of working is on the rise. But how do you look after your team and maximise data security when everyone is miles apart? This guide will explore everything you need to know about safely and effectively managing remote teams.

Could it work for your business? Let’s find out.

Factors influencing a changing UK workplace

For some time, people have been discussing how the traditional 9-5 is being disrupted. Where people once expected to travel to a place of work, clock in and stay there until eight hours later, employees are demanding more freedom. It’s something your grandparents might be shocked by.

A large amount of change has been driven by technology. Machines have replaced the reliance on workers in many tasks during the last century. A lot of the conversation around the future of the workplace is focused on the ‘robot takeover’. But studies have shown that technology has created more jobs than it has displaced, so fears around robots taking over our jobs are unfounded.

Instead, The World Bank’s World Development Report for 2019 on The Changing Nature of Work identifies automaton and innovation as drivers of the future. That’s because technology enables automation – so this can mean traditional labour is replaced with machines (for example, in production). But, in turn, this frees up people to innovate. Ever since technology has rapidly improved, the number of sectors, tasks, and products people work with has increased. According to the World Economic Forum, the pace of innovation determines the amount of new jobs that emerge.

One of the biggest impacts has been the emergence of the digital economy. Traditionally, businesses needed a physical presence to, well, do business – but this is no longer a prerequisite. Companies can exist solely to provide online services, or make their money from intangible assets – for example, software. Huge e-commerce platforms profit from the money other businesses makes (think Amazon or Alibaba).

But these companies didn’t start huge. In fact, operating in the digital economy, they can evolve from tiny start-ups to a global presence faster than other companies. Take the following examples:

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What makes employees happy?

Amidst the changing nature of work, how do you keep workers happy? What makes them enjoy coming to work and having a productive day? Numerous studies have shown that if your employees are happier and more engaged, sick leave, staff turnover and wastage is lower, while motivation and effort is higher. All of this can impact on your bottom line, so it pays to focus on employee happiness.

There are the obvious factors, predominantly around pay and bonuses, which can be a quick win – especially when attracting new staff. But just handing out money is not an effective way of motivating a workforce.

In fact, when questioning 1,000 UK workers, one report found that 78% of staff would not work significantly harder in exchange for a bonus equivalent to 10% of their annual salary. Even if you raise that incentive to 25% of their annual salaries, it wouldn’t motivate 59% of

What does employee happiness look like?

In Patrick Lencioni’s book The Truth About Employee Engagement, it comes down to three things. To feel happy at work, employees want to feel like:

  • Who they are matters

  • What they do has an impact

  • They’re making progress

Although financial recognition and job security are undoubtedly important, that’s not all workers need to be happy. In fact, there are other – perhaps surprising – areas which result in a lot more happiness.

According to Mark Price, who studies employee engagement, workplace happiness is about six core fundamentals. These are:

  • Reward and recognition
  • Information – giving enough and sharing it openly
  • Empowerment
  • Well-being
  • Instilling pride
  • Job satisfaction

Within these areas, there are data points where the UK scores above the global average, according to Price’s research. These are staff having enough information and the resources to do their job well, and personal development. Areas including staff having pride in their organisation, feeling respected and that their views are being heard are where we’re falling behind other countries.

How do you think your workforce compares? Would your staff feel like these core fundamentals were met? Fortunately, these areas often don’t cost a lot – if anything – to change. It’s all down to your approach and attitude.

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The risks of these areas not being fulfilled include poor employee recruitment and retention, as well as restricted performance. But there is some good news. The same research showed that employee contentment is on an upward track:

  • 2017 – an average of 60.8% for overall workplace happiness
  • 2018 – the average had improved to 64.9%

One of the noticeable trends in the feedback was staff saying that their well-being was higher up the organisational agenda. Employees also felt they were being better developed, informed, and recognised.

In recent years, well-being – and consequently employee well-being – has become more of a priority. 2016 is often said to be the year the idea of “self-care” become more mainstream, with people in the US googling the term twice as much as in years before, according to Medium.

It’s all about looking after your own mental and emotional well-being, and when we spend so much of our lives dedicated to work, it’s important for self-care to extend into our working lives too.

And all of this can pay off. The World Health Organization says that every $1 invested in treatment for depression and anxiety leads to a return of $4, due to better health and an improved ability to work. PWC says the financial reward is slightly less – that for every $1 spent on creating a mentally and emotionally healthy workplace, companies can recoup $2.30 in benefits. However, both estimates show there are a lot of incentives – beyond just wanting to do what’s best for your employees – for prioritising well-being in the workplace.

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The benefits of remote working for businesses

But what can you do to ensure your workforce is a happy and healthy one? As an employee, you have a life. You have to juggle all your work commitments with, no doubt, an increasingly busy home life. And while technology can help us carry out certain tasks easier than ever before, it also blurs the lines between our work and home lives.

Do you answer emails before having your dinner? Or take a call out of the office? It’s easy to see how technology can be a double-edged sword when it creeps into your home life

The positive side of this is how much more freedom technology affords businesses. In The Future Workforce Report, a survey of more than 3,000 workers, 77% said flexibility at work is important to them. In the UK, we have an increasingly diverse workforce. Dual-income families – with both parents working and looking after the kids – are more of a norm than ever before. What’s more, there’s a rise in the so-called ‘sandwich generation’ – people who are looking after their children and older relatives at the same time. It’s no surprise that flexibility is essential to meet their needs.

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Between 2008 and 2018, there was a 74% increase in the number of people working from their own home. That’s more than 1.54 million people who work from home for their main job, according to the ONS Labour Force Survey.

That’s great news, but there is an unmet demand. According to another survey, two in three workers (68%) would like to work flexibly in a way that is not currently available.

But what does flexible working mean? According to the UK government, it’s “a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home.” It can have a big impact on people’s quality of life.

Indeed, the benefits of flexible working are plenty. They include:

a way of working that suits an employee’s needs, for example having flexible start and finish times, or working from home. UK government

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Greater work life balance for employees

With a flexible approach to working, employees have a lot more control over how they spend their time. They can go to appointments without worrying, juggle their commitments and still commit to a working day.

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People with a disability can access work easier

According to TUC, around 160,000 people with a disability currently work from home. Greater flexibility in the workplace undoubtedly gives greater access for all kinds of people.

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Limits exposure to illnesses

If employees have to commute to work on public transport, they’re more likely to pick up nasty illnesses. If they then spread these germs in the office, it can be a vicious cycle. But allowing people to work flexibly, at least some of the time, can reduce the need to be in the office.

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Reduces time wastage

Did you know that it’s estimated the UK will lose £300 billion by 2030 due to time spent in traffic? With more people working from home, or travelling at off-peak times due to flexible hours, this will limit the amount of time – and money – wasted. Eliminating long commutes can also improve productivity and wellness.

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Greater standards and productivity

It’s natural to assume employees work slightly different at home, compared to an office. But to confirm this, research from YouGov revealed that 20% of HR managers believe that staff work to a slightly higher standard at home. 7% believed that employees work to a “much higher” standard. Another study from FlexJobs shines some light on why it might be possible to be more productive at home. The top reasons employees reported were:

  • 75% said fewer distractions
  • 74% said fewer interruptions from colleagues
  • 71% said reduced stress from commuting
  • 65% said minimal office politics

The Future Workforce Report mentioned earlier summaries the current climate well – describing it as the era of the anywhere office. Those companies who are beginning to adapt to what they call the “flexi-future” are the forward-thinking ones.

Chapter 2.

Safety and security considerations

If the benefits of flexible, remote working are adding up, then you’ll want to find out more about how to maximise security.

Flexible working and the law

Flexible working can mean a lot of different things to different people. Here are a few examples from Citizens Advice:

  • Changing working hours to fit in with, for example, school hours, college hours or care arrangements
  • Compressed hours (working your usual hours in fewer days)
  • Home working for part or all of the time
  • Job sharing
  • Staggered hours (start and finish your days at different times)
  • Time off in lieu

In the UK, any employee who has worked for a company for at least 26 weeks has a legal right to request flexible working. This is known as a statutory request. Employers must deal with any request in a reasonable manner, according to GOV.uk. This means assessing the pros and cons of the application, holding a meeting to discuss and having an appeals process.

Getting permission to work remotely will depend on the company. But the process of these official requests, under the laws of flexible working, goes like this:

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01.

An employee writes to the employer

02.

The employer has to consider the request, and should make a decision within three months (it can be longer, but this must be agreed by the employee)

03.

If they agree, terms and conditions on the employee’s contract should be updated to reflect what’s agreed on

04.

If the employer doesn’t agree, they must provide business reasons why – the employee may be able to appeal these

With a statutory request, you can only make one application every year. But fortunately, there are other options. Non-statutory requests are a more informal way. Indeed, this is where most progress has been made in recent years as employers create their own schemes, which tend to be more generous anyway.

Businesses successfully implement flexible working practices – without relying on the basic legal requirements for statutory requests. After all, in the increasingly competitive and increasingly flexible job market, it is those businesses which make it clear they’re a supportive employer that will stand out.

Take MediaCom, for example. The Financial Times explains how the London-based advertising agency has an app for staff called Open Blend. It’s designed to achieve a better work/life ‘blend’. Employees have the option to set up the app on their phone and set targets for eight themes – these include family time, more responsibility at work and physical and mental wellbeing.

Employees then rate these out of 10, and set an ideal target score. To get to that score, personal goals are set and agreed with the manager. This is where the flexibility comes in – the goal could be to leave early a couple of times a week to pick up the kids from school or head to the gym. All flexibility is designed to help employees work towards their goals, and ultimately to achieve the right balance of home and work life.

It’s great for potential employees to know about these efforts. As part of its Good Work Plan: Proposals to support families, the government is currently consulting on two issues which could impact the visibility of a company’s attitudes to flexible working, as well as how well they attract new talent. After all, it’s an appealing thing to offer – it won’t just keep your current staff happy, it will draw in attention from others.

The two areas the government are discussing whether to introduce are:

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  • A new duty on large employers (250+ employees) to publish their flexible working policies on their website
  • A requirement that job adverts must say whether the job is open to flexible working and, if so, what information should be provided in the advert and how the requirement would be enforced

As an ever-changing part of working life, expect to see further updates from the government, as well as a rise in companies leading the way for work/life balance.

Practical steps you need to take as an employer

Offering flexible working is a great thing to say you do as an employer. But the practicalities can be a bit daunting, especially if you’re used to operating in a more traditional way. If it’s something you’re thinking about, there’s a lot of steps you can take to gain momentum:

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Consider doing a survey

You need to make sure any major changes aren’t a huge surprise to your employees. What is the dynamic of your workplace? How are teams functioning? And how would any changes impact that? Do your research.

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Find out more about your employees

Depending on the size of your organisation, you might know your employees well – or not at all. But you have to get to know how they work, and what might help them work more effectively with a flexible approach. Do they need to be around to meet customers? How would this work from home? You need to plan all of this – every company could have different arrangements to suit how they work.

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Plan any physical changes

You’ll need to determine how much office space you need for employees, as well as what technology you need for employees to work flexibly. Make sure you do plenty of research to back up your choices. Consider reaching out to companies who have already implemented flexible policies you admire – they’ll have useful advice.

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Agree any goals and set expectations

This is one of the most important aspects – employees need to know what’s expected of them, particularly around performance and communication. Agree all of this before you start any remote working policy.

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Transition gradually, and get feedback

Changing the way a workforce operates takes time. It won’t necessarily run smoothly from the start – hence why it should be a gradual transition, with the opportunity for employees to provide feedback. Employers need to know what is working, and what isn’t. There might be quick fixes, but you don’t know unless you ask. Keep them engaged and supported throughout.

With any introduction of changes, communicating what’s going on to your team is one of the most powerful things you can do. The last thing you want them doing is guessing and harbouring questions or insecurities.

Work Regulations 1999, employers have a duty of care to employees – including remote workers. If there are employees working from home for the majority of the time in a formal arrangement, the latest guidance says their working environment should be assessed and found risk-free.

They should have the right equipment and there needs to be a suitable area for them to work in. Once it’s agreed everything is safe, it’s the employee’s responsibility to take steps to keep it that way. This is typical of a formal arrangement, but the reality of the rise in remote working is that many arrangements are made informally. So there are a lot of workers who only work remotely on an adhoc basis – this doesn’t need to be written in the contract, but should be reviewed.

In 2018, the government published a Future Telecoms Infrastructure Review. It said the switchover from the UK’s old network of copper lines to fibre broadband “could be underway in the majority of the country by 2030.” This will improve the standard broadband speeds, and could have a huge impact on how flexible organisations can be.

Ways of communicating

When your team works in different locations – whether that’s regularly or just occasionally – they need to be able to reach each other where required. For client or customer-facing employees, they’ll also need to be contactable remotely.

There are several options for how you can do this. Employers could use any combination of the following:

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Instant messaging

A fast, informal way for colleagues to chat, most messaging systems should show when people are available to talk, or away from their computer. Not only does this help communication about work, it gives people a channel to keep in touch with their colleagues. It’s quicker than email but – when used well – less interruptive than a phone call.

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A shared calendar

It’s important to know who’s off, who is in meetings and who is around – and when. This allows people to plan their time and ensure they can reach the right people at the right time.

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VoIP

With this, phone calls can be made over a broadband connection – so there’s no need for employees to use a personal phone. Some systems will also allow them to use the office phone system remotely, so they can pick up calls from their existing office number.

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Audio or video conferencing

There are lots of free conferencing services out there (Skype or Google Hangouts are a good start), but they might have limits. Depending on how much you’d use them, it might be worth investing in paid services for greater flexibility.

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Screen sharing

Quite often we find ourselves showing each other what’s on our screen and then discussing. But this can be quite difficult if you’re not in the same location. Fortunately, there are tools you can use to show your screen remotely to several people. You can also let other people take control of your screen, if needed. When combined with conferencing tools, you’ll be able to achieve the same results as a face-to-face meeting.

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Project management tools

To enable all teams to manage their work and projects with other people, you’ll need some kind of online management tool. The market is inundated with offerings, with many platforms giving you a free trial so you can try a few. They should all give an overview of different tasks, including status updates and projects broken down into jobs for different employees. It gives managers the visibility needed to assess capacity and deadlines.

Data and cyber security

Because so many companies are reliant on online services, one of the major concerns for businesses is cyber security risks. Everyone is aware of the potential financial and reputational damage, but it may surprise you how common breaches are.

In the Cyber Security Breaches Survey 2019, 32% of businesses and 22% of charities identified cyber security breaches or attacks in the last 12 months. Among these:

Business

Charities

Needed new measures to prevent future attacks

32%

29%

Took up staff time dealing with breaches or attacks

27%

32%

Had staff stopped from carrying out daily work

19%

21%

Identified at least one breach or attack a month

48%

39%

Cyber attacks can be very disruptive to working life, and can be even more alarming if they happen to an employee working remotely. Yet only 62% of businesses with cyber security policies cover remote or mobile working. It’s important to have clear policies about minimising the risk and preventing any attacks, as well as practical steps to take should something happen.

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The most important aspects to cover if you want to take steps to protect your staff, wherever they work, are:

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Training

One of the biggest threats to your security is human error. From time to time, employees do click on phishing emails or forget best practices. It happens. All you can do is provide regular training and updates to make sure your staff have as much knowledge as possible about the risks – and how to avoid them.

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Invest in endpoint protection

Good security costs money. With remote workers, the endpoint physical assets (e.g. laptop or desktop computer) aren’t within your office. So you need the best security software installed and updated on these devices.

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Consider a VPN or cloud services

To improve security, a VPN allows you to have an encrypted connection over the internet. It’s seperate to public networks, so there’s less exposure. Accessing legacy systems through a VPN can be a bit frustrating for users, so cloud-based services are another option. Your network is managed by a remote provider who protect all data, and employees can access files wherever.

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Only give users access to resources they need

Identifying users and restricted access is good practice for all businesses. The more access, the more risk – so as a general rule, only share permissions to those who need it. The user identity should be confirmed too – ideally with multi-factor authentication. For example, most email systems will actually recommended you add a phone number as another method of identity-based access.

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Use a password manager

No-one can remember loads of complicated passwords – hence why many people rely on the same, recognisable password over and over again. But password managers can keep all your online accounts secure by storing encrypted passwords. These can then be easily shared by different remote employees.

Chapter 3.

Mental health awareness for remote workers

We spend a lot of time at work – having a job you enjoy can make your life a lot more fulfilling. It can be good for your mental health and well-being. But life can get on top of us. In England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem in any given week. This includes anxiety and depression.

But working people who have or have had mental health problems contribute £225 billion to the economy every year. That’s around 12.1% of the UK’s total GDP. That’s why it’s so important to address mental health at work – of course, you want your employees to be well, but you also want them to work efficiently. A toxic work environment can be damaging in many ways.

A flexible approach to work has all the best intentions – including additional support for mental health. But it can go wrong. Remote working can be lonely and isolating, among other risks.

Potential risks of remote working

In a 2019 US study, State of Remote Work, remote workers did speak – unsurprisingly – positively about the enhanced flexibility. But they acknowledged the downsides too:

  • 49% said their biggest struggle is wellness-related
  • 22% can’t unplug after work
  • 19% feel lonely
  • 8% can’t stay motivated

It’s likely these struggles are shared by remote workers around the world. Obviously, other factors could be at play – including a lack of technology or the management style of their employer – but there’s a consistent theme. 84% of the remote workers surveyed are working from a home office.

When you’re working from home, rather than an office, the most common problems can be summarised as follows:

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Blurred boundaries between your work and home life

Employees might achieve a better work/life balance, but it can be difficult to separate the two when their home is also their office. The ‘always on’ culture can make it difficult to switch off. The best advice you can give is to try and create a dedicated workspace with clear boundaries for when you’re working – and when you’re not. This should be communicated to colleagues, so no-one is receiving messages and feeling pressure to respond when they’re not working.

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Feelings of isolation

There’s the risk of remote workers feeling like they’re less a part of the business. It’s easy for this to be exemplified when everyone is busy, and forgets to reach out and check on teams working from home. Employers have to make it a priority to keep up communication and organise events to bring everyone together. This could be focused on business updates, or it could be purely for social reasons.

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Lack of collaboration

Where do your best idea materialise? Creativity can strike at the strangest times, and is often encouraged by collaboration. When staff aren’t regularly interacting with each other, it can impact what’s produced. After all, collaboration is so vital to a lot of work. You need to think about how employees will still be able to do this – there are plenty of collaboration tools out there to consider.

The importance of creating culture in remote teams

Culture in the workplace can make a huge difference in employee happiness. Even quick catch-ups while the kettle boils shouldn’t be overlooked. When everyone is in an office, there’s a regular chance to have chats you might not otherwise have. After all, a lot of culture is based around informal conversations – rather than those about work.

To maintain that kind of environment, you need to make sure everyone still feels like they’re part of a team. A key point to remember here is that flexible working works both ways. If there is a meeting or event that involves everyone, people should still come to the office (even if it’s a day they usually wouldn’t). If you plan ahead, there’s a greater chance that everyone will be able to get involved.

What’s more, the way – and where – you work also shouldn’t affect the rewards or praise you get. Make sure that if an employee does some good work, they get recognition – whether they work remotely or not. If standards are slipping or things aren’t getting completed on time, don’t assume it’s because of working from home. Instead, find out if the employee needs additional support or assistance first.

One of the biggest tools you have is communication. Just because employees are working from different locations, it doesn’t mean they should be out of the loop. In fact, remote working puts more emphasis on keeping in touch and communicating any updates or changes. A company-wide email newsletter will do for most news, but you might want to do something more personalised for your own smaller teams.

Whatever methods you deploy to maintain culture among your remote workers, it’s worth tracking any progress and changes. This can be done informally, or with regular surveys to record any improvements in productivity and wellbeing, as well as any cause for concern.

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Do you trust your employees?

Managing autonomy and productivity is one of the biggest challenges with remote working. In one study, a third of small business leaders worries about the quality of work suffering as a result of flexible working.

There’s an outdated view shared by some employers and managers that staff need supervision to be productive. But in reality trust can be strengthened when autonomy is given to employees. You give them the power to work in the way that suits them best, and results improve. Of course, working habits and abilities vary between everyone – but the best thing you can do is empower your employees. And you do that by trusting them.

Do you trust your employees?

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Source: Managing Mental Health in Changing Business Models

One way you can influence culture quickly is the type of people you’re hiring. You need to attract the right talent. If you roll out especially flexible changes, you might get a lot of attention. But does your current hiring process look for people that’ll fit in with the way you work?

Your responsibilities for looking after mental wellbeing

As an employer or manager, you have to take care of your staff’s welfare. This includes pre-existing mental health problems, as well as doing what you can to prevent any issues arising. According to the Mental Health at Work 2019 Report:

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  • 30% of the UK workforce have been formally diagnosed with a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime
  • 2 in 5 employees (39%) report experiencing poor mental health symptoms related to work in the last year
  • 52% of those who experience mental health problems related to work say this is due to pressure such as too many priorities or targets
  • 62% of managers have had to put the interests of their organisation above staff wellbeing either sometimes, regularly or every day

It’s not a good picture. The report suggests taking action in four key areas:

Focus Area

Actions

Owning responsible leadership

Consciously model behaviours that promote good mental health

Enable an inclusive culture by embedding wellbeing into management accountability and operational policies and tools

Publicly report on your wellbeing performance in external communications such as annual reports

Understanding the impact of work

Audit the mental health risks as well as the physical ones and develop a plan for minimising them

Increase management’s understanding of the positive and negative impact work can have on employees and hold them accountable for this

Regularly monitor and report on working conditions and always include employee feedback

Equipping line managers

Embed the promotion of good mental health as a core competency for managers

Recognise and reward empathy and compassion

Ensure comprehensive training reaches all managers, and includes the impact of work on mental health and productivity

Providing tailored support

Introduce training for workplace adjustments and modifications, so that support can be tailored

Build active listening and communication skills and make signposting easy

Provide and promote access to a diverse range of inclusive mental health services and facilities such as Employee Assistance Programmes and Occupational Health

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To succeed, you have to make mental health a priority – it should be seen as ‘business as usual’ for managers. For example, if you work remotely, it’s good to have meetings using video and audio. Managers can use it to check in from a business sense, as well as an informal catch-up.

To equip your staff to notice changes and respond well, training might be required. Although the only legal requirement is to comply with the Equality Act 2010 (employees are protected from being treated unfairly or discriminated against when they are either at work or applying for jobs), more workplaces are going above and beyond.

Rather than simply making ‘reasonable adjustments’ for those who need it, they’re establishing best practice mental health support – with specific advice for remote workers. Join them and make your business a great place to work.

Recognising mental health struggles in colleagues

People are speaking more and more about mental health, but it’s still a difficult thing to open up about. You might start to worry about any of your colleagues if they’re showing some of the following symptoms:

  • Uncharacteristic mistakes
  • Finding it hard to motivate themselves
  • Missing deadlines and letting time slip by
  • Being short-tempered or having outbursts of anger
  • Looking tired or drained
  • Isolating themselves from usual conversation or activities
  • Appearing distracted
  • Becoming more chaotic and erratic

As a colleague, it might be unclear what your responsibilities are. But keep it simple. Although it can be hard to identify these early warning signs in ourselves, it’s important you don’t impose yourself or your opinions on anyone. They should feel comfortable talking to you, so just start by asking how they are.