Four years ago the Marmalade Trust started the Loneliness Awareness Week, a week during which the issues of isolation and loneliness are recognised and discussed. This year Loneliness Awareness Week is taking place from 15 to 19 June 2020. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when people in the UK and around the world are prevented from seeing family and friends, Loneliness Awareness Week has perhaps never been so pertinent.
The lockdown restrictions enforced by the government in the UK, which appear to now be easing, have restricted the ability of people to meet in public places or visit each other at home. The lockdown restrictions have also resulted in many offices closing, with companies requiring staff to work from home or furloughing staff where this is not possible. Regardless of how and when the lockdown restrictions will change, it is likely that many companies will continue to operate with staff working from home whilst the threat of COVID-19 persists. Many even predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will permanently change the landscape of working practices, resulting in many companies maintaining working from home models to avoid the expense of office spaces.
As people continue to work from home, combined with limited social lives, reduced exercise and recreation, studies are revealing the effects that this unprecedented period may have on worker wellbeing. Earlier this year, the Institute for Employment Studies conducted a poll of workers, many now working from home under lockdown restrictions. The study found that 50 percent of the working from home participants were not happy with their work-life balance, whilst 48 percent were working longer and more irregular hours than they would under normal circumstances. Further, 33 percent of the participants frequently felt isolated and 64 percent were suffering sleep loss due to worry.
Under usual circumstances, companies introduce working from home policies to aid the work-life balance of its workers and reduce stress levels. However, in the current pandemic, as workers are being asked to work from home for a prolonged period with limited social interaction, working from home may have the opposite effect on many workers. Instead of aiding their work-life balance and reducing stress, many workers lose the separation between their work and social lives, they increasingly perceive their homes as a workspace and find it harder to log out and switch off at regular hours. Additionally, workers may be less inclined to take significant periods of annual leave due to the restrictions on travelling abroad. In the current economic climate, many workers may also feel pushed to work harder and longer to ensure that the company continues to succeed and their employment is secure.
Employers have certain legal responsibilities towards the health and safety of their employees and workers, including their mental health and wellbeing. As companies adapt their businesses to endure the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, they should also consider effective ways of monitoring and protecting the mental health of staff. This can include remotely held social events, as many companies have done, as well as more regular meetings to ensure staff are maintaining their work-life balance whilst working from home. Employers could also take specific measures to ensure that staff who may be isolated or living alone can stay connected to those they work with.