“Where are you?”
“What are you working on now?”
“If you’re away from your laptop for more than 15 minutes, drop me a message — even if you are on a tea break.”
It’s been almost a year since many employees started to work from home, and it’s clear that for some managers this has meant inundating their teams with archaic micromanagement practices that should have been left in the office — or better still, the 1980s.
It is one thing to experience an incessant culture of presenteeism, stress and anxiety while in the office and quite another to be sitting at your kitchen table or in your bedroom experiencing this plight. The reality is, if you had a nightmare boss pre-pandemic, this has become much worse. Without the usual bookends of commutes — and without coffee and lunch breaks with sympathetic colleagues — we can’t escape.
As a new cohort of young people enter and navigate the workplace, remote working will be all they know. I have heard commentators question whether they can thrive in a remote-work world, as recent studies have shown that the present time of isolation and hyper-connectedness has been particularly hard on this group. A study by Mind Share, a non profit organisation that works with companies to improve mental health resources, suggests that 50 per cent of millennials have at some point left a job for mental health reasons. This figure increases to 75 per cent for Gen Z. That sort of turnover further highlights the serious implications facing many businesses of not taking care of early career staff.
Of course, learning the ropes of a new job in a remote environment is challenging and I can’t imagine how it would have felt to have had to start my first job in banking from my family bedroom. Aside from formal practical training, I would have missed out on crucial personal development opportunities including networking — a great way to bolster a young professional’s confidence — as well as overall relationship building.
However, the key to helping young workers thrive in the long term goes beyond the practicalities that collaboration and conferencing technology allow. If employees are young, inexperienced and unsure what to do, it is imperative they feel supported by their managers in the right way — currently it seems many don’t feel they are getting support for their mental health struggles.
For example, the use of surveillance software has rocketed. One study shows demand was up 51 per cent between June and September last year compared with a pre pandemic average. I have even heard about a company where everyone has to be on an open Zoom call all day, with the camera on, so the manager can see them working.
Enforced homeworking is affecting how and what new recruits can learn and calls for a shift of management style. With research showing that Gen Z reported higher levels of anxiety and depression than other generations even before the pandemic, it is crucial we get this right.
It is fine for employers to hire an inspiring one-off speaker or dedicate a week for events around mental wellbeing. But what we really need are business efforts focused on creating lasting conditions that will continue to prioritise the mental health of all employees, especially the younger ones.
It is not enough to say you offer corporate support for mental health: employers need to practise this. One way is to establish, and enforce, healthy boundaries, starting from the top. This means no late night texts and those urgent emails at 9pm need to stop.
Years ago, I remember sitting down with my then-manager, voicing my own concerns and asking for more support. Much to my dismay, he replied that “you don’t want to draw attention to yourself and be that person in the team with the issues”. Needless to say, I never brought it up again.
The good news is that our year of working differently looks set to permanently change the approach to mental health at work — and force it to grow up. Monzo founder Tom Blomfield has announced that he is leaving the UK challenger bank amid pressure on his mental wellbeing. He shared how unhappy he has been over the past few years and how the subsequent lockdowns exacerbated this.
Granted, most of us do not have the same resources and can’t simply decide to leave our jobs, but I admire his honesty and it sets a good precedent for continuing discussions in the workplace.
It is time to retire trite accusations of young people being “snowflakes” and face the reality that, if we leave mental health problems and workplace misery unaddressed, we will be sleepwalking into a post-pandemic culture of absenteeism, high staff turnover and lowered productivity.
The writer is author of the forthcoming ‘The Reset: Ideas to Change How We Work and Live’