“The risks of working from home are often not recognized”

Arnd Schaff works as a university professor, management consultant and therapist at the interface between management and health maintenance. At the Institute for Health & Social Affairs at the FOM University, he conducts research on processes of corporate health management. He is also working on models that record and reduce psychological stress in companies.

Mr. Schaff, what does the home office do to the psyche?
In April, the abrupt change in the home office caused great uncertainty for many employees. The profound changes in many work processes, working methods and the new way of dealing with colleagues – all of this has caused stress.

But many employees like the home office, it is now said …
Yes, but basically people are not prepared for major changes. Every massive change triggers fear. That is how it is laid out in our biological constitution. You can see this from the fact that all of our senses react to change and our perception aligns accordingly. For example, if you move into a new apartment near a church tower, you cannot ignore the sound of the bell at first. As soon as this background noise no longer represents any change in your life after a while, you no longer hear the ringing.

In the meantime, a lot has happened in the home office. The uncertainty subsides, for example when dealing with new communication media. Hasn’t the situation been defused then?
In terms of uncertainty, yes, but there are other risks now. Many homeworkers suffer from some form of delimitation. Private life and work have merged. In terms of space, this was created through the home office. But there is also a delimitation in terms of time, as work is carried out in ever smaller intervals in the evening, when it used to be the end of work. This means that there is no opportunity to relax. In addition: Now, after a few months of working from home, many people feel isolated.

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What are the consequences?
In the first place: gloom. In people with a corresponding disposition, this can lead to depression. In the first half of 2020, the number of mental illnesses rose by 80 percent compared to the previous year, according to the KKH health insurance company. Not just because of the home office, of course. But the existential fears triggered by the corona crisis play a major role here. For the self-employed, the fear of bankruptcy, for the employee the fear of losing a job.

And the dreary autumn is only just beginning.
Yes, the time of year will make the situation worse. Many people react to the dark with mood swings.

How can employees in the home office protect themselves against this?
You have to try to escape the isolation. Every opportunity for personal contact should be used – of course, taking hygienic requirements into account. Because closed restaurants, cafés, pubs and sports clubs further increase the feeling of isolation. The coffee corner of the office, on the other hand, can at least partially be replaced by video conferences. In the job there is therefore a clear hierarchy in the forms of communication: video conference before phone call before email.

How can employees recognize the harbingers of mental health problems?
Symptoms are, for example, listlessness, loss of interest or constant depression. Home office employees can use appropriate questionnaires on the Internet for an initial self-identification, which can be found on the websites of health insurance companies.

What can managers do to protect their employees in the home office?
First of all, the same thing: talking, talking, talking, looking for personal contact. Mails are not enough. With virtual tours in particular, it is very important to maintain direct contact as much as possible. Managers should be aware that all informal opportunities for personal contact that are taken for granted have disappeared. This must be replaced as much as possible.

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How come?
For example, through regular informal team talks as a video conference. The boss can also just call his employee just to chat a little. It is also important to relieve the employee of any fears during the conversation – for example when it comes to the future of the company or his job. In addition, a boss should create the possibility for employees to work at least partially in the office, if this is hygienically possible and responsible. Then he can say: “Before you get completely lonely in the home office, come to the office at least one day a week.” This reduces the risk of isolation.

Many of the baby boomers still grew up as achievers. Arnd Schaff, consultant

Should bosses also make direct reference to the psychological endangerment of employees in the home office?
Yes. Bosses can be open to the feelings of their employees. You should also just ask a little broader how it works in the new form of work – and also whether the domestic situation actually supports the work well. However, the employee should also be given the feeling of not having to say things if they do not want to.

Do bosses take this approach to heart or is there a need to catch up?
Nine out of ten bosses miss it, especially since they are faced with new challenges during the crisis. The taboo on mental illness has not yet been overcome – especially among older people. The executives of Generation X and those of the baby boomers grew up as high achievers. Psychological stress is still just a background issue for them. In addition, they often do not recognize the psychological and physical risks of working from home. Instead, they often suspiciously view the home office as a kind of corona gift for employees that saves them from going to work.

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What are the physical risks of working from home?
It starts with the poor lighting in the workplace. Sometimes the back-hostile couch replaces the ergonomic office chair or an old, flickering monitor damages it
Eyes. However, neither employees nor employers sufficiently recognize the need for job security in the home office.

Can the employer even ensure these things?
No, not every employee would want that, because it is about changes in their private environment. However, he can at least check with employees to see whether a suitable workplace is available and then react if necessary.

What can bosses do to motivate employees in the home office to take corporate health management measures?
This is only possible if a corresponding culture has already prevailed in the company and the quota of participants was high. Anyone who thinks that they can get their employees excited for a healthy lunch, yoga or back training for the first time via video conference will fail.

More on the subject:

Will these usual WHM instruments persist despite Corona?
Yes, they were important before the crisis and will be again after the crisis. They are currently being adapted to the new situation. For companies, there are also corona measures for dealing with masks, the implementation of distance rules and the development of pandemic plans for corporate health management. So the crisis is driving the workload for corporate health management.

Won’t the budgets for corporate health management shrink due to the crisis?
A dangerous gap is currently opening up here. Companies now have to invest in corporate health management. The economy likes to say: our employees are our most important capital. But: This capital is at risk in the crisis. Company health management can protect employees.

Mr. Schaff, thank you for the interview.

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