Are we working from home or living at work? – By Dean Royles

NHS clinician outside a healthcare organisation representing NHS burn out

Written by Dean Royles, President of the HPMA and Non-Executive Director of Humber Teaching NHS Foundation Trust

The world of work will never be the same again. I know that is a bold, grandiose statement, but my sense is that deep down, we all know it is true, as every lockdown day into this pandemic dawns, it becomes more and more evident that the way in which many people are now working is no longer a temporary response to these extraordinary times. A whole new era has dawned. In what feels like the blink of an eye, the traditional workplace with its traditional mindsets and ways of working are rapidly becoming obsolete. It also feels somewhat strange to think that many of our past experiences of the world of work will always and forever be completely unrecognisable to the generation of workers that follow us.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more thoughts and observations on our changing world of work and considering what this means for those of us working both in the NHS and the wider healthcare sector. I want to be provocative and occasionally challenging to create a debate and to open up a discussion on the possible. In this blog, I start by considering the implications of working from home for those working in corporate roles like Finance, HR, Training and Informatics in the healthcare sector.

When NHS managers, directors and leaders (myself included) started sending people home to work last March, and then started working from home ourselves, we believed it was an appropriate, temporary response to the development of a global pandemic. Fast forward to today, and it is clear that what we once considered part-and-parcel of the normal working week – the crowded commute, the open-plan office working, hectic lunchtime refreshments, the office worker celebrations, the coffee machine and corridor conversations, the lunchtime walking group, sharing childcare conundrums (and more) – are now a thing of the past. Our new normal will be vastly different. And although that has the potential to be a very good thing, it is also time for employers to take action to mitigate the new risks it presents.

HR leaders and managers recognise that the ad hoc arrangements put in place to support this different way of working now need formalising, and that this demands a radical rethink in terms of policies, procedures, practices, rostering and what we almost laughably called flexible working. In our organisations, we must come together as managers, staff and trade unions on a collective endeavour to entirely overhaul outdated policies, and to draft new ones which better reflect the lay of the land in 2021. This includes building flexible working policies right into the heart of organisations with clear guidance by which employees can schedule their working hours in a way that best fits around their other professional commitments and caring responsibilities.

Just over a year ago there were calls for legislation and rules to prevent ‘out of hours’ emails. This was a working 9 to 5 mindset. We now live and work in very different times. As long as people get the work done, it shouldn’t be a problem if someone wants to get up early, do a couple of hours work before the school run or a workout, then doing a few more hours later in the day or maybe even at night when the kids are all fed and in bed – in short, working in ways that suit them and their personal circumstances rather than from managerial pressure. The working day can no longer be a one size fits all. It must now be viewed as varying and multiple time slots within a 24-hour period. We now need to really think about how and when people can be rostered to ensure we deliver for staff, patients and customers.

As hard as it seems, we have to leave behind the paradigm that ‘work’ is something that happens in a named location (an office, a hospital ward, a meeting room…) between the hours of 9 and 5. This simply isn’t compatible with the way work happens today – and, if we are honest, it never was. The day is a 24-hour period of time, and employers need to embrace the fact that, by using intelligent, staffing rostering platforms, it is now possible to match hours with a person who wants to work them, that fits in with them and the way they live their lives. With an emphasis on empowering and supporting employees, productivity and quality will increase in tandem with the state of the workforce’s mental wellbeing. This is the opposite of pressurising people to work additional ‘unsociable’ hours.

Of course, because of the nature of the sector, many members of the health and social care workforce are unable to effectively work the majority of their working time from home. However, these individuals are not immune to the changes happening in the world of work, and in my next blog, I’ll explore how their employers can handle these changes effectively.

Employee wellbeing has to be central to the drawing up of new HR policy and workplace norms. There’s no hiding the fact that anyone working in the NHS or wider health sector has been under immense pressure for the past 12 months. As well as juggling additional burdens such as home-schooling and the responsibility of being key workers with the uncertainty of schools being open as children and teachers are required to isolate, many have a feeling of inadequacy that we are failing our families and our colleagues. The anxiety generated can be almost unbearable. Without the social support and structure of the office, it’s all too easy for feelings of isolation to spiral.

To counteract this, employers need to find new ways to support their remote workforce in remaining physically and mentally well. There are numerous small things that managers can do – from encouraging staff to self-select working days and actually using their ‘holiday’ days (even if they won’t actually be going away on holiday), to blocking out time in the daily schedule for walks, informal catch-ups and proper meal breaks.

But how we, as individuals, think about work and our own health and wellbeing needs a radical rethink too. We need new routines that recognise we will be working more from home, but we still need to ensure we look after ourselves, our physical and mental health, without the physical encouragement and social stimulation of those we work with.

A former colleague and friend of mine has battled with her mental health for a long time and now, recognising that her physical health was also on the decline as a result of her newfound, sedentary life at home, has signed up with a charity fundraiser to do a month of daily physical activity and encouraged me to do the same. The sedentary lifestyle that came with working long hours at home, I instantly recognised in myself. What I didn’t expect to also recognise was that after many months of living with my new way of life, my mental wellbeing also needed a bit of a boost – I needed to commit to doing something active every day to help beat the blues, a great combination for me and just what I needed.

The mutual encouragement to ‘get active’ and the virtual sharing of our daily achievements has really made me think about ways I can get exercise and activity into my new way of working. Using my old commute time for a walk first thing instead of the long car commute to what used to be my outer world of work, or trying to keep Zoom or Teams meetings to 50 minutes so I can stretch my legs and hydrate instead of walking between meeting rooms, keeping fruit closer to me than the sweets tin (and the fridge!) and taking time out to check in with my inner world – those who remind me to feel like and be, just ‘me’.

Making time for everyday mindfulness and meditation is also, now more than ever, really important. Setting aside periods of time to switch off and care for my grey matter I know will strengthen my ability to think more clearly, to relax and put those niggly thoughts into perspective and (now here’s the big one) to enjoy good, quality sleep that enables me to max out on all of the countless physical and mental health benefits a good night’s sleep brings. I’ll definitely be doing a February activity challenge. It is the discipline and commitment I need to be active and healthy.

We might not know exactly what the coming years are going to hold for us all, but we can be sure that we all need to think creatively about how we are going to allow all participants in the workforce to flourish. A more compassionate, people-centric working culture will certainly be a differentiator and a retainer for employers. The starting point to this process will be to think differently about how we ourselves work, and how the small decisions we make everyday have the potential to be both life-changing and life-saving.