Maintaining mental health while working remotely

What we've learned.


Written by Krishan Wyse
06 July 2020

In a year of unknowns, some things are now clear. For example, that recent events are so clearly unprecedented that the very word's become clichéd; that their impact on our lives is enormous; and that it's demanded huge adjustments to our expectations and behaviour. However, precise understanding of the human consequences, particularly for mental health, remains elusive. Krishan Wyse (Senior Software Engineer) describes Access Worldpay's approach.

Looking for some practical solutions to the human challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic has been the remit of a working group established recently within Access Worldpay. Specifically, our task has been to investigate these issues within the context of our tribe. The natural starting point, therefore, was to examine how exactly the pandemic has impacted our colleagues.

Experience is personal

As a member of this working group, it has become clear to me that people can respond in very different ways. Even within our seven-person team, we identified several distinct issues:

  • Feelings of isolation because of social distancing and spending large amounts of time indoors.
  • 'Cabin fever' resulting from continuous contact with the same people.
  • Difficulty in separating professional responsibilities from personal time.

It's crucial to acknowledge the fact that experiences can and do vary from person to person. In fact, we were surprised to discover that a person experiencing one of these issues may not experience a different one at all.

Empathy is difficult

By way of example, somebody finding it difficult to be around their family all the time is experiencing a classic precursor to cabin fever – a claustrophobic irritability caused by enforced isolation with the same people for a long time. This person, however, may have no difficulties delineating their working hours, perhaps because they have children to look after.

As a result, we learned that any one person may find it hard to relate to specific problems faced by another. This led to one key finding – the enormous importance of staying mindful of each other's personal circumstances and to work hard to respect their unique troubles, however alien they may seem.

Planning is essential

We also learned about specific ways in which lockdown has affected our working lives. A lack of variety means that one day can easily bleed into another. What's more, breaks need to be planned, because spontaneous interruptions at the office no longer exist; instant feedback is far harder to come by; and ways of communication that recently appeared ordinary have vanished completely.

A third finding was the importance of prioritisation. With everything taking place within the same four walls, it is now crucial to decide the relative importance of different work and personal tasks. This challenge is made still more complicated because, without the need to commute and furnished with home comforts, we may feel we are expected to be more productive than ever.

Talking can help

Our final discovery was a mixed blessing. We learned that feelings of guilt, anxiety, isolation or exhaustion underlie almost everything that our colleagues have been experiencing. We were encouraged, however, to find that many such feelings subsided once they had been discussed openly.

As a result, we decided to try and offer some essential catharsis through a virtual ‘safe space'. Here, any member of the tribe could dial into a weekly video call to talk to colleagues in confidence about their troubles, worries and irritations, and hear others share their own concerns.

Broad support matters

Fast feedback and continuous refinement underpin our all work within the tribe and we applied the same principles to this project. We recruited a number of advocates to spread the word and facilitate these meetings. They also compiled a series of online resources that could also give colleagues in need some alternative support.
To increase our chances of success, we worked to get buy-in from all levels, especially the tribe's leadership. Specifically, we involved them with the working group from the very start to ensure that that they stayed apprised of our findings and could see exactly what we were doing to address them.

Where we're heading

These are early days but I think we're making progress. Three weeks in, I believe that we've taken some essential first steps towards building a healthier and more productive working environment for our colleagues. After announcing the calls, our group more than doubled in size and we are now examining how best to promote the calls to other colleagues. We're also clarifying guidelines for discussion topics and etiquette, and trying to identify the optimal slot for the weekly call.

Looking ahead, however, we want more. We want these conversations to be normal. This year has seen old boundaries redrawn entirely. What was unthinkable is now part of everyday conversation; what used to be weird is now mundane. As a result, it should be possible to reach a point where talking about feelings and mental health is no longer considered uncomfortable or unusual and is, instead, recognised as legitimate and valuable. And we're excited to see how we can further help our colleagues to become the happiest, most engaged and most productive versions of themselves.