Work-related mental wellbeing is a highly topical subject and widespread concern, especially in connection with digital work. As part of our commitment to improving work and working lives, we’ve just published an evidence review on the subject. Part of the review is a summary in which we bring together insights from the scientific research with the views of ten HR directors in the UK. We ran two focus groups with these practitioner experts, discussing work-related mental wellbeing and digital work in their varied companies during the COVID-19 pandemic. A number of facets of this important topic were aired. 

In this article we share the directors’ key concerns and main messages on the most pressing themes arising from their focus group discussions. We incorporate quotes from the directors, with their permission, to give voice to their organisational experiences and opinions on mental wellbeing and digital work. The comments will resonate with many organisations, so others can learn from the directors’ insights. Additionally, we offer points of related practical advice, for all managers of people, in supporting their employees’ mental wellbeing at the present time on the three identified themes. 

Rising work intensification

The concern that workloads have intensified since the onset of escalated reliance on digital technology since the March 2020 lockdown was expressed by several of the HR directors. As one put it, “Many people, myself included, are frequently scheduled in back-to-back meetings from the moment we start until the moment we finish, which links with the full-on nature of what work now is, how everything is expected to be instant, and how there’s never enough time to complete tasks and focus on the important as well as the urgent items” (Katie Obi, Rizing). Another felt “worried” about possible damage to wellbeing in people being on virtual meeting platforms “constantly, back-to-back” (Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, Charles Stanley).

The constancy of back-to-back work, especially in virtual meetings, was described by another director as having “a different intensity” (Amy Taylor, PFK Francis Clark) in home working. Not only were the directors “set in this cycle of being overworked,” the same director said, but they were very aware that their employees were too. Employees themselves frequently raised that they were working harder in home working: “We were finding that [our] people were bringing that up more and more often...the biggest thing that we heard people say right from the get-go is ‘I feel like I’m working much harder than I ever did before’… there was this mentality” (Eugenio Pirri, Dorchester Collection).

In short, nowadays “people feel overworked” (Debbie Ryan, People Equation) and often have felt so since the rapid switch to digital working over a year ago. There is then a need to “think about that pace of work and …how productive we expect people to be…because it’s not always possible for the individual to be able to reclaim that that control of pace if what it expected is far beyond what really is feasible and manageable” (Katie Obi, Rizing). Managers need therefore to help their employees to reclaim the pace and volume of their work.

Being in front of computer screens for long stretches of time was a further, related concern for many of the directors. “People don’t actually leave their chair” (Amy Taylor, PFK Francis Clark), precluding “some of the water cooler conversations that we would have [at work] …[from] helping people alleviate some of that [pandemic] stress and pressure” (Cathy Donnelly, Liberty IT). Taking breaks from digital work is therefore important as an element in stress management.

The intensification of work during the pandemic was apparently fuelled by technology. Indirectly then, digital work can impact negatively on mental wellbeing unless parameters are set on its usage.

  • Practical pointer – Acknowledge that many of your employees may be experiencing greater work intensity while working remotely and take active steps to protect them from unmanageable workloads. For example, it may help to be clear about limiting and breaking up time on digital work for all your employees and managers. Setting an HR policy on work limits and breaks to ensure consistent working practices and organisational culture may also help. So too providing guidance to line managers on supporting remote workers

Relinquishing work control

Work control was expressed as a concern for many of the HR directors. Central to this is not digital work in itself but how technology is used. This “is a driver of a lot of mental health issues” (Lynne Rennie-Smith, freelance HRD). Employees having a lack of individual control over their own work time due to reliance on digital technology in remote working, particularly during the pandemic, was viewed as especially problematic. 

Open access to e-diaries was called out as a conspicuous problem contributing to lack of control. In effect, employees relinquish control of their own work time when their diaries fill up with virtual meetings called by other people. Blocking out diary time is a potential solution to maintaining some control, but some may not feel able to do this. As one director summed it up, '"It’s quite easy for senior people to be able to say, ‘Right, I’m going to block out my diary,’ but if you are more junior, you are more likely to feel compelled and out of control…people won’t say ‘no’ [to] somebody more senior. I think that then exacerbates the problem” (Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, Charles Stanley).

A knock-on effect of an absence of control over personal diaries is not only overload in the number of virtual meetings. It also results in working extra hours to access emails. Several directors commented on this. To illustrate: “If I …take time off…I personally get more stressed by the prospect of coming back to work with hundreds of unread emails, so my preference is every day I’ll check them” (Marc Weedon, Zuora); and “Somehow I spent my whole day in meetings which meant that I ended up doing emails and other work outside of the normal office hours” (Debbie Ryan, People Equation). The importance of setting out-of-office messages was also raised, alongside the challenge of everyone sticking to the hours set in the messages. Indirectly, again, digital work apparently plays a part in intensifying work.

Thus it is apparent that the technology that is widely used in remote work can have a negative impact if usage boundaries are not set. People can readily feel that they cede control over their own time, with detrimental effects on their work-related mental wellbeing.

  • Practical pointer – Help employees to manage their diaries so that they can maintain a reasonable work-life balance. For example, it might help to set aside regular and simultaneous meeting-free blocks of time in the e-diaries of all your employees and managers. It may also help to reinforce the meeting-free time zones through formal policy to generate consistent practice across your organisation. Flexible working is another tool to consider in technology boundary-setting.

Regaining work control

Moving forward, there was a general agreement that it’s now time to encourage employees to actively take more control of their own work again. A common view was that during the pandemic organisations have taken on more responsibility for employees’ mental health and wellbeing, “rightly so” (Cathy Donnelly, Liberty IT). However, “as we’re coming out of it [the pandemic], now there has got to be self-responsibility” (Marc Weedon, Zuora).

The prevailing view among the HR directors was that their employees feel they need permission to take more self-control and self-responsibility. One director explained that: “Because of the high workload, the pandemic and [being] overwhelmed, [employees] are feeling …less likely to engage in those things that will enable them to free up the time to be able to get a work-life balance back” (Amy Taylor, PFK Francis Clark). Another commented: “We almost had to give people permission …not to work harder…, allowing them to shift the timelines of different work projects” (Eugenio Pirri, Dorchester Collection). Enabling employees to regain more control of their work explicitly involves giving them permission.

“You’ve got to give people psychological permission to take control where they can” (Dr. Tracey Leghorn, SUEZ) and “empower people to feel comfortable about controlling as much of their environment as possible” (Marc Weedon, Zuora), in the words of a couple of directors. This can be achieved by “using interventions to give people control…it’s how you introduce permission to give people control... it has to come from the top, the CEO” (Rebekah Wallis, Ricoh UK Ltd) and cascade from there to all employees.

Interventions can be “little things that do make a bit of difference” (Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, Charles Stanley). An example offered was standardising meetings for “25 minutes instead of 30 or 55 minutes instead of an hour” (Marc Weedon, Zuora) to enable a breather between back-to-back meetings. Another suggestion was “encouraging teams to come together and…set their own norms that would work for them, that would give the majority headspace” (Cathy Donnelly, Liberty IT). So, managers can intervene in subtle and constructive ways to support employees’ self-control of their work.

The positive message here is that employees can be helped to regain more control of their own work which, in turn, is likely to contribute to their work-related mental wellbeing. Organisational permission and interventions are important in facilitating more work control.

  • Practical pointer – Expressly allow and enable all employees to take more control over their jobs, in particular their daily work schedules. For example, try to ensure the messaging on this comes from the top of your organisation, in CEO statements perhaps. Instigating autonomous working practices and inculcating an empowerment culture in day-to-day work would also be helpful in increasing job control and, consequently, reducing work stress.

Our evidence review offers further insight on supporting employees’ wellbeing at work, particularly in managing risk factors as well as top tips and recommendations. Health and wellbeing at work is likely to remain a topical and important subject for some time to come as organisations continue to navigate their on-going employer response to the Coronavirus.

About the authors

Gill Maxwell

Gill Maxwell, former Research Adviser (Maternity cover)

Gill joined the CIPD in March 2021 to focus mainly on research on the people profession, now and in the future. Previously, she worked as Reader at Glasgow Caledonian University and as an Honorary Reader at the University of St Andrews. Her research interests and publications span a range of strategic human resource management topics. Mostly recently, Gill’s research centered on models of employment in performance critical roles. She is a Chartered Fellow of the CIPD.

Jake Young, Research Associate

Jake joined the CIPD in 2018, having completed a master’s degree in Social Science Research Methods at the University of Nottingham. He also holds an undergraduate degree in Criminology and Sociology.

Jake’s research interests concern aspects of Diversity and Inclusion, such as inequality, gender and identity in the workplace. Jake is currently involved in the creation of a research project examining the effectiveness of organisational recruitment programmes and their relationship with workplace performance.

Jonny Gifford, Senior Adviser for Organisational Behaviour

Jonny has been conducting applied research into employment and people management for a number of years, with previous roles at the Institute for Employment Studies and Roffey Park Institute. Current interests include job quality and behavioural science insights into performance management and other areas of HR. Jonny runs the CIPD Applied Research Conference and actively promotes evidence-based practice, including through systematic reviewing and running randomised trials.

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