As we approach the anniversary of the first national Covid-19 lockdown in the UK, I have been reflecting on the experiences of working from home this last year.
This period would have tested even the most resilient of people. In fact, it did. Dealing with financial worries, home-schooling, loneliness, the pressure cooker environment of being constrained to our homes, while often coping with a relentless workload.
But, before I go on, let’s not forget the two key words in “work from home” and remember how lucky those of us who have been doing so are, firstly, to have paid work and, secondly, to have a home. Much of what I say here must be read in that context of perspective and privilege.
That is not to say that this year has been easy. Quite the contrary. Throughout the year, chewing the fat with clients, we would describe this time as “our moment”. The time for employment lawyers and Human Resources practitioners to shine and show their value.
While we are not ‘essential workers’, some of what we had to deal with felt like that at times. From dealing with Covid-secure workplaces to the complexities of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and furlough leave (a legal concept previously unknown in the UK), our work was business critical.
And not all HR personnel have been working entirely from home. To support their colleagues working through the pandemic in essential services, many have themselves been on-site too.
Sadly we have seen organisations fail due to the economic impact of the pandemic. In many others, unfortunately mass redundancies could not be avoided.
Naturally most of this fell on the doorstep of the HR department – who are usually the last to turn off the lights.
These kinds of duties bring a range of emotions with them (stress included). I have been fortunate to work with many of the best in Human Resources during this challenging time. I’ve always prided myself in getting to know clients, understand their issues and tailoring my advice to their sector and specific needs. But who would have thought daily and sometimes hourly meetings would now take place in our respective homes through the lens of a webcam?
As draining and intimate as Zoom and Teams can be in equal measure, no-one doubts the business effectiveness of these platforms. We shared experiences of family lockdown challenges and on regular occasions our respective children would appear on screen with us. That didn’t matter one bit, of course, as we are all in the same boat.
With all this pressure applied on HR, it struck me – who looks after the people who look after the people? If HR are expected to take on board everyone else’s problems, who deals with yours?
The pressure on HR is often invisible. Wired to deliver to “the business”, you are just expected to get on with it. Or are you? Increasingly the role of HR takes on that of coach and counsellor.
As an employment lawyer too, much of our role nowadays is about managing risk and coaching clients towards a solution. Or it might be counselling a senior employee through the trauma of having just lost their job.
But how many of us have actually been trained in coaching or counselling skills? Certainly this is not a routine component of legal or HR studies. If it was, as I understand it, a coach or counsellor ought to have been assigned to the person carrying out the coaching and counselling to support them with their own development and wellbeing.
In the world of sport, there is increasingly a movement towards the duty of care to provide support for the coaches who look after the elite athletes. In the world of work, and in Covid times in particular, well-being and mental health are higher on the agenda than ever before.
Where is the support for the people who look after the people? If the HR community and people leaders are expected to look after their teams and provide a crutch for those who are struggling at work, they too need support and coaching to have the stamina and resilience to do so.
A sad consequence of the stress of lockdown is that there has been a huge increase, in my experience, in employee grievances, the toxic nature of which I have never before seen in my career. This can undoubtedly take its toll on even the most experienced HR practitioner, and invariably detracts from the time and energy that ought to be devoted to the remainder of the wider workforce who are struggling too.
I think that lockdown has made it ever more evident that what we as HR and employment law specialists deal with is other people’s problems: colleagues, direct reports, managers, “the business”. Not to mention everyday personal relationships. Taking on that energy can be draining.
I remember a senior HR Director client once telling me that when she interviewed HR graduates her pet hate was always the candidate that answered the typical question “why did you want to get into Human Resources?” with the stock answer “because I love people”. Next applicant please! Regrettably a love for people is often the last attribute that you are looking for in the HR stars of the future. Misanthropes apply here. I think that there will be plenty of them coming out of lockdown…
Perhaps I’m being overly harsh, but is there any wonder? In one of the aforesaid recent “messy” grievances, the hearing notes reflected that the aggrieved employee did not feel that the HR Manager “was there for him”. Supporting said HR manager with her response, I was tempted to reply “well, who was there for me?!”. Of course I refrained and chose an appropriate euphemism instead.
Back to the world of sport, the Inverness Caledonian Thistle football manager spoke out bravely of his mental health challenges and near burnout during lockdown in a recent press conference when he said “As a manager I do my best to try and help my players, but who helps me?… Who manages the managers?”
The stressed-out manager who loses control and shouts at staff would be met with a grievance for bullying. Or if they snapped under pressure, they’d be dubbed unprofessional.
I do hope that this does not sound like a moan. Heaven forbid. After all, just the other week, the chairman of a leading global accountancy practice was forced to resign after he called out his employees to stop playing the victim card and moaning about working in lockdown. This is not a call to arms for moaning. On the contrary, it’s to appeal to leadership teams to acknowledge and understand the pressure on those who support their businesses in these difficult times.
Nowadays we all know that it’s ok not to be ok. And we know that we should ask our colleagues if they’re ok; or look out for signs which might suggest that they’re not. Mental health issues at work have become less of a stigma in recent years.
We’re slowly but surely moving towards a culture where looking after yourself (and others) is encouraged. It’s more important than ever to talk about this and have policies in place to deal with employee wellbeing (‘owned’ and implemented by HR of course!).
But the businesses that will really distinguish themselves as we come out of Lockdown 3.0 are those that provide support, don’t judge and whose leaders are prepared at least to say “thank you – we know this hasn’t been easy”.
For even the most hardened HR professional, some praise for a job well done is often all that’s needed to feel valued.