Moving more is good for our mental wellbeing, according to the Mental Health Foundation. However, now that people working from home are often monitored, stepping away from the desk to stretch your legs isn’t as easy as it should be. Which is why ‘moving more’, the theme of this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week, is as relevant for businesses as it is for individuals. 

For many people, daily exercise once meant commuting. Since the rise in working from home, dashing for the train has been replaced by wandering to the laptop. In the UK, more than a third of adults (36%) do not meet the physical activity recommendations set out by the World Health Organisation, according to a study by the Mental Health Foundation.

A lack of exercise doesn’t just have physical consequences. Connections between physical wellbeing and mental health are well-established. One in six people in England experience the symptoms of a mental health problem in any given week.

The Mental Health Foundation suggests that, in the workplace, early signs of a problem might include:

  • Feeling (and/or looking) more tired than usual
  • Making uncharacteristic mistakes
  • Finding it hard to be motivated
  • Poor timekeeping
  • Feeling impatient or short tempered
  • Feeling a need to isolate from colleagues
  • Procrastination more or grinding to a halt altogether
  • Speeding up or becoming chaotic
  • Intruding into others’ conversations and work
  • Taking on more work than we can manage

At Working Voices, we found that challenges to mental health can contribute to disengagement. While businesses widely accept the need for workplace wellbeing, many struggle to find an effective strategy. Most corporate wellbeing perks have been shown to be ineffective, largely due to a failure to get to grips with what’s chipping away at wellbeing in the first place.

What are the causes of disengagement?

Workplace wellbeing can only be effective if it tackles the underlying causes of disengagement. Disengagement isn’t a new problem, it doesn’t come from recent factors such as Covid, hybrid working, AI-related job insecurity, or ineffective company cultures that have been undermined by all of the above. The underlying causes stem from long-term issues including:

1. Doing more with less: in response to the global financial crisis, people were asked to do more with less. This trend continues, though there are limits to how much ‘more’ that people can give.

2. The rise of tech: smartphones, virtual calls, and instant messaging favour short and functional responses. Communication can be a disconnecting experience, leading to a sense of isolation.

3. Lack of workplace humanity: managers who favour faster processes and efficiencies risk disregarding the personal attributes of employees, leading to disengagement and inefficiency.

4. Lack of employee autonomy: a rise in working from home has led to increased remote surveillance. Overseen by AI, employees feel less trusted and lacking in personal autonomy.

This final cause particularly points to contradictions in corporate wellbeing strategies. Where in protecting people’s wellbeing does surveillance sit?

The rise in workplace surveillance

Organisations are committed to their people’s wellbeing. But without the time or resources to investigate the underlying causes of disengagement, many miss three key facts:

  • Disengagement stems from long-term poor working practices.
  • Wellbeing will be ineffective as long as poor practices continue – such as surveillance.
  • Overall workforce wellbeing isn’t improved through perks like subsidised gym classes.

The rise in working from home led to an increase in organisations using AI to monitor keystrokes, take snapshots of content on a computer screen, or activate webcams and audio recording.

A UK survey found that 60% of workers reported surveillance and monitoring in 2021, compared to 53% in 2020, prompting concerns from union leaders about “a huge lack of transparency over the use of AI at work.”

Workplace challenges to mental health

Automated tracking devices may log the number of hours worked, though useful calls, meetings, and moments of creative deliberation might not appear in the stats. This may push an employee into working longer hours just to keep an automated system happy so that it doesn’t give negative information to a manager.

One employee reported dry eyes and a sore head at the end of the working day, as “tracking doesn’t allow for thinking time or stepping away and coming back to work – it’s very intense.”

Surveillance can also be a cause of anxiety. The fear of being misreported by AI nudges people toward skipping moments of reflection, creative thought, and opportunities to stretch their legs. Work becomes less about autonomous choices and more about fitting in with the expectations of the software that’s monitoring them.

This over-reliance on automation removes an element of humanity from the workplace. At best, this leads to inaccurate assessments of people; at worse it’s degrading and dehumanising. Losing part of your autonomy at work is demotivating and erodes job fulfilment and satisfaction. This in turns leads to fatigue and anxiety, undermining workplace wellbeing.

When AI’s inflexible analysis casts doubt on the work of employees, questions arise about the relationship between people and tech. Which side of the relationship is respected by leaders? Is it their people or their systems? Which side is playing an automaton support role?

Effective workplace wellbeing

Spyware doesn’t just disrupt employees, it also implies that managers can’t identify individuals who aren’t pulling their weight. Smart managers know that better solutions are available, such as building a team they trust, setting clear deliverables for individuals, and enabling people to look after their mental and physical health.

According to the World Health Organization, “regular physical activity is proven to improve mental health, quality of life and wellbeing.” Exercise has also been shown to be associated with:

  • Increased self-esteem
  • Reduced stress
  • Reduced depression and anxiety
  • Improved quality of life

Workplace wellbeing strategies that offer gym memberships or yoga classes clearly recognise the benefits of exercise. But these advantages are brushed aside by poor practices such as surveillance or a toxic workplace environment. A one-step-forwards-two-steps-back approach to wellbeing is not sustainable.

At Working Voices, our analysis of the long-term causes of disengagement led us to develop a new approach to wellbeing. This focuses on encouraging a future-proof company culture that’s committed to sustainable working practices, inclusive leadership, and stronger engagement.

By helping individuals better connect with others through stronger trust, belonging, respect, and psychological safety, organisations are able to build a motivating sense of collaboration. We call this social wellbeing, the centrepiece of our Sustainable Human training programme.

Managing the impact of work is the responsibility of both employers and employees. Both have much to gain from an effective wellbeing strategy. Undermining it with poor workplace practices doesn’t help anyone in the long-run. A rounded, healthier approach to work leads to healthier, productive people.

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