Lessons from Lockdown

#1 Has working from home affected mental health and wellbeing?

COVID-19 has brought sweeping changes to all of our lives. Organisations and employees have been forced to adjust the way we work – very quickly. Kea Consultants recently carried out research to discover how different players on the buy-side have stepped up to the challenge and how investment professionals have responded. In a series of three articles, we focus on different areas of working life that have been affected by our ‘new normal’.

The pandemic has placed our mental health under the spotlight.  Over six months since the UK initially went into lockdown, we examine how we can maintain positive mental health and wellbeing as we work from home.

The big picture

A recent survey by Nuffield Health revealed that 80% of people working from home in the UK felt it had negatively impacted their mental health.

Contrary to this nationwide survey, our research found that the buy-side sector has positively embraced remote working. Funds have responded in different ways to the situation – some stepping up to the challenge and discovering innovative new ways of working, while others have been less responsive to the needs of their team.

Losing the commute

Pre-pandemic the average commute time in London was 81 minutes, but many were clocking up over two hours a day getting to and from work. For most investment professionals, removing the commute has equated to ‘gaining’ a couple of hours extra each day.

Respondents thought it had made a huge difference to their health, through better eating, exercise and sleep patterns. Lots of professionals used this ‘extra’ time to exercise or be with their families. Many people commented that being able to have meals with partners or put children to bed had a lasting, positive effect on their wellbeing.

Blurring of boundaries

One respondent commented that “the frontier between personal and professional life has completely blurred.” This idea was reflected in many responses, with some people highlighting their difficulties separating work and personal life.

Some professionals gave evidence of increased workload and micromanagement. Many also commented that there was an unnecessary amount of video meetings. Juniors sometimes felt they were ‘on call’ over and above their usual hours, which to begin with were already very lengthy.

At Kea, we believe a good way to counteract these negatives is to implement more structure. There should be a happy medium where managers are catching up with juniors so they’re in the loop, but not so much they feel unable to ever clock off. Calls should be scheduled where possible and stick to their allotted timeframe so juniors can feel prepared and more in control of their time. It is also important to remember that video calls are not the only way to communicate – phone calls, emails and chat functions work well, just as they would usually.

Staying social

It would be easy to assume that the lack of face-to-face interactions would negatively affect team cohesion and morale. Most people missed natural interaction with colleagues but had found new ways to connect with their team.

Many firms set up different initiatives to encourage cohesion and maintain team spirit. Technology plays a key part in this, apps that log exercise and wellness activities are used to incentivise positive activities and encourage teams to work together towards shared goals. Some firms offer company-wide classes of yoga, HIIT, or meditation over Zoom. As well as addressing wellness, these initiatives foster cross-company relationships and build a sense of community within the business. They can even bring in a competitive edge – a great fit with the investment industry!

For new starters onboarded remotely and more junior members of the team, virtual ‘coffees’, mentoring and learning opportunities are incredibly important. While keeping up dialogue is vital, too much artificial creation can end up being exhausting, and result in a drop in productivity. These ‘social’ calls can end up taking the too much time. Striking a balance here is crucial.

In several cases, investors mentioned they were having more social events now than before the pandemic. Others spoke of having more exposure to different teams and areas of their companies, rather than dealing solely with their immediate colleagues. The effort that funds have put into building and improving team relationships over the last months has largely mitigated any negative impact on mental health and, if continued, will help cement a strong culture.

Key learnings

On the whole, working from home has mostly been a positive experience for buy-side professionals. The lack of commute has helped to improve work/life balance for many. However, some professionals have struggled to separate work and home life and found it difficult to ‘switch off’, which has negatively impacted their wellbeing.

Social interactions, which play an important role in our mental health, have continued with many firms implementing new and innovative ways to keep teams positive, connected and happy.

An important lesson to come out of our research is that structure is paramount. Interactions, whether professional or social, need to be scheduled and prearranged so that professionals don’t feel swamped by video calls and chats that take up their entire working day.

We believe the positive way in which investors have faced and overcome the adversities bought on by the pandemic has highlighted what a flexible, responsive and resilient workforce we have in the investment industry.