How to support your employees dealing with ‘pingxiety’

Brendan Street - Nuffield Health

Brendan Street Nuffield Health

Brendan Street – Nuffield Health

With the spike in UK citizens having to isolate due to being ‘pinged’ by the NHS app, Brendan Street, Professional Head of Emotional Wellbeing at Nuffield Health, spoke to Business Leader about the issue.

As the UK’s COVID restrictions have eased, we’ve entered a new pandemic of isolation. Almost 700,000 people are believed to have been ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid-19 app in one week, requiring a period of quarantine.

While it’s causing disruption for businesses – with returning employees again forced to avoid the office – it’s also impacting mental health.

Employers must acknowledge the distress caused by the ongoing ‘pingdemic’ and support those dealing with both isolation and uncertainty.

Dealing with ‘pingxiety’

Returning to the office hasn’t brought the instant normality many hoped. In addition to anxiety around returning to busy offices, the ‘pingdemic’ has added the uncertainty that we may be suddenly required to self-isolate.

It’s leaving many, either in a constant heightened state of stress. “What if I get pinged”, or thinking about changing behaviour (socialising less) or considering not using the NHS app. Navigating regular office activities whilst facing the looming worry of what will happen if we’re required to self-isolate is an additional psychological load for employees.

When facing these periods of uncertainty, it’s important to minimise the potential for “what if” type thinking by controlling what we can control. Employers have a responsibility to help individuals manage this, by reassuring them about the steps they are taking to keep the office safe and signposting them towards the resources on offer to help them manage stress.

This may include physical interventions such as regular handwashing stations and a rota for office working, so employees know exactly how many people are going to be in each day.

Similarly, signposting employees towards the emotional support on offer can equip them with the coping mechanisms needed to handle and bounce back from periods of uncertainty.

This can start by ensuring a workplace culture within which employees feel that a conversation about mental health is both welcomed and expected. This requires employers to feel empowered to enable better conversations about mental health in the workplace.

For example, Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) and timely access to effective psychological therapy (such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). These interventions can be delivered remotely or face to face and give individuals access to a specialist who can help them understand and break unhelpful thinking patterns and “what if” thinking that may exacerbate stress in uncertain times.

Unexpected isolation

Getting ‘pinged’, or the thought of it happening, is stressful. Despite the disruption of the last year – and the mental fitness many of us developed to cope with it – the unexpected disruption of isolation presents a new set of problems, with no time to prepare.

Challenges inherent to the ‘pingdemic’ include loneliness of isolation, possible enforced remote working, lack of structure and financial worries. For those thrown suddenly into quarantine, it may mean spending a significant period alone. Especially sociable individuals may struggle with this prospect.

Businesses have a duty to make sure their staff don’t feel alone. Line managers should maintain regular contact and make reasonable adjustments to adapt meetings or projects to include everyone. For example, hosting team calls over a video chat service – even if some colleagues remain in the office – means remote workers don’t miss out on important updates.

Planning for the possibility of ‘pinging’ also relieves some of the uncertainty for employees, giving them a foundation to fall back on if the worst happens.

It’s key to let all employees know it’s okay if they’re asked to self-isolate and that it can’t be helped. Then, put into place measures to mitigate disruption, like nominating a line manager for individuals to report to throughout their isolation period and encouraging all work to be saved online so remote workers can pick up tasks from anywhere.

Normalising the idea of unexpected remote working alleviates some stresses for employees, who can hit the ground running with their work, stay connected to their teams and ultimately return to their peak mental fitness despite the uncertainty.