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Mental Health Charities Can Lead the Way in Tackling Technostress at Work

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As mental health charities face an unprecedented surge in demand for services, are they in danger of ignoring the growing threat to their own wellbeing? 

If we are to believe the news, there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. But for mental health charities, the crisis is far from over. Demand for voluntary mental health services is at an all-time high, with some organisations currently reporting a 175% increase in requests for support (Source MIND). The sector will be under immense pressure for the foreseeable future. With the pressure still on to continue to deliver vital services, employees are feeling the impact.

A recent survey of charity employees covering the last 12 months reported over 94% had experienced stress or burnout, with over a third citing they feel pressure to take on more work throughout the pandemic. Particularly concerning for the mental health sector, four-fifths reported they were pushed to mental exhaustion when working for a cause that was going through crisis (Source Third Sector). In the face of adversity, organisations must do whatever they can to prevent internal frustrations and enable employees to focus on service users.

Mental health charities have turned to technology to help them through the pandemic. From switching to online service delivery to getting to grips with new productivity tools and systems – technology has enabled charities to continue to deliver their vital work despite the forced lockdown. But this isn’t without its pitfalls. When used incorrectly, technology can be an added stressor.

The term ‘technostress’ was first coined in 1984 by psychologist Craig Brod. It warned of the potential mental health issues associated with continuous contact with technology and IT systems to perform tasks, going far beyond tired eyes and ‘zoom-fatigue’. It’s characterised by the instant nature of technology and the blurring of lines between personal and professional time that leads to workaholism, a lack of productivity and exhaustion. Fast forward three decades, and it all sounds very familiar. Could creating a healthier digital-first culture be key in supporting your people through the ongoing mental health crisis? 

 Oliver Grig is the Operations Director at Gallery Partnership,  For Oliver, ensuring your IT solutions work in synergy with your people and organisational needs is the key.

“IT should be a help and not a hindrance. Too often, organisations throw in new systems thinking it will fix a problem and forget that there is a human at the other end; neither can work effectively without the other. Any new IT product, system or piece of software should enable your people to work smarter, not harder. For mental health charities juggling a huge surge in demand, it’s so important to make sure tech and IT systems help people be productive and don’t become another cause of stress.”

Mental health charities have long understood that their brands start from within. They have, naturally, long led the way in wellbeing support for their people. But as we’ve rapidly moved into a world where technology and software dominates, it’s important to adapt and think about the role technology plays in employee wellbeing – and where it can be used to improve it. Luckily, Oliver has some top tips on where organisations can start when beginning to create a digitally healthy work environment in the post-pandemic world.

Investing in tech? Invest in your people

Research conducted by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in 2019 showed that 52% of voluntary sector employees are missing the basic and advanced IT skills needed to perform their role (Source NCVO). A lot has changed since 2019 – and even more may be having trouble getting to grips with newly introduced systems.

It may be especially difficult for those used to working on the front-line and supporting service users face-to-face. This level of interaction and relationship-building with clients is likely why they dedicate their lives to the cause.

While software packages often come with some form of standard tutorial, it can’t replace one-to-one or bespoke training. For Oliver, it’s all about creating an individual training package that is linked to your organisations goals and tailored to the experience of your people.

 “When buying a new piece of tech or software, take the time to develop a tailored training plan for everyone who needs to use it. Asking people to train themselves using a set of generic videos is just adding to their workload at an already stressful time. Your organisation won’t get what they need out of it. Consider the technical abilities of your people and use this to gauge the structure.”

Simplify systems for the new normal

Numerous surveys have been conducted over the past year detailing how employees feel about the future of working. The results have been overwhelmingly unanimous – people want the flexibility to combine office and home working. And charities and businesses alike are listening, with over 40% likely to combine home and office post-COVID (Source Gartner). The newfound expectation that organisations offer increased home working is perhaps the silver cloud after a hurricane year. Now is the time to prepare.

Ensuring your mental health charities facilitates secure systems to undertake online delivery and offers a seamless blend between office and home will make life easier for your people and enable them to focus on providing quality mental health services for your clients.

Oliver recommends the solution can be found in introducing a cloud-based IT infrastructure.

“The charities that adapted best to the national lockdown were those that already had solid cloud-based IT systems in place. Many of our established clients using these systems found the switch to digital working easier from a technical perspective. As we move into a world where blended working becomes the norm, ensuring your people use the same interface wherever they may be based for that day will be so important in improving productivity and reducing tech-induced stress.” 

Collaborate and get productive

Our happiness at work is intrinsically linked to feeling productive – and the forced lockdown and the likely move towards more remote working in the future has been thought to increase employee isolation. However, Oliver’s clients haven’t felt this way. He warns that over-reliance on instant chat tools could have the opposite effect.

“Clients are telling us that they interact with each other more so than if they were in the office. As long as organisations don’t fall into the trap when implementing these type of communications systems that everyone is always available – they’re a positive addition to the team. That’s where integration with productivity tools become useful.”

Enter productivity and time management tools. They enable your people to set aside time for focussed work – whether that be writing up case notes, undertaking admin or project planning. These tools can be easily integrated with leading instant messaging systems to help teams understand the workload of others.

“There are a range of productivity tools available, so everyone in your team can see the progress of projects or cases. What’s great, especially in the new flexible-focused workplace, is they can set time aside for your people to work on specific tasks. Notifications can let the team know if each person is available. With these in place, it’s the organisations responsibility to create a culture that respects peoples availability and workload.”

Create a tech culture that promotes digital health

The last year has taught organisations across the board that technology can help them overcome challenges, throughout COVID and beyond. While mental health charities have acted quickly to implement systems that have helped them continue to operate, it’s important that they couple this with integrating digital health into their supportive cultures.

Oliver recommends implementing tech policies that enable an easier ‘switch-off’ from work, tackling the ‘always-on’ mentally an increased reliance on tech can bring to the workforce.

“Mental health workers already experience some of the highest levels of stress within the sector, even pre-lockdown when demand was more manageable. Because of the type of work they do, the people they encounter and the relationships they build, it can be hard to ‘clock-off’. This has only been exasperated by increased demand and pressure to support clients. However, you need your workforce to perform at their best. That means introducing policies to promote a healthy work-life balance. I’d recommend, where possible, providing your people with separate work devices. Beyond the security benefits, this gives people a line between work and personal time.”

However, the pandemic caught many organisations by surprise- and at a time when money is tight, purchasing work laptops and phones for everyone may not be possible. But there are other solutions.

“If your people are using personal devices, consider implementing systems such as remote desktops that require a login. This still helps draw a distinction and keeps work-related documents, messages and systems in a separate area requiring a login. It’s easy to get sucked into work when using a personal device. But there are numerous ways organisations can overcome this for the benefit of their people.”

IT doesn’t need to cost the earth

The pandemic hasn’t just been hard on your people. It’s likely your income has taken a hit too. 61% of health and social care charities reported an income drop of at least a third in the last year (Source National Voices). There is no mistaking that it will take time for the sector to recover. But that doesn’t mean that investment in technology and software needs to off-the-table.

For Oliver, the key lies in using your charity status. There are plenty of deals to be had without needing to make a case to break into the reserves.

“There are deals and discounts to be had. Many software companies provide huge charity discounts for software packages, including cloud-based infrastructures. These could even be free based on charity size. There is a perception that tech and software companies are out for what they can get. But actually, charities can take advantage of their CSR policies that are incredibly supportive to the Third Sector.” 

Another key tip from Oliver is to consider remanufactured hardware, which is significantly cheaper than purchasing new. However, he urges caution in ensuring you’re getting quality.

“The key to purchasing hardware at a reduced cost is looking for remanufactured products rather than refurbished. Remanufactured devices are completely rebuilt using a mixture of old and new components – to the same spec as they would be if they were purchased new. It’ll operate like a new device and be as secure as a new device. And charities can enjoy discounts of well over 50% compared to their brand-new counterparts.”

All in all… 

The move towards digital-first working is likely here to stay across the sector – including for mental health charities. The benefits to your service users and your operations are undeniable. But now is the time to take a look at the digital health of your workforce.

Investing in training, simplifying your systems and creating a healthy tech-led culture are the starting points organisations can look to in making the transition into the ‘new-normal’ easier and happier for your workforce. Focus on the people behind the tech – your staff and your service users will thank you for it.