Keeping the art of conversation alive

Blog posts

4 Feb 2021

Zofia Bajorek

Dr Zofia Bajorek, Research Fellow 

I have to admit, I’m a talker.  At school, my reports always contained phrases such as ‘Zofia participates enthusiastically in class’, or ‘Zofia is very sociable and enthusiastic’.  One English teacher once went as far to say ‘Zofia is orally gifted’!  It’s true – I really enjoy a good conversation, be it talking about what I watched on the television last night, or what projects I am working on (and geekily what we are finding), and even my mental health.  I have blogged previously on the importance of ‘talking’, and why at work it can be good to talk about mental health.  Little did I know when writing that last year, that within a few weeks life as we knew it changed dramatically, and suddenly many of us were living an enforced lockdown; and the way in which we worked and had to communicate with our colleagues all changed.  This time last year I had never even heard of ‘Zoom’, ‘Teams’ and any of the other multiple online chatting software that has been developed. 

Not surprisingly, the multiple lockdowns that we have experienced over this last year have had an impact on our mental health and may continue to do so in the long-term.  When IES launched our home working survey at the beginning of the first lockdown, we started to get some insight into the ways in which mental health was being affected:

  • 50% of respondents reported not being happy with their current work-life balance, 21% were concerned about their job security and 41% had concerns for family members.
  • 64% had lost sleep from worry and were reporting fatigue, 32% reported not being in good spirits, and 40% reported not feeling calm and relaxed.

There were also signs that some employees were experiencing social isolation.  Although this was only reported by 33% of our respondents, in the written responses, the lack of social communication with colleagues was clear.  People were missing talking.  The lack of face-to-face contact with colleagues, the inability to have a quick cup of coffee and a catch up and the fear of missing out on office chat was palpable.  But some comments were also more worrying, especially with regards to mental health.  One respondent said, “When I am at home, there is no-one to check in with me to make sure that all is Ok, especially when it’s not.  I have no-one to talk things over with confidentially.”

Every good conversation starts with good listening

Organisations are aware of the potential mental health implications of lockdown, and are offering more wellbeing benefits to employees.  And there has been the proliferation of ‘Zoom’ or ‘Teams’ meetings, with the hope that this could in some-way provide some semblance of social contact that some employees have been craving.  But alongside this, ‘Zoom fatigue’ has crept in.  On video-calls we do have to focus more intently on conversations, it is harder to pitch in with a quick comment, or to ask for clarification for comments.  How we process information also differs and we may have a ‘Zoom face’ to show that we are constantly engaged in the meeting and all this can be very tiring.  It’s also easier to lose focus over zoom – we can show that we are listening, but we can simultaneously be sending (and reading) e-mails, finishing reports, trying to finish some house tasks…  All of this can create barriers to ‘good conversations’ which can prohibit discussions, especially those around mental health and wellbeing, which many still have difficulties in initiating.

To overcome this, some technological companies are developing tools to ‘help’ managers become more aware of wellbeing issues that employees may be experiencing.  Now, I am all for innovation, but have concerns about whether these will actually help, or whether they discourage what could be most useful – a conversation.  The idea behind the Moodbeam bracelet is for employees to press yellow if they are feeling ‘happy’ or blue when ‘sad’ so managers can view an online dashboard to see how employees are coping, “so they can see whether staff are ok without picking up the phone”.  There are a number of concerns I have around this.  Firstly, mental health is not binary – it can fluctuate – sometimes hourly dependent on work stresses, home stresses, personal stresses.  These changes may not be captured by such technology, and so managers may still be none the wiser that an employee may be struggling.  Secondly, for some managers (especially for those who may not relish the people management aspect of management), this could be seen as ‘ticking the wellbeing box’, and they don’t have to engage further because employee wellbeing is being monitored.  This could then inhibit any further conversational interaction with employees.  Finally, for some organisations where there is not a culture of wellbeing, it may signify that management training to recognise and aid employee wellbeing is no longer needed because technology can cover this.

In times like this, initiatives like Time To Talk Day are perfect for reminding us about the importance of conversation, especially this year when people may be feeling more anxious, lonely or sad then usual.  Employees may be experiencing a range of stresses that they may find difficult to express not just because of stigma (that does sadly still exist), but because they may feel uncomfortable or too ‘zoom fatigued’ to do so.  But there are other ways.  Managers can reach out through e-mails and phone calls (old school I know) to help start that conversation, to let employees know that there is someone there and raise the awareness of the importance of mental health and wellbeing at work.  This move to initiate a conversation may be the simple trigger that an employee needs to open up, or disclose something that is worrying them.   Of course, what comes next is also important.  As Peter Drucker once said: “The most important thing about communication is to hear what isn’t being said”.  If employees know that they will receive a human and empathetic response, and not feel they will be judged for disclosing they may be more open to that conversation, and hopefully feel really listened to afterwards.

So, on this Time To Talk Day, let’s keep the art of conversation alive.  Check-in on colleagues. Engage in conversations. Ask how someone is.  You may not realise just how helpful that conversation could be.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.