SOME of the best-known employers in Hampshire have been sharing their experience of home working and looking out for staff’s mental health.

Southampton law firm Paris Smith, which last year produced a white paper called The Workforce of the Future, held an online discussion about leadership through the pandemic.

Julie Breakell, director of KPMG on the south coast, said: “We’ve just tried to keep the hope alive with the communications. Everybody seems to be in a routine where we’re used to lockdown. We’re trying to do fun things together, not just leadership chats and touch points but as groups in various different offices we’re trying to do social things virtually as well.”

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She said the business was looking at the future of office life. “What do we do with our office space? How do we make that into a more collaborative space where people go and just meet, so you’re going to the office for a purpose rather than just go and sit and work in the office?” she said.

Gail Thomas, managing director of TW Metals in Nursling Southampton, said not every firm could accommodate widespread home working.

“You have all this in the press saying everybody’s really good at working from home and everybody should have that choice, but actually I’m not able to give that choice to an awful lot of employees in the business and you can have some employees feel disaffected because they don’t get that choice,” she said.

James Cretney, chief executive of Marwell Wildlife, said: “We have some difficulties. If your job is to feed a tiger, you’re not taking it home with you, that’s the obvious reason. That’s why we’ve got a lot of folk who we can’t furlough.

“We’ve increasingly moved towards more remote working. We’ve got a lot of scientists on our payroll who are very output-led.”

He added: “We’ve tried to be a more inclusive employer in terms of working from home and flexi-hours so we’re on that road anyway.”

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The event, chaired by Paris Smith managing partner Peter Taylor, also discussed supporting staff mental health in lockdown.

Claire Merritt, employment law partner at Paris Smith, said: “We’re all going through the same storm but we’re all in different boats. So some of us are in our lovely super cruisers and some of us are in cruise ships and some of us are in battleships and some of us are in a canoe desperately pouring out the water as it’s coming over the sides of the boat.”

She added: “Most employers think they’re dealing with mental health in the workplace really well during the pandemic. Something like 60 per cent thought that was something they were dealing with well – and then of their workforce, about 20 per cent thought they were dealing with mental health really well.”

Graham Wade, managing director of Draper Tools in Chandlers Ford said: “Wellbeing was being talked about in the previous few years, but mental health, if we’re all honest, it was ‘If I show that I’m struggling at work, will my boss think less of me or will they not earmark me for future progression?’

“That’s gone and we’ve got mental health champions across the business, we’ve got mental health first aiders and also our team leaders and managers have had mental training so that you can hopefully spot things.”

He added: “The guideline from government is if you cannot do your job at home then you should go to work and I would defend to the hilt somebody who really was struggling with their mental health and wellbeing at home and felt more comfortable coming into the office.”

Simon Fox, head of the law school at Solent University, warned that leaders needed to set the right boundaries with staff and refer people to help “A lot of people, particularly at managerial and leadership level, particularly if they’re authentic types of leaders, will be wanting to help, they will be wanting to empathise further and further. The next thing you know, is you’re developing this relationship with somebody and you’re trying to help them but you’re not a mental health professional,” he said.

James Cretney added: “We’ve got to be careful here that this pendulum doesn’t swing so far in one direction that we become paralysed with this, because an awful lot of people are incredibly resilient, incredibly creative, they love their work they love being part of the community.

“It’s really tough right now but what they need is the encouragement that we will get through this together, there is always help here for you, we’ll take you very, very seriously and we’ll give you what comfort you need but also we don’t want to invade your space and smother you.”