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How to take care of your remote team’s mental health

An HR consultant offers tips for managers on how to support the mental health and wellbeing of remote workers.

From working at home full-time for the better part of the year to adjusting to the ever-evolving pandemic, life this year has been defined by stress and exhaustion for most people.

In a 
survey, the mental healthcare provider Ginger found that almost 70 percent of employees said “the coronavirus … (COVID-19) pandemic is the most stressful time of their entire professional career.”

This isn’t surprising. Employees are navigating a once-in-a-century pandemic, a quickly changing economy, virtual learning for their children, and countless other changes that were unimaginable 12 months ago.

All of that stress is having a decided impact on our mental health and productivity. And it’s led some to 
call attention to large scale “burnout” among millions of workers.

For managers and workplace leaders, there are opportunities to support your team’s mental health and wellbeing amid the uncertainty — even if your teams are fully remote.

Below, we’ll cover:

The psychology behind stress

Stress is the mind and body’s primary mechanism for dealing with outside challenges and threats.

But where stress evolved to help deal with physical threats, the brain and nervous system do an exceptionally bad job of seeing the difference between “daily stressors and life-threatening events,” 
explains the medical platform company Practo.

So while the fight-or-flight reaction might be helpful when you’re facing a wolf or predator, it can be a little less useful when you’re confronting a deadline at work — or navigating a pandemic, concerns about job security, and radically reimagined home life.

Research shows that the human brain has evolved three central ways to deal with stress:

  • Social interaction is “our most evolved strategy,” according to Practo, and ranks highest among the ways people can effectively deal with stress. Our brains are hardwired to treat positive social interactions as a calming experience that can help mitigate stress. Positive social interactions can also help people avoid falling into a fight-or-flight response.

  • Fight or flight, clinically called mobilization, is a less evolved mental mechanism than social engagement and is the most common response to stress. Much as the name implies, this stress response leads to an uptake in adrenaline as the body prepares energy to defend itself from an external danger. When we’re stressed and unable to speak with friends or loved ones, we’ll often resort to a fight-or-flight response which, over time, can cause “stress overload and have a detrimental effect on both your physical and mental health.” 
  • Freezing, referred to clinically as immobilization, is the most basic evolutionary response to an external stressor and, much as the name implies, involves physically freezing. “You may find your traumatized or ‘stuck’ in an angry, panic-stricken or otherwise dysfunctional state,” Practo says. We’ll often find ourselves frozen when denied opportunities for social interaction and past the point of engaging in a fight-or-flight response.

The coronavirus pandemic has created countless stressors for many people. At the same, the most effective available methods of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic — social distancing and shutdown orders — have also deprived people of social interaction, making navigating stress more difficult.

That has led to a “collective fraying of mental health” for office workers in particular, 
according to Axios, as the stresses of work become enwrapped in the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic.    

What employees are navigating now

From canceled vacation plans to isolated holidays and dozens of Zoom meetings, office workers are navigating a radically different work world — and it’s having an effect.


“If your team enters 2021 exhausted and end-of-rope from 2020, they won’t have the urgency, creativity, and resilience you need to have a strong year," 
says Deidre Paknad, the CEO and co-founder of the software company Workboard.

Where some have sought to balance childcare and work with a spouse, others have spent the better part of the year turning studio apartments into offices — or sharing personal workspaces like the kitchen table with roommates.

But if the symptoms of widespread burnout are easy to see, the causes vary per person. Resilience coach L. Barbour enumerates 
some common causes of burnout, which include lack of structure, social isolation, and distractions. All of these make it more difficult for employees to adapt to the remote working arrangement and accomplish their tasks.

For managers, it helps to think through a few common causes of stress their remote teams are likely dealing with.

These include:

  • Poor work-life balance. Where working from home was once seen as a vehicle to a better work-life balance, the large scale move among companies to adopt remote work coincided with regional shutdowns across much of the world.

    The result: People are now working longer hours and taking less time off. Where early headlines heralded the productivity boost companies were finding as people transitioned to remote work, studies now show that increased productivity boost carries the cost of a deteriorating work-life balance.

    This has been compounded by the economic anxiety some office workers are feeling, leading them to work longer hours because they’re concerned about job security. 
  • Overscheduled days. A common refrain among remote workers throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been “Zoom fatigue” with Google searches for the term skyrocketing since early March. While video conferencing has its own issues, the larger problem has been overscheduled days for many office workers.

    In a 
    study, Quartz found companies have seen a notable 40 percent uptick in employee meetings. That’s led many to deal with back-to-back video-conferencing meetings throughout the day, which the Harvard Business Review has found to be more taxing and stressful than in-person meetings.

  • A lack of social interaction. It largely goes without saying that COVID-19 has made socializing with friends and family more difficult. Whether due to regional shutdowns, social distancing guidelines, or health concerns, the coronavirus pandemic has upended much of our normal avenues to socialize with friends, family, and colleagues.

    In a study, the University of Michigan found that 60 percent feel they lack social interactions and 41 percent report feeling isolated. While this trend largely impacts older adults, it has a variety of implications for office workers.
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  • Household stress. From parenting stress to roommate troubles and workday anxieties, households around the world have become a little bit more stressful during COVID-19, due in no small part to the house’s new role as both living quarters and office.

    Working parents, in particular, 
    have faced significant challenges throughout COVID-19 as they have balanced the roles of part-time teachers, full-time parents, and full-time employees.

    But for anyone living with others, COVID-19 has proved challenging. Between sharing workspaces and living quarters, people have also largely lost the ability to escape the house to socialize with others. The result? Stress compounded by boredom.

7 strategies to support your employees’ health and wellbeing

If you found yourself suddenly managing a remote team during COVID-19, your first response may have been to immediately schedule meetings with each team member and set up additional team meetings.

This isn’t necessarily wrong. But supporting your employees’ health and wellbeing starts with trust and compassion — not solely working to ensure their productivity.

Here are a few ways you can help your team work remotely during COVID-19.

Schedule regular check-ins

Communication shouldn't be limited to only work-related topics, as less formal conversations provide a great opportunity to see how employees are coping and if there's any way you can help.

To this end, you can hold a check-in video call with your team and one-on-one meetings with each employee — preferably, at least once every two weeks.

These meetings shouldn’t be entirely focused on work, either. Being personable can go a long way to ensuring each employee — and your team — feels appreciated.

Francesca Cassidy writes on Raconteur that creating space and allotting time to listen to your employees can do a lot for their mental health.

You should also ask work-related questions such as “Is there anything I can do to help you at work right now?” and “What are struggling with most?” These types of questions can help unearth potential areas for improvement on your team and at your company.

Whatever communication method you follow, staying connected with your employees will help them feel supported by both you and the company amid this challenging time.
 

Reduce the number of meetings in a day

If a glut of video conferencing meetings is one of the banes of remote work during COVID-19, there’s a simple solution: Cut down the number of meetings.

"What we heard most about burnout is that every single second is scheduled," 
says Deidre Paknad, the CEO of Workboard. "There's no time to think."

Some companies are actively encouraging employees to take a break from Zoom, 
according to the Wall Street Journal. Others are blocking off meeting-free time to help their employees catch up on work, exercise and, in some cases, meals.

Speaking with Axios, Marissa Shuffler Porter, a work psychologist at Clemson University, says, "People always go to video-conferencing, and we need to not do that … we’re really burning people out on it."

Instead, it can be helpful to think through other communication avenues before scheduling a Zoom meeting. Sometimes, an email or Slack message or even a phone call is faster than a video chat.
 

Make job security a conversation

Between the economic struggles that COVID-19 has unleashed and weekly headlines about unemployment numbers, quite a few people are stressed about their job security.

Indeed, a survey by Headspace found that at least 70 percent of Americans fear that they'll lose their jobs as the economic repercussions due to the pandemic worsen.

While managers might not have all the answers or be able to share what they know, it can be helpful to make job security a transparent conversation with direct reports.

This can include talking about the resources a company may have to support long-term growth or business plans that positively impact your team.

The important thing: Being open with your team doesn’t mean you need all the answers. By just starting the conversation, you can do a lot to mitigate potential anxieties.

Be considerate of team members who care for others at home

While times are indeed tough for everyone, your remote team members with children or older adults in their homes might be having an even harder time.

The Education Trust reports that 76 percent of public school parents are experiencing high levels of stress because of the pandemic.

It’s your job as a manager to check-in and make sure that you are supporting these employees. Take some time to communicate with your team members who are in this situation to figure out what their schedules are like.

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For instance, if a member needs to check up on their elderly parent during the afternoon, a teammate can take on (or exchange) a task to accomplish during that time.

Overall, being open to giving your employees flexibility to manage their own days can do wonders to helping them maintain a healthy work-life balance.

Go for group fitness

It goes without saying that exercising is extremely beneficial for our physical health. But it can do a world of good for our mental health, too.

Research shows 
a strong connection between mental health and exercise and how breaking a sweat can help stimulate the body's production of endorphins and enkephalins — otherwise known as the natural feel-good hormones. Plus, it's a great way to release any tension.

While hosting a virtual exercise class might be difficult, encouraging your team to take time to exercise can pay dividends — both for their mental health and productivity.

It’s the work done, not the hours worked

Headlines have heralded the productivity boost companies are seeing in response to remote work — and part of this comes down to the fact that employees now have greater flexibility to set their own schedules.

As a manager, it’s important to understand that not all work will be done between 9:00AM and 5:00PM. It’s also important to give your employees active permission to sign off at night and retain a work-life balance.

Even still, it can pay dividends to focus more on the work your team is doing and focus less on the hours they’re working.

Don’t be afraid to celebrate weekly triumphs in team meetings and compliment your team on the work they’re doing either.

By focusing on the impact your team is making to the business, regardless of the hours they’re working, you can build confidence among your employees — and cut down on any stress they may be feeling to be on call during traditional business hours.

Encourage mental health days

Sometimes, you'll find that the mental burden your remote work employees are carrying can get too heavy. But even if they're overwhelmed, they might keep it to themselves.

In 2019, 
Thrive Global noted that only 30% of employees are comfortable about talking to their managers about their mental health — and that was before COVID-19.

To prevent your employees from burning out, consider offering "mental health days" to decompress and unwind. This is especially important considering 
most employees are foregoing vacation days.

By encouraging your employees to take time off as they need it, you can help support their mental health and wellbeing.

And don't forget to be proactive. If you see a member struggling, offer them the day off to rest and recharge.
 

Take this with you 

The coronavirus pandemic forced many companies to adopt remote-work policies practically overnight. The result has been a variety of new stresses and anxieties — and unexpected productivity boosts, too.

For managers, the transition to remote work has elevated the need to offer employees greater flexibility, meaningful connection with colleagues, and time away from work, too.

A manager’s role is to ensure their team has everything they need to accomplish the work in front of them. While COVID-19 has changed how managers can do this, it has also underscored the fact that mental health and wellbeing are two critical ingredients to employee success — and need to be factored into this new world of work.

Learn more about the importance people place on meaningful connection at the office in our latest report, COVID-19 is accelerating the demand for flexibility and meaningful connection.

Oct 7 2020

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