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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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.