As the global number of COVID-19 cases continue to propagate and economies worldwide grow increasingly unstable, it is becoming more difficult for people to stay motivated and productive. This is especially true for employees who have had to transition from the office to working at home, and the managers responsible for overseeing them.
Depending on personal lifestyles and dispositions towards technology and extraversion, this unprecedented mass transition to the home office has taken a toll on us all to varying degrees.
With working from home now mainstream, most of us have experienced making major adjustments to our living arrangements and daily routines – including setting up a home office and finding alternatives ways to contact friends and colleagues. Those with family and children to care for have needed to find ways to juggle both professional and private matters simultaneously under the same roof.
Undoubtedly, setting up clear boundaries between one’s work and personal life has been a challenge for many of us.
Read more: 6 Tips For Working From Home Productively
With a sudden, drastic change to one’s lifestyle and extreme uncertainty towards the future of society at large, inevitably comes a great deal of stress. And with great deals of stress, comes increased risk of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, emotional exhaustion and burnout.
The negative impacts of dysfunctional stress and neglecting the mental health of workers has been well-studied in the world of business academia. It comes with many costs to organisations, such as lowered efficiency, productivity and therefore, profitability.
The inability to meet with employees face-to-face and initiate organic conversations at the office makes it harder for managers to gain insight regarding their psychological wellbeing.
As such, it is vital to take a proactive stance, using the tools that are available to us, to stay connected with our remote coworkers, and ensure that we are coping with the ordeals that COVID-19 continues to present us, together.
Read more: Will working from home become permanent post COVID-19?
Mental health challenges faced by remote workers
1. Decreased socialisation and loneliness
Although working from home allows more flexibility in our timetables in terms of on-versus-off hours, it comes alongside the costs of forced social isolation; that is, not being able to see our friends and colleagues in-person indefinitely.
A key factor in job engagement and career satisfaction – two indicators of positive occupational mental health – is socialising with friends at work. While technology has thankfully advanced such that we can see and converse with our teammates virtually, it cannot replace the human warmth of spontaneous, face-to-face interactions during lunch and coffee breaks in the office.
Additionally, depending on individual aptitudes towards technology usage, those of us less comfortable in mobilising digital communication may unintentionally withdraw from work socialisation. In other words, these employees are at a higher risk of experiencing loneliness and job disengagement.
2. Adapting to new standards of work and maintaining productivity
Along with organising new ways to maintain regular contact with teams, it is also important to realign our expectations as to how much can realistically be accomplished working remotely.
Online meetings are likely to produce sub-optimal results compared to meetings at the office. People will experience poor internet connection every now and then. Trying to share a screen on Zoom could take up half the allocated meeting time. Decision making and creative idea generation may take days instead of hours.
Read more: OKRs - The goal-setting framework used by Google
All these logistical inefficiencies remind us of how much easier life would be if it were not for COVID-19. It can engender feelings of frustration, and even meaninglessness.
Harvard Business Review has also identified a phenomenon called “Zoom fatigue”. Conducting multiple video calls a day has been shown to be emotionally and psychologically taxing for a variety of reasons.
With these ideas in consideration, it is apparent that remote work life makes employees vulnerable to stress, owing to decreased productivity.
As such, while results and deadlines are critical to organisational prosperity, management should allow some level of leniency output is less than expected. More often than not, these unforeseen obstacles out of the workers’ control.
Furthermore, guidelines on how to perform tasks effectively can sometimes be unclear, adding to job stress. Workers may struggle to figure out by themselves the best way to achieve the desired results without the company’s office resources.
3. Financial uncertainty and job security
Chances are, we all know somebody who has lost their job or has had their hours or pay reduced due to COVID-19. And with the current downwards trend of economies, it is unsurprising that rates of anxiety about future finances and employment are on the rise.
As many organisations in the market struggle to stay afloat, employees cannot help but wonder: “Is it going to be me/us next?”
This constant fear of eventually being made redundant or having one’s salary reduced is a heavy burden on the mental wellbeing of employees. As we will discuss later, management must reassure their workers that employment statuses will not change unless otherwise indicated.
Since it feels like so many things seem to be going out of control, thoughts of helplessness are prone to emerge. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that employees are provided with as much information that is known, as early as possible. This way, they can have time to prepare and strategise for the future accordingly.
Read more: In a world of volatility, invest in employee engagement
Ways to help employees lower stress and manage their mental health
1. Incorporate social activities at group meetings
Coping activities work best when done collectively in a group.
This is why Alcoholics Anonymous, a non-profit organisation that helps its members recover from alcoholism, is so successful. They provide a safe community that facilitates social accountability and mutual support.
Although it is widely understood that regular communication with your remote employees is necessary, it may take further efforts to sufficiently manage their mental health.
We suggest experimenting with a short session of guided meditation or stretching before the commencement of any large group meetings.
Many people are aware of the benefits of regular meditation and getting up to stretch after long periods of sitting down, such as increased mental clarity, mindfulness and relaxation. However, the majority of us rarely actually do it on our own unless prompted.
By making it an official part of the agenda, companies may potentially see greater involvement and productivity during meetings, and a positive shift in employees’ moods in general.
2. Make it understood that it’s okay to have bad days
During this time, it is better to provide unconditional support in response to seeing somebody who is going through a motivational rut, as opposed to preaching resilience and willpower.
If a worker misses a deadline due to personal reasons, show compassion. People feel more empowered to work for a company that demonstrates empathy and understanding during their moments of weakness.
Compare this how they might feel if they were told “stay strong” and to carry on with a task, in spite of the overwhelming emotional hardship they are currently under.
Leaders who project warmth before strength are more likely to be respected and admired by their followers. Hence, how we encourage our employees is significant for management to consider when wishing to maintain high morale and organisational commitment.
3. Frequently give updates on organisational circumstances
Employees perceive a higher sense of control less anxious when they are regularly informed and contacted by management. This concerns both good and bad news.
They appreciate frankness and comprehensiveness, rather than attempts to hide unfavourable number and making the situation sound less dire than it actually is. It is imperative for helping to cope with the stress that employees know they can trust their organisation to give them timely and accurate information.
For companies that eventually need to announce mass dismissals or pay cuts, transparency is vital to avoiding resentment and indignation. The process undergone to come to the ultimate decision should be clearly articulated, and gratitude expressed to the affected employees.
4. Encourage optimism, not positivity
According to renowned author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek, the key to overcoming adversity is optimism. This is explicitly distinguished from being positive.
Positivity can often be received with bitterness because it pretends that things are okay when they are not. It ignores the harsh reality and valid negative emotions that people experience.
Read more: Growth mindset at work: Why and How?
On the other hand, optimism recognises that we are living in desperate times, but believes in a future where things will be better. Without being naïve, it promotes faith and hope that the current situation is temporary and that we can get through this.
Thus, we recommend that managers and leaders of organisations to empower their employees through advocating optimism, as it is believed to have a greater impact on managing stress and mental health.
The most successful companies that will come out of this crisis will be the ones that actively looked after the mental health of its workers. Though we may be working remote from each other, we still can strengthen and support one another to get through these difficult times.