Before the pandemic, workers struggled with the stress of long commutes, overtime, and the regular navigation of their work/life balance. However, since the world has shifted to a remote work environment for those not deemed an essential service worker, a new set of stressors has cropped up to replace the old while working from home.
As these stressors are new for most of the population, the challenges and their impact can be harder to recognize, making them more challenging for companies to combat.
On the other hand, remote workers have been tackling the difficulties inherent in working outside the office structure for years. As a result, many of their experiences and coping mechanisms can assist the rest of us in finding new ways to adapt.
The Most Common Strains of Remote Work
As COVID-19 forced many of us to retreat from our office and rely solely on video conferencing interactions, new challenges were to be expected. However, our time working from home has extended beyond what any of us initially thought possible. Early warning signs have transitioned over the last year into two major mental health themes, isolation and burnout. Each of which can weigh heavily on your team in different ways.
When the work-from-home orders began, many of us had no idea that we would soon be asked to give up all of our social outings, sporting events, restaurants, and activities. Very quickly we found ourselves at home with only immediate family members for company while navigating and adjusting to the unprecedented circumstances. However, after the early transition period, many people started to experience feelings of isolation and a disconnect with both their personal and professional lives.
Psychologists have long considered our extended networks, which they call “weak ties,” essential to our sense of community belonging. In 2014, Gillian Sandstrom and Elizabeth Dunn published a paper that reinforced the idea that while interactions with our close connections help us be happier, our routine association with these weak ties helps connect us to our community and feel part of something bigger.
As we’ve continued to feel more removed from our community, persistent feelings of loneliness have developed. In 2019, Buffer’s State of Remote Work Report found that even though most employees favoured at least some remote working allowance, it also highlighted that 19 percent of those who were predominantly remote workers experienced feelings of loneliness. They had a lack of regular connection to the weak ties usually fulfilled by participation in office culture. In 2020, with most of the workforce suddenly becoming remote, loneliness has gone from being a concern to a potential mental health epidemic that employers need to keep an eye on and support where possible.
Before the pandemic, the benefit of maintaining regular office hours was that you knew when the workday was supposed to begin and end. Now, with most offices operating completely virtually, it requires more discipline to delineate when you’re on the clock and when you’re not. With their office ten feet from where they relax, many workers are spending longer hours engaged in company related business activity.
Of course, there was some concern in the pre-COVID days of 2019 that one of the downsides of remote work was the potential for burnout. A study on remote workers conducted by DigitalOcean, a year before the lockdown, found that this group was slightly more likely to experience being burnt-out at 66 percent than 64 percent for those who go into an office daily.
As we pass the anniversary of widespread work-from-home orders in Canada, it’s becoming clear that burnout is increasing exponentially. A study by The Office Group, out of the UK, found that among workers 50 and older, 48 percent reported not being able to take “a proper break” since the lockdown started. The same study found that nearly half (49 percent) of those surveyed said they have gone so far as to quit a job due to stress, and over a quarter (29 percent) would be open to taking unpaid leave if they were faced with burnout.
It’s become apparent that with our current working situation, companies are going to need to develop strategies to assist their staff in coping. It’s not enough to assume they are taking the downtime they need to maintain their health. Human Resources departments could be faced with sudden staff shortages if they don’t develop methods to prevent staff burnout.
What You Can do to Help Yourself
Even as things seem to be on an upward trajectory due to the release and distribution of a vaccine, we are still likely to see several more months of working remotely ahead of us. With this in mind, employees need to take care of their mental health and get the support they need.
Separate Work life and Personal life
Separating home-life and work-life can be challenging when they are located under the same roof. However, finding ways to make them feel different can go a long way in maintaining balance. If your home allows for it, be sure to set up your office away from where you relax with family. Preferably select a room with a door that enables you to focus on work during business hours and close it off at the end of the day.
If you have to work at the kitchen table, be sure that after your business day is finished, you pack up everything work-related and put it away where you won’t be tempted to open it up again until the morning. Having a clear distinction between work and leisure time helps ensure that you do both of them well.
Create a routine
Human beings need a sense of structure in their day to feel productive. When working from home, try to replicate a similar schedule or work flow you once used within your office. By maintaining some semblance of normality, you stay motivated and can better draw the line between working hours and leisure time.
Let the Sunshine In
In most office cultures, getting to sit near a window is a sign of prestige and seniority. One of the benefits of working from home is that more employees can set themselves up to work closer to a natural light source and reap all the mental health benefits that come from proximity to sunlight. However, if your best option for a private home office is in the basement or a room without a lot of sunlight, be sure to take regular sunshine breaks.
Structure Your Workstation Properly
As office culture became more ubiquitous in western culture, the study of Ergonomics helped us better understand how to make the best of sitting at a desk for long hours. Over the years, we’ve evolved office furniture that supports and enables us to be productive and reduce the body’s risk of repetitive injury. With an indefinite work from home order in effect, ensuring you have the proper setup within your home office is critical. Be sure to ask your supervisor if equipment can be expensed or borrowed from the office. If not, investing in a quality office chair may save you years of back pain in the future.
One of the best ways to stay productive is to ensure you take regular breaks. With spring around the corner and temperatures rising, stepping outside for a short walk around the neighbourhood is a simple and effective way to recharge. From Aristotle to Thoreau to Beethoven, many very productive historical figures recognized the benefits of walking for their overall sense of well-being. Just be sure to keep your social distance from all the other saunterers out there.
Practice Good Nutrition
One of the benefits of working from home is that your kitchen is close at hand, and you don’t have to choose between a hastily prepared sandwich and chips or a calorically dense trip to the pizza joint around the corner. With a few smart grocery shopping choices, you can have a wide selection of healthy foods on hand to stave off any cravings before they derail your diet. And if you’re not feeling up to it, there is now a wide array of local healthy meal prep services that would gladly stock your kitchen with wholesome foods. While science continues to affirm the links between healthy eating and good mental health, having easy access to good food makes it much easier to stick with it.
Our sedentary lifestyles have long been understood to be harming our mental health. Doctors have been telling us for years that finding small ways to add exercise into our day can improve our mood considerably. Adding thirty minutes of strenuous activity to your day will help keep your body healthier in the long run and do wonders for your mood in the short term.
What Companies Can do to Help Their Employees
If you manage a team of suddenly remote staff, there are several things you can do to help them navigate this new world of work. And while some of these ideas may require buy-in from the senior management team, you can make many small gestures that can help tremendously.
While it has been said that nobody needs another Zoom meeting added to their day, finding ways to check-in with team members one-on-one can go a long way to making them feel supported. A quick email, a funny gif over Slack, or a brief phone call just to ask how they’re doing is sometimes all it takes. Letting them know your door is always open, even if it’s now virtual, can help your employees feel like they’re still part of a team.
Mental Health programming
Some companies have mental health services as part of their benefits program. In which case, sending a reminder to all staff that this is something they have access to if they need assistance can go a long way in making them feel supported. Supposing your company doesn’t have these benefits, a great option is to work with the management team to make online counselling sessions available for staff throughout the pandemic. Services like betterhelp and Talkspace are just two online platforms that affordably connect people with qualified therapists through video sessions.
Home office supports
With staff working from home, it’s essential that they have the tools they need to be productive team members. For small groups, it can be easy to create a furniture sign-out program to let them borrow quality chairs or their office monitors. Larger organizations may want to invest in limited expense accounts for employees to get the furnishings they need to be productive. It’s also a good idea that the company ensures its cybersecurity policies are being followed. For many organizations, this has meant providing laptops to employees who were previously working on a desktop.
Mental Health Breaks
With the always-on video culture that has been created around Zoom meetings, it can be challenging for staff to feel like they can step away for a quick break. A great solution is to institute a company-wide shut down for half an hour, once a day. During this time, no one is to be working, and everyone is encouraged to do something not work-related. By making it a break for everyone, the entire team can genuinely relax for thirty minutes and then come back ready to go.
While it’s essential to maintain a regular schedule, allowing for some flexibility in those hours can go a long way to making people’s lives a little better. Parents who have to get small children situated may need a bit more time in the morning. Whereas some team members may want to get going a little earlier so they can head out for a walk with their partner before the winter sun goes down. Either way, allowing staff to flex around a core set of hours can make a huge difference in how they feel.
Video Optional Policy
A simple but highly effective policy change is to encourage staff members, who are not presenting, to turn off their video camera during large team meetings. The pervasive nature of video conferencing in our lives right now has had the effect of making people feel that they are always-on, and it’s exhausting. Obviously, in small groups, it’s good to be able to see each other on camera. However, in large all-staff meetings, you’ll find employees are more engaged with the content if they aren’t thinking about being watched simultaneously.
At LRO Staffing, we are leveraging our 16 years of industry experience to help companies and their staff navigate this new world of work. We’ve supported organizations as they figure out the best ways to hire the people they need during these challenging times, and we’ve helped job seekers adapt to the new landscape for getting hired. Furthermore, our team has helped HR professionals create the policies they need for our changing employment landscape, and we are here to support you. Get in touch with us to learn more about how we can put our expertise to work for you.