Supporting Your Employees’ Mental Health While They Work from Home

April 15, 2020 • Previsor

This post is related to COVID-19. For more, visit Missouri Employers Mutual’s COVID-19 Resource Center for Employers.

Across the country, COVID-19 has impacted thousands of businesses. To slow the spread of the virus – and protect public health – remote work is the top recommendation. Nearly half of all North American employees are now working from home.

However, working from home means changes to regular routines, and extended time away from friends and coworkers.  It can challenge the mental wellness of many employees.

On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we sit down with Employee Assistance Program Crisis Manager Terri Sitrin. She is on staff at New Directions Behavioral Health, which offers wellness services to employees through employer programs. She has provided crisis response leadership at local, national, and international levels. Sitrin responds to large-scale crisis events – like natural disasters and pandemics – and sets up emotional first aid.

First, we’ll cover the steps you should follow when setting employees up to work from home. Then, we’ll talk about common challenges employees face – and signs they may be struggling. Finally, we’ll share tips on what employees can do to help themselves.

Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.

Working from home: A new experience for employees

For most employees, remote work isn’t a common experience. Winter weather or a brush with seasonal sickness can encourage them to work from their home office for a day or two. But COVID-19 has introduced the idea of working from home long-term. Sitrin pointed out that at home, the small cues that help employees get into the right mindset for work disappear.

“When working from home, it will likely not be as easy to communicate with other people,” Sitrin said. “This could be a major stumbling block.” These cues, like morning traffic, the sights and sounds of the office, and even a shared cup of a coffee with a coworker, help switch the mind into work mode. Without them, some employees are left scrambling.

Home settings are full of distractions. “When people choose to work in their comfy chair, they may not work in the same mindset, or be as diligent as they would be in the office.” Housework, like laundry and dishes, is always present in the background.

Employees are also sharing work spaces with a new cast of coworkers: partners, children, and even family pets. Those who don’t have separate work space may find that their kitchen table is the place where they work, eat, and teach. Other employees may face isolation, at home alone and disconnected from their teams.

To ease the transition, employers need to make sure that employees have the essentials they need when working from home.

How can employers prepare their staff to work from home?

Sitrin identified four key elements employees need when working from. Employers should work with their workforce to make sure everyone has equal access to the following:

  1. Equipment. Make sure that employees have the important items they need to work, like computer monitors, headsets, etc.
  2. Clear communication. Communicate with staff about work hours and expectations. Make sure that they can reach you, whether by phone or message, if they need help or have questions.
  3. Flexibility. Employees may need flexibility as they share their spaces with partners and care for children. Be willing to have conversations about alternate work times.
  4. Problem-solving. Check in regularly with employees. Talk about their home situation and how they are feeling during their time working remotely. Help them identify any issues and step up to help work out solutions.

Setting employees up for success long-term

Employees aren’t the only ones who face unknown challenges when working from home. For many employers, it can be hard to manage a team that is working remotely. For Sitrin, it is vital for employers to have faith in their teams. “I think management needs to recognize that they will have less control in many ways,” she added, “And they need to be okay with that.”

There are new tools that allow employers to know when their employees are on the computer or phone. However, if you micromanage your employees, then it may lead to more stress for your team. Employees need to know that you support and believe in them.

Encourage employees to develop behaviors that will set them up for long-term success. Sitrin recommends that for anyone working from home, the following tips can help establish a new normal:

  • Get dressed every day.
  • Set up a dedicated work space.
  • Set boundaries for work hours.

Female hand on a laptop keyboard

Highs and lows: How to have the right mindset while working from home

The most important thing to remember about working from home is that it is a temporary solution. Sitrin encourages people to focus on each day as it comes. Family, friends, and faith communities can also provide critical support. It can also be easy to develop poor habits and odd routines while working at home. Maintaining a good diet and getting enough sleep can help keep you on the right track.

Staying connected

Working from home means seeing less of your teams. To combat this, schedule time to meet – and catch up – with coworkers. Tools like Zoom and Skype allow anyone to meet face-to-face. However, those who don’t want to be on camera shouldn’t be pressured to do so. “Now the fact is,” Sitrin established, “some people don’t want to be seen.” A good middle ground is to set a profile picture. This adds the feeling of being in the meeting without having the video camera on.

When it comes to staying connected, half of the battle is trying. “Make a conscious effort to reach out to others, and don’t just wait for them to reach out to you,” Sitrin said.

Signs you might be struggling

Despite our best efforts, working from home long-term has a different effect on everyone. According to Sitrin, you may be starting to struggle if you experience the following:

  • Addiction (to alcohol, nicotine, etc.)
  • Anger
  • Isolating yourself
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of interest in hobbies
  • Overeating or under-eating
  • Trouble getting out of bed

Employees who may have been struggling before transitioning to remote work need the support of their employers the most now. Help can be found by talking to someone they trust, like a family member or friend. Counseling is also an option. Employers who have an employee assistance program, like New Directions, can encourage employees to go there for anonymous help.

Common distractions

For those who are wearing the hats of employee, parent, and teacher, home can become a place full of unwanted distractions. Sitrin recommends focusing on what you have control of – and being realistic about others. Often, we put pressure on ourselves to present the perfect image. But coworkers usually understand when a barking dog or needy child interrupts a call.

“Expecting kids to be quiet for eight hours is not realistic,” Sitrin added. There’s no way to remove every distraction. Schedule breaks to spend time with a partner or children. A work from home day can mean hours spent on the computer or phone. Dedicate time to going tech-free, such as mealtimes, to get out of work mode.

Finding a remote work routine that works

To stay well while working from home, it’s key to find a good routine. If something isn’t working, then it may be time to change. Sitrin recommends helping employees find what works for them and encouraging them to stick to it. Avoid developing habits that can become a problem later. Working from home isn’t an end – it is an opportunity to learn how to better manage your time and get creative.

Support your employees and set them up with the tools they need. Then trust in them to get the job done.

For more, check out our tips to avoid work-related injuries at home and other episodes of the WorkSAFE Podcast.

April 15, 2020
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