It's no secret that everyone is under a great deal of stress right now. Covid-19, personal finances, the economy, distance learning, job responsibilities, child care: These are just a few of the factors that are contributing to poorer mental health and higher stress levels.
During any time of high unemployment, people are often afraid to take vacation, request work flexibility, or advocate for their work-life balance, mental health, and overall wellness--unless the company culture encourages them to.
But with the added emergency-paradigm shift to remote work, which most workers and leaders alike have never experienced before, tthe challenges of how to communicate and find solutions to promote mental well-being are even more daunting. As the leader of a fully remote company for the past 13 years, I want to share important strategies to leverage the remote working environment to support our teams (and ourselves!) during this unprecedented and challenging time.
Relationship Between Work, Mental Health, and Burnout.
First, what exactly is the mental health situation for millions of workers during the pandemic? While having a job is generally seen as a positive, that doesn't mean workers are doing well, unfortunately. According to a recent study FlexJobs conducted with Mental Health America:
Workers are now more than three times as likely to report poor mental health than they were before the pandemic.
Forty percent say they have experienced burnout during the pandemic.
Forty-two percent of workers say their stress levels are currently high or very high.
More than three-quarters (76 percent) agree that workplace stress affects their mental health (i.e., depression or anxiety).
About half (51 percent) say they have the emotional support they need at work to help manage their stress.
Only 1 in 5 say their HR has offered them productive solutions when they have tried to discuss their burnout.
Use the Virtual World to Your Advantage.
The standard ways that companies support employee wellness, such as offering more paid vacation days and encouraging PTO, are vital. But the remote world offers even more creative ways to support mental health solutions. Consider these ideas:
Offer regular desktop yoga classes.
Give workers free subscriptions to meditation or mental wellness apps such as Headspace or Calm.
Create healthy eating clubs so workers share recipes or motivate each other.
Initiate company-wide virtual exercise challenges.
Offer online desk yoga or meditation sessions.
Schedule virtual workout classes during the workday.
Provide access to webinars about mental health and wellness topics.
Support Your Workers' Efforts to Avoid Burnout.
Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO at MHA told me, "Company leadership--including executives, HR, and management--have a responsibility to their employees to model and talk openly about behaviors that reduce stress, prevent burnout, and help employees establish the appropriate boundaries when working remotely." And he's absolutely right. So what else can companies do?
Encourage workers to develop literal boundaries between their professional and personal lives. Provide office stipends to help them create a dedicated workspace so they can deliberately "arrive and leave" work.
Allow them to turn off email and work notifications after work hours. Turning off email when people are not "at work" is important. Your employees shouldn't be available all the time just because they're working from home.
Offer flexible schedule options so they can be in better control of their day. Rigid work schedules usually magnify conflict between work and family, leading workers to mental exhaustion. Flexible schedules also help promote their involvement with non-work hobbies, volunteering, or personal activities.
Remind them that free, confidential, and anonymous mental health screenings are at their disposal at Mental Health America.
Destigmatize vacation: Encourage time off. It has been proved that taking time away from work to recharge helps improve long-term productivity.
Paid volunteering time: Volunteering can have a profound impact on mental wellness. So offer paid time off for your employees to put good in the world. Many nonprofits have moved remote during the pandemic, and there is no shortage of virtual opportunities to help.
Create a "buddy" system: People going on parental leave or dealing with a serious illness can be matched with a co-worker who has experienced something similar. These connections allow people who've gone through something challenging to share their knowledge and experience to help co-workers feel more connected and less alone in their virtual workplace.
Ditch Zoom and other video meetings: I have never been a big fan of videoconferencing. My team at FlexJobs does not regularly turn on video for calls, which I think helps overall stress levels.
Model work-life balance from the top down: Finally, I know that actions speak louder than words. If I am "on" all the time, then my employees think they are supposed to be on all the time as well. If I don't take vacation, it's unlikely they will feel comfortable taking vacation. Behavior that supports mental wellness starts at the top of the organization.
We need to build organizations that actively support workers to do their best work and be their best selves, both inside and outside the office. A primary piece to this is to cultivate connectedness in a remote environment. Despite working independently throughout the day, we should feel supported, seen, and heard by both our co-workers and leadership. It is our responsibility as leaders to help remote workers thrive in their new workplace.