The COVID-19 pandemic has brought great fear not seen since the Spanish influenza outbreak over 100 years ago. With the second wave of COVID-19 upon us, many Americans are battling stress—at home and in the workplace. According to a study from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 56% of adults report stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, even remote employees aren’t immune to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic stress. Yet employers and managers aren’t without hope. Using a support system, work-sponsored social events, and empathy, remote employers can help employees manage stress during COVID-19.
Mental Health Challenges Workers Face During COVID-19
The mental health challenges faced by workers during COVID-19 vary from person to person. Some workers may not have any stress or anxiety while others may have to tackle a daily struggle. Therefore, employers should identify the potential mental health issues that may arise throughout the pandemic. Here are some of the most common.
Stress is perhaps the most common type of mental affliction faced by remote workers during COVID-19. Experts typically classify stress into two categories, as well as PTSD as a long-lasting side effect.
Acute stress is a psychological condition following a traumatic experience. For example, a fight with a spouse or a temporary loss of income may trigger acute stress. In most instances, acute stress lasts less than three days. During this time, however, remote workers may seem withdrawn or disassociated with work. More severe cases—known as Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)—can last longer than three days. Most people can recover from acute stress on their own without any intervention.
Again, the disorder manifests differently between individuals. But most often, the person may seem out of character, such as being less talkative or showing up late to meetings. As a result, employers must identify any sudden changes in behavior to help employees manage stress.
Chronic stress is somewhat different from acute stress in that it persists for lengthier periods of time. Typically, chronic stress lasts anywhere from a week to a month. In addition, physical health problems such as high blood pressure or insomnia may accompany the disorder. To prevent acute stress from becoming chronic, employers should encourage remote workers to practice relaxation techniques or exercises. This may include quick, five-minute self-care exercises, yoga, or meditation.
PTSD is a common issue among people who have experienced severe mental or physical trauma. The VA estimates that 11% to 30% of war veterans experience PTSD at some point in their life. However, the trauma that causes PTSD doesn’t have to be as significant as war crimes or violence. Some people handle stress differently, even if it’s the threat of disease contraction. When chronic stress lasts over a month, most psychologists diagnose the condition as PTSD. The American Psychiatric Association estimates that 3.5% of American adults will suffer from PTSD, even if they aren’t a war veteran.
Unlike acute stress and chronic stress, PTSD may be easier to identify, although some employees may show no outward symptoms. The disorder usually presents itself in a variety of ways. Anger, negative feelings, avoidance of others (work or socially), and nightmares are all part of PTSD. Sadly, employers may feel helpless to combat PTSD, as most patients require professional psychiatric care.
Burnout is another major hurdle for remote workers. In addition to their workload, these workers are now trying to take care of their children or assist elderly relatives—all while attempting to maintain their own health. As a result, work may fall to the bottom rung of the responsibility ladder—even if the change is inadvertent. But helping employees manage stress may alleviate burnout if handled correctly.
The overwhelming feelings of living in the middle of a global pandemic can cause people to turn to substances. Drugs—and alcohol, in particular—are just one coping mechanism that employees may possess. According to a CNN study, beer and liquor sales jumped 27% during the pandemic. Although the study didn’t dictate whether the spike was a result of stress or boredom, the threat of drinking too much can plague many employees. Remote employees may be at higher risk because many set their own hours and don’t have to face colleagues regularly.
“Anxiety is by far the biggest source of mental health distress employees are likely to experience in this time of crisis.” – Dr. Silja Voolma, doctor of behavioral psychology
Anxiety can overwhelm a person to the point of crippling their daily routines. Negative thoughts about contracting the virus, worry about work, and irritability are all results of anxiety. For most workers, anxiety is tough to shake. But helping employees manage stress is much like aiding them in managing anxiety. Meditation and self-care are essential.
Loneliness and isolation are common problems within the telecommuting community. Yet these feelings are exacerbated by shelter-in-place and quarantine orders. Instead of meeting friends, going to the gym, or just seeing other humans, remote workers are stuck in their own bubble. Inside this bubble, social and work life collide and become ambiguous. When the only link to the outside world is television or video-conferencing, isolation and loneliness may evolve into stress, substance abuse, or anxiety.
Much in the same vein as burnout, procrastination becomes a serious problem for remote workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the business world, this simply can’t happen. When your employees put off projects until the last minute, the quality can suffer. This has a trickle-down effect, as then the company can lose money or have its reputation tarnished.
Methods for Helping Employees Manage Stress During COVID-19
A distributed workforce can cause vagaries during COVID-19. That’s a fact. The inability to chat candidly with employees or talk with them face to face can leave employers in the dark. As a result, helping employees manage stress during these times isn’t easy. But a few proven techniques, initiatives, and programs can enable managers and employers to lower the incidence of mental health issues and encourage the discussion of issues.
Encourage Open Discussion and Exercise
For some remote workers, discussion of mental health issues is taboo. As a result, encouraging open discussion is a difficult endeavor. But it’s not impossible. As a manager, you must be the icebreaker. Holding a weekly video-conference where you act as the leader and discuss your own mental health can enable others to do the same.
Another way to curb mental health issues is through exercise. The release of feel-good hormones during exercise has been shown to significantly lower stress, depression, and anxiety. As a remote employer, encouraging this exercise is difficult. But organizing a voluntary daily Tai Chi, yoga, or meditation via video-conferencing may provide an answer to mental health issues. With the immense popularity of yoga, you may find that one of your workers has the qualifications to lead such a meeting. Ask for volunteers, and you may find a free method that promotes worker health and productivity.
Hold Online, Non-Work-Related Events Regularly
Because remote workers often feel isolated—especially during COVID-19—interacting with others can prove difficult. That’s when a light-hearted weekly or monthly event can break up the loneliness and monotony of routine. Non-structured meetings that leave work out of the discussion are ideal. During these meetings or events, you can discuss what you’re currently up to, tell a funny joke you heard (avoiding the NSFW), or talk about your plans post-COVID-19.
In addition to open discussions, you can also have different games that provide a fun outlet and a break from work and COVID-19. Some options include:
- Show and tell
- A team or individual trivia night
- Tell your life story in five minutes
- Discussing your bucket-list items
These are only a few of the available games for remote workers out there, so use your creativity or your team to come up with other ideas. You never how these games will go in helping employees manage stress.
Be More Flexible
Flexibility is crucial to the mental and emotional well-being of remote workers during COVID-19. As an employer, you must realize that your workers—more than likely—have undertaken additional responsibilities. Home-schooling children, taking care of elderly parents, and overcoming the loss of a spouse’s job are just a few of the obstacles. Therefore, you have to adapt and become more flexible.
However, this doesn’t mean that you should throw goals and timelines to the wind. In fact, you may need this structure more than ever. Start by outlining your expectations and deadlines. The key here is that you may allow some wiggle room for employees, specifically around when they’re in the office. You might also use this mentality: it’s not when the work gets done; it’s whether the work gets done on time. By adopting this managerial philosophy, you help employees manage stress while staying on task with a particular project.
Set Achievable Goals and Ditch the Busywork
Separating goals and busywork isn’t as simplistic as it sounds. But doing so can de-stress your remote workforce. Instead of ensuring that everyone’s always busy, push your goals toward something achievable and profitable for the company—regardless of whether it takes your team 40 hours a week to finish it. In addition, ditching busywork or other tasks that aren’t pressing can help calm your staff. When you’re helping employees manage stress, lessening the perceived workload can provide a major boon to your employees—and your bottom line.
With the uncertainty surrounding the future of COVID-19 and remote work, employers have a difficult task ahead. But by taking a proactive approach to help employees manage stress, companies can address the root of the problem and attack it head-on. In uncertain times, at least that’s a bit of solace.
Do you have any tips for helping employees manage stress during COVID-19 and beyond? Connect with Virtual Vocations on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn to share your advice. We’d love to hear from you!
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