Two months into the deadliest pandemic of our time, it’s important that we sit down and reflect on the intersectional challenges that come with employee mental health and remote working in the age of COVID-19 and racial injustice.
Prior to the pandemic, it was estimated that only 7% of the US population had the option to regularly work from home, whenever they want. Working remotely was often reserved for the affluent – people who earned the highest wages in private sector companies.
Meanwhile, about a third of US wage workers had the option to work from home at least occasionally – this number has doubled, and jumped from 31% to 62% just three weeks into the pandemic.
Many people who are still able to work during this time are now facing the reality of working remotely for months on end. Some of us were already accustomed to this style of work, like my sister who’s been a distributed worker in edtech for the last seven years. For the rest of the world, this change is likely having a big impact – whether you’re living in isolation or sharing space with roommates or loved ones.
We must remember that “working from home” isn’t the same as working remotely during a pandemic. It’s time to take a pause and really assess how this pandemic has impacted not only our physical health, but our mental health too. For example, Qualtrics reports that over “75% of people say they feel more socially isolated, 67% of people report higher stress, 57% are feeling greater anxiety and 53% say they feel more emotionally exhausted.”
Outside of work, recent and ongoing police brutality against Black people, occurring alongside the plethora of challenges that have come with the coronavirus, leaves many of us feeling like we’re at a breaking point. Trying to process these issues while performing at work can quickly lead to burnout or “decision fatigue.” It’s no secret that over half of employees currently working remotely have reported experiencing burnout.
One in five US adults already lives with a mental illness and there’s always been a clear stigma around getting treatment, so it makes sense that our work performance and business productivity would be impacted right now.
Tips for taking care of yourself
Knowing all of this information, it’s important to remember to take care of ourselves right now. As they say during airplane safety demonstrations, “You need to put on your own mask before you can help others.”
Here’s a list of helpful ways you can take care of your own mental health, to be able to best support your people.
Be honest about the challenges of working from home
Our homes are filled with distractions that we wouldn’t typically encounter if we were working in an office setting – from household chores to the news on TV. Be honest about the impact that “multitasking” at home is having on your mental health and be easy on yourself as you navigate this new world that we’re living in.
Do the basics really well
We all know how important it is to get a good night’s sleep, eat nutritious meals and stay active every day. However, if your sleep schedule has been off or you’re not exercising as much as you’d like to, you’re not alone. Focus your time and attention on taking care of these physiological needs, such as regular access to food, water, warmth and rest before anything else. The Center for Workplace Mental Health talks about the importance of setting up a routine to meet these goals and create consistency in our lives right now.
Make self-care easy, enjoyable and a priority
So many of us love to iterate on different processes at work to make them best fit our needs. What if you brought that same experimental energy to your own mental health? A great first step in prioritizing your mental health is creating regular blocks in your schedule dedicated to self-care.
The options are endless, so see what works best for you and your family. You can try journaling, reading, painting, playing a game, watching a comedy, meditating, going for a walk, having a dance party or anything else that works for you. When we prioritize ourselves, we’re able to show up for work even stronger.
Also, create a daily pivot point to balance out your work and personal life. Use your “extra time” to decompress and create time off from work so you can rest and fully recharge for your next day.
Don’t be ashamed of taking time off and getting help if you need it
Now more than ever, it’s so important for us to learn how to create healthy boundaries, to say no when we need to and to seek help when we need it. Reach out to your family and friends for extra support and be sure to take advantage of your Employee Assistance Programs, if they’re available, or see a therapist, virtually.
How to support the mental health of your team
For executive leadership teams thinking about how you can support your people's mental health during this time, you’re not alone. The Society of Human Resource Management recently shared that over 70% of employers are struggling with shifting to remote work. Here’s a list of tangible things that you as a leader can do to support your team.
Be emotionally intelligent and lead by example
Provide unprecedented flexibility to your employees that match the unprecedented times we’re living in. Empower your employees to take time for themselves, and encourage them to make flexible schedules to care for loved ones and to be able to take much-needed breaks. This will be critical to their success in the long run.
Get employees set up with what they need as quickly as possible
Survey your teams to understand the difference in needs that come with working from home and then do your best to provide what they need as quickly as possible. This is imperative for giving your employees the opportunity to do what they do best. Consistently publicize mental health resources and Employee Assistance Program offerings.
This is also a great time to let your employees’ skill sets shine. Do you have employees who lead community workshops and want to offer something to other internal employees? Give your staff opportunities to share their gifts with your organization.
Keep equity at the top of all decision-making
With all the challenges we’re facing amidst the current health, economic and social crises, who do you have seated at the decision-making table? Are they representative of different demographic groups across your organization? It’s interesting to note that the countries that have been responding well to the pandemic (Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark) are all led by women. Their leaders have created a nice balance between being data-driven while remaining human and empathetic in their approach.
Slow down and recognize the exhaustion from working remotely during a pandemic
While this may seem easy, it can also be the hardest of these principles to actually put into practice. Use this time to focus on building a culture of support and care. You can also get creative in what you offer your employees. From company-wide contests to half-day Fridays and celebrating employee milestones like anniversaries - whatever fits your company’s needs - take time to appreciate your workforce for all the efforts they’re putting into the business during such challenging times.
Emotionally intelligent and resilient leadership will help us through this health crisis and recent xenophobia and anti-Black violence. Although May was Mental Health Awareness Month, we have a responsibility to provide our people with the support they need to put themselves first, every day.
Looking for more ways to put your people first? Here are some helpful tips for adapting your company culture to a changing work environment.