Remember what your work life was like before all of this happened?
You’re probably juggling a lot between your work and personal lives – and doing most of it from your dining room table. (If you’re working from home.) And if the ongoing pandemic wasn’t enough, there’s also political upheaval, civil unrest, and a laundry list of other things to worry about – including your actual laundry.
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There’s plenty of evidence to show that working from home while coping with the cumulative stress from world events is having an impact on us. The question is, what can we do about it? We asked some experts about techniques that can safeguard our mental health when so much is out of our control. In addition, they had some insights for how managers can help relieve employee stress levels during this time.
Let’s first take a look at how stress is manifesting for the work-from-home crowd.
Work-from-home dichotomies and their psychological effects
Breathe in, breathe out. Drop your shoulders. It’s not just you.
In a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation conducted in mid-July, 53 percent of adults in the United States said that their mental health had been negatively impacted as a result of worrying about the pandemic. In April, a federal emergency hotline for people experiencing emotional distress recorded a 1,000 percent increase over the previous April.
While work-from-home stress isn’t the sole cause of these mounting mental health challenges, our original research into remote work shows that working from home brings benefits and challenges that aren’t always evenly matched. For example:
- You may have more flexibility with your location and your schedule, but you may also be working longer hours. In our survey, 42 percent of people said they believed that working from home equates to a longer workday. “I have found most people are doing more work as they work from home, because they don’t want to be viewed as slacking off,” says therapist Alaina Brubaker, LMFT.
- You don’t have to deal with interruptions from colleagues who stop by your desk unannounced, but you’re also missing out on camaraderie and cooperation. Our survey showed that 28 percent of respondents felt that the quality of collaboration opportunities is worse now than when they worked in-office.
- You can work in your pajamas or sweatpants, but there’s also no boundary between your work and personal life. The majority of respondents in our research said they now lack a space where they can unwind from personal and professional responsibilities, and they resent how their work has started to take over their home.
- You may feel like you’re still doing meaningful work, but also feel like your contributions are less visible to your team and manager. Many respondents in our survey noted that they worry that being “out of sight and out of mind” will hurt their career progression.
On top of that, you may be dealing with an increased sense of loneliness and isolation. Also, you might feel like you need to be “always on” and responsive at all hours and have a nagging sense of uncertainty about the future of your career. (And, of course, the world.) “You name it, people are struggling with it,” says Dr. Juli Fraga, a psychologist in San Francisco.
3 ways to cope with the stress
It’s no wonder that 70 percent of U.S. workers say they feel more stressed during COVID-19 than they have at any other point in their professional career. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that you watch for signs of increased stress, including:
- Changes in sleep or eating patterns
- Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
- Worsening of chronic health problems or mental health conditions
But, beyond acknowledging the above, what can you do to control your rising anxiety? Here are some strategies from the experts.
1. Stop comparison in its tracks
In some ways, there’s unity and comfort in the fact that we’re facing these struggles collectively. But that can also make it too easy to measure your experience against somebody else’s.
“I hear so many people who talk about feeling guilty,” says counselor Charryse Johnson, LCMHC, NCC. “They don’t want to acknowledge how they feel because they think it could be so much worse.”
However, minimizing how overwhelmed you are isn’t helpful. In fact, it’s counterproductive and contributes to your mounting stress levels.
Our emotions bubble up to the surface, and they want to be expressed. “To tamp them down, our minds and bodies use creative tactics – including muscular constriction and holding our breath,” writes psychologist Hilary Jacobs Hendel in an article for TIME.
“Symptoms like anxiety and depression, which are on the rise in the U.S., can stem from the way we deal with these underlying, automatic, hard-wired survival emotions, which are biological forces that should not be ignored,” says Jacobs.
Your first step is to acknowledge when something is hard for you, without matching it up against somebody else’s struggles. You can admit that managing your career while homeschooling your kids is incredibly difficult – without apologizing for the fact that you still have a job. “When we’re not honest about what we’re feeling, that’s when mental health starts to implode. You don’t see it piling on,” adds Johnson.
2. Put down your phone and quit doomscrolling
Pandemic aside, there hasn’t been a slow newsday in recent months. The election. Racial inequality and social justice movements. Wildfires. It feels like the world is crumbling around us, and many of us have coped by overloading ourselves with information.
In one survey conducted by The Harris Poll in May, 51 percent of respondents said they’ve increased their usage of certain social media platforms since the start of the pandemic. Nielsen found that in March of 2020, U.S. adults spent 215 percent more time on mobile devices accessing current events and news than they did in March of 2019.
Why are we consuming information at such a rapid rate? It turns out it’s a coping mechanism we use to get a false sense of certainty. Unfortunately, that backfires.
“Staying glued to the news actually increases our anxiety in the long-term because it contributes to the false belief that if we have enough information, we can remain in control,” writes Jackie Bullis, Ph.D., for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
When it comes to safeguarding your own mental health and staving off working-from-home anxiety, you need to know when to take a break from the barrage of doomsday headlines.
“Be intentional about when you are checking social media and the news,” says Brubaker. “Just because you have a break in your day doesn’t mean that’s a good time for information input.”
3. Give yourself some much needed structure
Boundaries are a constant issue when your home is your work and your work is your home. That’s why all of the experts emphasize the importance of routines and healthy patterns.
“I suggest having what I call ‘vital habits,’” says Johnson. “That’s a morning routine that you can create and structure to ease into your day.” Bonus points if you incorporate movement. It doesn’t have to be exercise – Johnson says even swaying to your favorite song counts.
But while morning routines tend to get all the glory, remember that the end of the day matters, too. A set order of activities you use to wrap up your workday will help you make a clean break and transition out of “work mode.”
“As you end your day, clear your workspace, and put your computer away, put a no-reply message up,” says Brubaker. “You could even change your clothes to signify to yourself that you are now in ‘home mode.’”
Think these routines are just a formality? Think again. Northwestern Medicine says that routines can reduce stress levels, help you sleep better, and even lead to improved health.
How leaders can support their teams
You know you can implement the above tips to prioritize your own mental health. But, when you’re a leader, you also worry about your team.
How can you support them in these challenging times and encourage them to safeguard their own emotional wellbeing? Here are a few tips.
1. Get crystal clear with your expectations
Do you expect team members to work a specific number of hours each day? Is there a schedule they need to keep or are they allowed a certain degree of flexibility? What task is the most pressing priority?
Answers to these questions shouldn’t be a mystery to your team. “Voice how their performance is going to be measured,” says Brubaker. “If flexibility can be given, communicate that to your team so they aren’t killing themselves trying to work their regular hours when they could be working an adjusted schedule.”
Don’t assume that your expectations are common knowledge. Gallup research conducted in 2015 found that over half of employees don’t know what’s expected of them at work – a number that’s likely only increased since the working world has been turned on its head.
2. Connect beyond job duties
This one’s the easiest to implement: Check in on how your team members are doing beyond task initiation and completion.
“We’re typically very transactional when it comes to business,” says Johnson. In other words, you talk to somebody because you need something from them. “We have to be more transformative in our interactions,” she says.
Ask questions to find out how your team members are really doing, including if there’s anything in their personal life they’re comfortable sharing. “If I, as a leader, have more understanding about how your dynamics at home have changed, that’s going to help me better understand if I’m overloading you or if you need to do something different, and then I can be flexible,” says Johnson.
3. Walk the walk when it comes to boundaries
Telling your employees that you value work-life balance is one thing. If you really want to make an impact, you need to show them. That starts with modeling healthy behaviors.
“If you are advocating for boundaries around work but answering emails at midnight, that is going to communicate that you don’t really value boundaries,” says Brubaker.
Talk candidly about the limits you’ve set for yourself and then stick to them. Openly share the ways you’re prioritizing your own mental health. “That is going to speak volumes and may teach your team how to value their own mental health when they see you doing it in your life,” Brubaker adds.
And above all else, show some compassion and understanding. Your entire team (yourself included) is going through a lot, and sometimes work may have to to slide down the priority list for many of us. “Dismantle myths surrounding perfectionism and let employees know that doing their best is the best right now,” says Dr. Fraga.
Things aren’t “normal” (and your brain and body know it)
Remember back when your biggest workday grievances were about that meeting that should’ve been an email or your deskmate who talked on the phone at ear-splitting decibels?
That may feel like a distant memory now that there’s a major public health crisis, a critical election, and all sorts of work-from-home stress. “If things feel hard, it’s because they are hard,” says Dr. Fraga.
With that in mind, remember that if you can work toward proactively handling the pressures you’re dealing with, you can prevent them from sending your mood, motivation, and your overall mental health into a nosedive. When so many things are out of your control, remember that you can still take some ownership over your mental wellbeing.