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Mental health awareness month highlights struggles of working from home during pandemic


Companies are constantly looking for new ways to help their employees handle the drastic changes to how we all work.

Image: LucaLorenzelli, Getty Images/iStockphoto

Mental Health Awareness Month is coming to a close as we inch closer to June, but the event has highlighted many of the positives and negatives associated with the rapid shift to working from home since the outbreak of COVID-19.

Since millions were forced to work from home, multiple studies have come out showing some people are struggling more due to teleworking while others have found people’s mental health improving since being forced to work from the confines of their house. 

Researchers at Keio University in Tokyo surveyed nearly 8,500 people in late March, finding that 35% of employees who telecommute said their mental health had deteriorated during COVID-19 quarantines. Yet a new survey from CNBC and SurveyMonkey of more than 9,000 people this month found that 27% of respondents want to work from home all the time from now on and another 36% say they want to work from home more often than they used to. 

SEE: Coronavirus: Critical IT policies and tools every business needs (TechRepublic Premium)

Dr. Richard Ryan, professor emeritus in psychology at the University of Rochester and a professor at the Institute for Positive Psychology & Education at the Australian Catholic University, said regardless of which side employees fall on, it was more important than ever for employers to meet their workers’ basic psychological needs.

“The good news is, there are specific strategies and practices that fit the needs and challenges of this changing climate. These strategies are not about greater micromanagement, tightened controls, or increased monitoring. On the contrary, they are about empowering employees with greater autonomy and flexibility and providing them with the scaffolding and resources that allow them to independently accomplish goals and meet demands,” Ryan said.

“Management’s role will be that of catalyzing and facilitating human capital, resulting in greater productivity and profitability than the traditional, and costly, in-office oversight approach has ever been able to yield.”

Zoom fatigue or improved connections?

The “Zoom fatigue” phenomenon has come to encompass the general frustration many employees have felt with spending hours moving from video conference to video conference. 

Multiple CIOs and CISOs told TechRepublic they had varied experiences when it comes to Zoom or video meetings in general. Some could clearly notice that people missed the in-person connection of offices and water coolers, while others felt like they have gotten to know their coworkers better because of concerted efforts by companies to foster relationships digitally.

SEE: Life after lockdown: Your office job will never be the same–here’s what to expect (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Jerome Becquart, COO and CISO for Axiad, has found that some of the company’s employees have struggled because of less-than ideal working conditions that ranged from small home work spaces to children that needed round-the-clock attention or help with schooling. 

He is part of a task force at Axiad that focuses on how they can help employees who may be struggling  

“The first thing we did was encourage people to use video conferencing instead of just the phone because I feel that seeing the faces of people is important. You can’t replace the face-to-face interaction that you have when everyone is in the same room or sharing a coffee in the break room. But it does add some element of communication when you see the face of your co-workers and you can see how they are doing,” Becquart said.
 
“It’s not mandatory but it is something we encourage and we lead by example, so every time we are on a team call, we turn our camera on. We found that it’s contagious. With more people doing that, it has increased the level of interaction and happiness.”
 
Becquart and others who spoke to TechRepublic said they held weekly sessions, usually on Fridays, that were reserved specifically for non-work discussion and fun. Virtual hangouts or happy hours have become a needed replacement for the kind of in-person connection employees are generally used to. 

SEE: How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting developers’ mental health (TechRepublic)
 
Axiad also does fun things like having one employee each week share playlists or fun photos to lighten the mood. Becquart noted that the IT department has been particularly stressed out.

Willy Leichter, vice president of marketing at cybersecurity company Virsec, said that since the company moved to teleworking, the company has held weekly lunch Zoom meetings that intentionally  prohibit any discussion of work. 

Leichter said the company has always used conference calls but have recently pushed people to use video as a way to stay connected with their co-workers. He has also gotten closer to remote employees with whom he now communicates more frequently than before. 

He noted that the changes have been difficult for the sales team, which is used to traveling extensively.

“The need to communicate more reminds you how much we communicate face-to-face with our colleagues. It is hard to find productive time, and the days just go by incredibly fast, which I’ve heard from many people. It seems like you just get started and then it’s late in the day. It takes some discipline to test some separation,” Leichter said.
 
“I probably have more facetime through Zoom with people I work with than I used to. So in a way, I’m making better connections with some people and having more in-depth conversations.”

Separating from work is more difficult

One of the biggest issues many people are having revolves around separating from work. Without the literal distance between work and home, people are spending more hours than ever attached to their email or workplace applications. This is leading to unprecedented levels of burnout, according to a recent survey from Monster. 

“One of the challenges with working from home is you never know when to stop, and some people can work from the time they wake up to the time they go to bed, checking their email or messaging apps,” Becquart said. 

SEE: COVID-19: A guide and checklist for restarting your business (TechRepublic Premium)

Leichter added that he encouraged employees to set normal work hours and avoid working at all hours of the night or on weekends. But despite their best efforts, the general uncertainty of the situation was definitely wearing people down.
 
“There are no good answers except that we have to keep talking about it and keep being as close as we can to people virtually,” he said.

Eugenio Pace, CEO and co-founder of Auth0, said structure was important for productivity regardless of how organized a person is.

But everyone’s version of structure is different, and company leaders need to be mindful of life’s pressures, especially the added pressures facing people right now, he added. 

“Encourage your team to devise their own schedules, so they can complete their work when feeling most productive and in the best frame of mind. Don’t forget to be flexible, patient, and extra kind, especially in times of uncertainty like these,” Pace said. 

“With many things to take into account and the lines between personal and professional life are blurred, it’s normal to feel stressed, anxious, often sad, and lonely, among other feelings. The added stressors are a new adjustment for many–personally and professionally–and at Auth0, we offer wellness resources for additional support, especially during this challenging time.” 

SEE: Top 100+ tips for telecommuters and managers (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Pace added that the company has a Mental Wellbeing Club, which is a friendly, private community available for support and guidance to all of its employees. 

Auth0 also holds virtual social get-togethers over Zoom that give employees an outlet with no agenda and no pressure. Employees can hop-on, hop-off, eat lunch, stretch, or chat with the team about how their day is going or to hear from colleagues.

Dr. John Budd, a professor of work and organization at the University of Minnesota, said it is greatly important that employers give their workers two things: Autonomy and voice.

“Make sure you give them the autonomy to be successful in ways that fit with the unique rhythms of their home life,” he said. 

“Stay away from electronic monitoring and surveillance. And listen to their voices to find mutually-acceptable solutions to concerns, problems, and challenges through open dialogue.”

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