Work-related stress and threats to our mental fitness because of our jobs aren’t new. In fact, if we can take anything positive from the pandemic, it’s that discussions about mental health are now out in the open in the business world. We’re now able to have productive conversations about ways we can promote better mental fitness in our organizations.
On the other hand, the advent of remote works has added new challenges to mental fitness that weren’t quite as prevalent before. In the past three years we’ve seen added areas of concern that are more unique to working remotely. These concerns don’t replace or lessen the “old school” stressors and sources of anxiety that people have always experienced on the job. Rather they’ve added to the list of items remote workers (and their leaders) need to pay attention to.
New sources for anxiety
Performance anxiety has always been a concern on the job. You could probably go back to the Middle Ages and find stressed-out apprentices wondering whether their work would be good enough. We all have our insecurities and we all at some level worry about our job security. That’s stressful.
Remote work (and the resulting increase in more sedentary behavior) has brought on new concerns, though. Half of all remote workers report an increase in back pain or some other skeletal pain. Additionally, 52% report increased levels of eye strain and headaches from staring at screens. Entire practices of mental health service focus on working with individuals suffering from chronic pain. As we previously pointed out, remote workers dependent on establishing their own boundaries and breaks from work run the risk of developing many of these pain conditions.
The onset of these pain symptoms can cause anyone, regardless of age, to begin to question their overall physical health. This, in turn, can trigger anxiety and in many cases, depression.
Anxiety levels also increase with a lack of contact and communication with bosses and team members. Those empty spaces where regular communication was once present can allow insecurities and doubts to grow. “I haven’t heard from my boss in three weeks. Is there a problem I don’t know about? Is he/she dissatisfied with my work? Did I miss an assignment?” If you’ve had this kind of self-talk, you’re not alone.
New sources for depression
As you might imagine, these kinds of negative emotions can also manifest depression symptoms. Self talk becomes negative, we may start to experience disturbances in sleep and/or appetite. Our energy levels can become depleted. All of this can become a dangerous spiral if left unchecked or untreated.
The very nature of working remotely exacerbates these symptoms. We work by ourselves. We miss the casual “chit-chat” of the office break room or water cooler that used to provide some levity or at least a break. We no longer meet after work for a happy hour or a bite to eat. This lack of engagement with team members ultimately starts to sap the sense of meaning and fulfillment we get from our jobs. And if what we do becomes nothing more than a series of tasks, we lose the joy and positive emotions we used to have with our jobs.
What can be done to promote mental fitness
We’ve talked at length on these pages in the past about what individuals can do. In fact, we hosted a day-long webinar on the subject. Leaders are often reluctant to address mental health issues with their employees for fear of over-stepping their boundaries into “personal business.” Here are some practical steps leaders and organizations can take without feeling like you’re playing the role of “therapist.
- Allow time off for mental health days. This is likely already part of your organization’s benefit package. Most companies have a set amount of “personal time” allotted that includes time off at the employee’s discretion, no matter the reason. What leaders can do is make mental fitness an “above the table” discussion item. If an employee came into work pale as ghost and complaining of exhaustion to the point of not being able to hold their head up, we would probably advise them to go home, go to the doctor, or otherwise tend to themselves so they could return to work healthy and fully charged. If we see our employees showing signs of stress or depression, it’s appropriate to have similar discussions that encourage self-care. That includes taking time off if necessary to “recharge” or “reset” emotionally.
- Check in more often. Don’t leave room for doubt and insecurity to do damage. It’s not micromanaging to simply check in and see how things are going. Your reason for checking in doesn’t even need to be work related. Send a Slack message asking how the kids are doing. Take 10 minutes to call and talk about football or some other shared interest. Of course this means that you as a leader will need to get to know your team beyond their professional role. You’ll have to understand their needs as people. That’s not a bad thing at all.
- Make expectations clear and feedback clearer. Doubt and insecurity (and the accompanying anxiety) flourish in uncertainty. As Kevin has pointed out, we live in very uncertain times. As a leader, do what you can to reduce that with your team, or at the very least, don’t add to it.
The stronger your team is mentally, the more productive they will be (and the better you will look as a leader). Take the lead in mental fitness, first by example and taking care of yourself, and then by being intentional and transparent about promoting mental fitness.
About the author
When he’s not working as the Content Strategy Coordinator for The Kevin Eikenberry Group, Chuck Chapman is a Marriage and Family Therapist serving individuals and families in crisis. He also applies his knowledge and experience working with systemic interventions to businesses and organizations to help them regulate stress levels and build healthier and more productive relationships.