Working from home is often viewed as a perk. But many workers are realizing that there are challenges when the boundaries between work, home and play are blurred or become non-existent. With COVID-19 restrictions lasting longer than expected, here are some ways employers can help employees stay healthy, productive and engaged when working from home.
Maintaining Behavioral Health While Working From Home
With global economic uncertainty, the loss of workplace routines can magnify feelings of isolation and make underlying issues worse. Employees may be experiencing heightened anxiety, depression or substance abuse issues. Others are dealing with work/life balance, financial worries and health concerns.
Here are common challenges employees are struggling with during the coronavirus pandemic:
Rising Work-From-Home Issues
- Work/life balance: Parents working from home with children. Working more hours to cover for sick coworkers.
- Social isolation: People who live alone. Single parents.
- Mental health issues: People with previous episodes of depression may relapse and others may experience their first episode. Anxiety may also occur for the first time or recur.
- Substance abuse issues: Increased use of alcohol or other substances. People in recovery may relapse.
- Financial worries: Reduced hours, lost jobs or partner/spouse job loss. Job security, retirement and the future.
- Health concerns: Getting or spreading COVID-19. Family members, especially elders.
Employer Work-From-Home To-Do List
Although employees are working from home, employers still have influence on how to maintain employee productivity and wellbeing.
1.) Communicate about benefits and wellness resources. Struggling employees need to know they’re not in this alone. Here are some tips to ramp up communications and remind employees about resources they may overlook:
- Acknowledge that many people are struggling. Talking directly about anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, alcohol abuse and drug problems can break the silence and encourage people to face these issues directly.
- Create a communication plan that spotlights benefits. Regularly communicate benefit highlights — via emails, newsletters, chat groups, etc.
- Emphasize employee assistance programs. Managers and HR can encourage employees to get help from EAP counselors, services and online tools.
- Enhance or create wellness programs. If that’s not an option, provide a list of resources that employees can access from home.
- Announce new or enhanced benefits. For example, extra PTO for absences related to COVID-19, local perks or other changes that can help employees.
2.) Increase manager training and provide tools. Managers can make a big difference by offering support and watching for signs of increased stress at the team and individual level. Make sure managers at all levels have the training they need to:
- Identify and address indications of behavioral health conditions.
- Support the needs of their employees and foster connections.
- Cope with their own challenges related to managing remotely.
3.) Develop an anti-stigma culture and emphasize wellness. Now is a great time to introduce or reinforce a company-wide anti-stigma initiative. With broad support from the CEO level down, employers can foster a culture that makes it okay to talk about behavioral health issues — and ask for help.
Maintaining Physical Health While Working From Home
Many organizations spend a lot of effort and resources to create ergonomic workstations in the office for their employees. Your business probably has company-issued laptops that easily click into docking stations that are connected to large monitors attached to adjustable standing desks.
Like other organizations during the COVID-19 era, these workstations are probably sitting unused in your empty office while your employees work from home on their laptops. Without a proper workstation, there’s a big potential for back, neck and eye strain. Even if employees have a home office, full-time use could cause discomfort, unless it was set up using ergonomic principles.
The Problems With Laptop Design
Laptop computers can cause significant musculoskeletal and visual problems if used for prolonged periods. Because the laptop screen is connected to the keyboard, users must make ergonomic compromises. For example, sustained flexion of the neck (looking downwards) is common, along with non-alignment of the user’s hands and forearms.
Here are nine simple do-it-yourself tips for laptop use. You can share these with employees to help them follow ergonomic principles, avoid discomfort and stay productive.
1.) Use a separate keyboard and mouse. There are a lot of portable options to choose from, even flexible ones.
2.) Keep the laptop at a comfortable viewing distance or connect it to a monitor.
3.) Position the laptop screen at the appropriate height, so that your neck is facing straight ahead (in a neutral position). You can purchase an inexpensive laptop riser. Or try using a 3-inch ring binder. Place the binder on your lap so that your laptop is angled toward you. That will let you move your neck and hands closer to a neutral position.
4.) Prop your feet up when seated. Try using a box, suitcase, foot stool or similar item. If you’re sitting against a ridged seatback, such as a hard chair or bench, use a pillow or roll a towel and place it behind you for back support.
5.) Elbows should be level with or slightly higher than the keyboard (90-degree angle).
6.) Try using a chair without armrests. This will allow you greater flexibility and mitigate static postures.
7.) Position the laptop so that you’re not bending your head forward. A good way to accomplish this is to sit in a chair that allows you to lean into the backrest. If you must bend a little, it’s best to tuck your chin as opposed to bending your entire neck down — which is a common cause of strain and fatigue in the neck and shoulder.
8.) Improvise when you’re using alternate worksurfaces. For example, prop your laptop on a book or box if you’re at your kitchen countertop. That will give you the ability to adjust the height and avoid bending your head down to view your screen.
9.) Make simple adjustments if you’re on a plane (when business travel resumes). You can use magazines under your laptop to adjust the height when it’s placed on the food tray. Also try raising your seat height by sitting on folded blankets or pillows.
Remind Employees to Keep Moving
Unless they’re distracted by kids, pets or snacks, employees may sit too much while working at home — just like at the office. Check out this article that offers tips on working more activity into the workday.
Tips for Employees to Stay Engaged and Productive
It’s important for employers to keep reaching out to support employees during this time. Help them stay positive and engaged with these strategies on creating a new normal.
Continuity Is Key
Most people feel more comfortable when they’re functioning within known routines. They may also feel less anxious when they can anticipate challenges and control more variables in their lives than not.
Maintaining the same workday routine and schedule can help employees stay productive and focused during business hours:
- Wake up every day at the same time as a normal work day.
- Shower, groom and dress as usual — without cutting corners. Resist the urge to work in pjs and slippers! This step may seem unnecessary, but it will signal the mind that it’s business as usual.
- Schedule work breaks for coffee or tea, snacks and bathroom breaks, just like in the workplace.
- Keep up with regular morning conversations by using instant messaging, e-mail, phone calls or video chats.
- Have lunch at the same time as usual — no longer or shorter.
Take a regular walking break during the day — following the six-foot rule for social distancing.
- Interact often with co-workers throughout the day. Embrace technology rather than seeing it as a roadblock.
- End the work day as usual and plan a transition time that’s comparable to what you do normally.
- Replace a morning and evening commute with a walk, sitting on the porch or some activity that takes as long as a typical commute. Be sure to listen to your regular radio station, music playlist or audiobook. If you usually talk to someone during your commute, call someone. The key is to maintain your normal routine and separate your workday from your personal at-home time.
- Finally, stick to usual meal prep and dinner times, followed by evening activities and a regular bedtime routine.
Anyone who has let routines slide can reboot them now — and see the difference that continuity can make to mental and physical health.
Guard Against Social Isolation
Employees can be creative about remaining in touch with friends, family, and neighbors despite social distancing. Aim to maintain normal levels of interactions electronically — or by singing or talking to others. With so many apps and online options, physical distance doesn’t have to decrease connectedness.
- Miss eating out or having friends over? Support favorite restaurants by ordering take-out or delivery and setting the table to mimic the experience of dining out. Use a social networking app to invite friends over for a virtual dinner.
- Continue to plan and make meals. Use time at home to try different recipes. While nurturing routines feel good and can help relieve stress — cooking something new can feel creative and adventurous.
- Use a social networking platform and schedule dinner dates. Many programs like Google Friend Connect, Zoom, Facebook Group Video Chat, and others allow people to virtually dine, date and hang out together. Use these methods to maintain a consistent social life and interactions with family and friends.
- Tired of watching TV or videos alone? Try resources like Netflix Party or Discord to watch shows while simultaneously interacting with others. Sharing excitement or critiques in real time helps replicate the experience of going to a movie or sports event.
Focus on Connections Vs. Challenges
It’s important for employers to keep reaching out to support employees’ behavioral health. Help them stay positive and engaged with these strategies and tips to staying healthy, productive and creative.
Overall, employees can best support their mental health by keeping their work and home life as normal as possible. Encourage everyone to focus on the goal of staying productive and connected, versus the accommodations needed to make it happen.
For more insights on this topic, check out a white paper co-published by The Standard and DMEC, Managing Optimal Work Performance Through Behavioral Health Conditions, as well as The Standard’s Behavioral Health Resource Center.
The Standard is a marketing name for Standard Insurance Company (Portland, Oregon), licensed in all states except New York, and The Standard Life Insurance Company of New York (White Plains, New York), licensed only in New York. Products and availability vary by state and are solely the responsibility of the applicable insurance company.
Dr. Dan Jolivet started working in the behavioral health field in 1980 as he was completing a degree in mathematical statistics and wanted to get some hands-on experience in an applied scientific discipline. His first direct service job in the field was a 1981 work-study position at a Community Mental Health Center (CMHC) in Seattle, where he quickly became hooked on trying to understand how people change.
Dan has held a variety of roles throughout his career. He has worked in inpatient hospitals, residential treatment centers, partial hospitalization programs, intensive outpatient programs, employee assistance programs and in private practice. He moved into supervision to multiply his impact and began working in managed care soon after that. He joined The Standard as its Behavioral Health Director in 2016 and says his favorite part of the job is still helping people — both claimants and people on his team — find solutions to seemingly intractable problems.
Dan received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Washington, and his master’s degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Georgia State University. In his spare time, Dan plays baritone saxophone in a local concert band and he enjoys spending time with his two daughters and his cat.
You can connect with Dan on LinkedIn.
You could say there’s a lot more to Todd Meier than his day job.
As a Workplace PossibilitiesSM program coordinator with The Standard, he helps employers by designing, implementing and managing on-site vocational services to assist employees in remaining at and/or returning to work, and providing ergonomic training. He also plays a lead role by coordinating and providing ergonomic assessments and accommodations for internal employees. He holds a master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling and education, is a certified rehabilitation counselor and disability management specialist, and has completed coursework in ergonomics. His background truly helps guide his work, as he has experience working with disabled veterans and injured workers, as well as vast knowledge in ergonomics, counseling and aptitude testing.
Outside of work, Todd gets in touch with his creative side. He plays a variety of instruments from the basics, such as piano and saxophone, to the more obscure didgeridoo and berimbau (we had to look those up, too). He even dabbles in interpretive dance and slapstick comedy. You might also find him backpacking or kayaking.
Dean Duncan has been with The Standard in various capacities since 2011, when he joined the company as a return to work behavioral health case manager. Dean has a Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and has spent much of his career as a professor of counselor education and as a practicing mental health counselor in a variety of public and private practice settings. In his current role as a Workplace Possibilities program coordinator, Dean oversees programing designed to provide ergonomic assessments and accommodations for employees attempting to return to work after recovering from a disabling condition. He also works with employees attempting to stay at work, despite new or emerging limitations. When not working, Dean is all about family time, hiking and spending time at the Oregon coast.
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