Mental health strategies for remote work during a pandemic
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Mental health strategies for remote work during a pandemic

This pandemic has forced us to experience a period of many changes in our life dynamics. Social distance has impacted almost all areas of our lives, especially how we relate to work. The famous Home office, or telework, which was once considered a privilege or an innovative work model, has now become a reality for many companies, especially in the IT sector.

However, there is a big difference between adopting this work model as a conscious and planned choice – when one is able to exercise social activities in other environments -, and the model forced by the pandemic, one which implies social distance and ends up limiting most of our social interactions to interactions that can only be mediated by technology.

But what are the real impacts that the remote work model has on us?

Certainly, there are advantages and disadvantages. It all depends on the dynamics and social context in which each one of us is inserted. Many people have been living a life in which work takes up a large part of their time during the week, and many of the needs for social interactions are fulfilled in that work space with the people in that context.

In this scenario, the social group that lives alone, for the most part, has felt the effects of not having direct physical contact with friends and loved ones as a means of exchange and affection. Social isolation, according to a study by neuroscientists at MIT, causes an effect in our brain which is similar to when we are hungry, so in other words, we can say we are hungry for social interaction.

The dynamics of communication and interaction with work teams underwent changes in channels, formats and even time. Work has begun to invade spaces that were previously well-defined for leisure – like bedrooms, living rooms, and environments that were previously related to resting. Those are now mixed with a routine of productivity and deliveries. As well as physical space, our time dedicated for work is also blending with other activities. Now, we are always connected. We use social networks for work and leisure, which makes it even more difficult to spare time for recovering and resting our minds and bodies.

For those with well-structured family dynamics and well-defined activities – people that have time to take their children to school and pick them up, or share domestic activities – found themselves in a merged reality, where the child’s school is now at home, the house needs to be clean,  and they need to work and also rest. Boundaries are becoming more and more difficult to be preserved, especially in a society well-known for gender inequality of rights and duties, where women are the most affected and overwhelmed by this great mix of activities.

In addition, the interference of multiple activities in our work routine can cause an emotional effect due to demands and stress. The balance between hours of work and effort at work has become increasingly challenging. Some people can push themselves even harder to meet goals and show that they can be productive even in the midst of adversity.

What were the impacts on the employee-employer relationship?

The trust relationship between employee and employer has opened the door to more sensitivity during this period. Micromanagement has become more difficult to be used in the leader’s routine, and because of that, they had to adopt other mindsets to keep up with their employee’s productivity and well-being.

Now, employers interested in closely monitoring their employees and providing support for their good performance need to be aware of other factors that can impact their well-being and productivity.

During the pandemic, we have experienced different feelings and reactions that we might have never experienced before. 

  • We are afraid to spread the virus and lose our loved ones;
  • We are distressed and irritated by the lack of predictable improvement and if/when our reality may return to its previous state;
  • The sadness of not being able to enjoy moments with loved ones can invade our daily lives, which also causes irritability.

All of those can increase the risk of some behavioral reactions, such as changes in mood, sleep, hypo or hyperactivity and increased anxiety. Those can lead to psychological disorders such as anxiety and panic attacks, depression and others.

Therefore, one of the greatest challenges in the areas that deal with people management is to be able to observe the well-being of a company’s employees at a distance and take actions that minimize these impacts.

How can the people management area support the changes in the work model?

In this scenario, practices that foster good communication and interaction between teams are essential.

Managers can foster a closer contact with their team in order to diversify communication channels, for example: voice chat on discord, knowledge sharing actions that encourage interaction between the team, moments that promote team relaxation, such as activities that include games and interactions that do not aim at delivery/productivity.

Moments like these increase the bond between people, improving the confidence they feel with peers and increasing their availability to express difficulties and share life experience.

Better Together Group at Cheesecake Labs

With that in mind, in June 2020 Cheesecake Labs implemented a group for welcoming and sharing experiences which is called Better Together.

The group has the goal of facilitating and welcoming experiences that employees have been having during this pandemic, strengthening the bonds between peers and helping in the development of new coping resources in the face of diversity situations that arose during this period.

The group is mediated by me, as a Psychologist, but it has no psychotherapeutic character. It is based on the model of integrative community therapy, started by psychiatrist Adalberto Barreto, and focuses on people who are feeling lonely, isolated and depressed. It allows people to create bonds and establish a support network. This therapy promotes the creation of a space that allows people to discover which solutions make the most sense in our context and experiences.

It is an open group in which all people in the company who feel comfortable can participate as often as they like, and because of that, we have different participants in each meeting.

The group assumes that when a person decides to talk about something that afflicts them, there are always other people present who are living or have lived a similar situation and who are willing to share their experiences and the strategies they adopted or used to deal with and overcome the situation. They don’t give advice and always speak in first person. This is based on the assumption that the resource used by one person in a given situation may not be fit for another in a similar situation.

The mediation of this conversation is important in order to not let the group lose focus, observe the particularities of each participant, and pay attention in case any of them needs more attention or referral to psychological monitoring, which is why we have a list of professionals in the area in case they need one.

Some suggestions that might help your well-being and adaptation to remote work in these times

  • Try to establish a routine at home, one that includes defined times and limiting access to different activities throughout the day. This can help to delimit space and use of time for work and leisure, preventing them from blending.
  • Take breaks while working. The recommendation from health professionals is that there 5-minute breaks every 1 hour, and that they are active, so they can stimulate the movement of your body.
  • Avoid too many videoconferences. They cause irritability and fatigue. Try to divide the periods in which you need to be connected in video chats with breaks for readings and practical activities such as organizing a paper planner or kanban.
  • Look for reliable sources of news and avoid getting overwhelmed. Try to bring your thoughts and actions to the reality of what you can do at this moment. This can help to control anxiety. In the face of difficulty, seek help from a health professional.
  • Stimulate a trustworthy social network and make time for exchanging and sharing experiences of your routine.
  • Set a time to relax: listen to music, meditate, watch some movies and tv series, or allow yourself to just do nothing. 
  • Focus on preventive behavior and follow official guidelines from the health ministry.
  • Try to get to know yourself better and accept the moment we are living in and remember that this will pass.

We are living times that put us in contact with things we have never experienced before and that causes extreme emotions and reactions in ourselves. Take advantage of this moment to reframe your work relationships and if you are going through a moment of intense suffering, look for your social network and especially the help of a professional psychologist or psychiatrist.

References:

https://news.mit.edu/2020/hunger-social-cravings-neuroscience-1123

http://periodicos.uem.br/ojs/index.php/CadAdm/article/view/53637/751375150139

https://www.qualtrics.com/blog/confronting-mental-health/

https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/08/parents-juggle-work-and-child-care-during-pandemic.html

https://tede2.pucsp.br/handle/handle/15496

https://www.scielosp.org/article/physis/2020.v30n2/e300214/

https://news.stanford.edu/2021/02/23/four-causes-zoom-fatigue-solutions/

http://www.saude.df.gov.br/wp-conteudo/uploads/2018/03/Nota-Informativa-A-Sa%C3%BAde-Mental-e-a-Pandemia-de-COVID19-poss%C3%ADveis-impactos-e-dicas-de-gerenciamento-para-a-popula%C3%A7%C3%A3o-geral.pdf

About the author

Natalia Ferreira

Psychologist to be passionate about investigation. Always trying to improve people's experience through jokes and caring.

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