The abrupt disruption in daily routines and work lives has surely raised the anxiety level for people, on top of what they may already feel from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even before Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-home order last week, many employers already had employees working from home. That can cause issues for employees who were suddenly disconnected from co-workers with whom they spend each day.
“A lot of our folks enjoy working with each other, so all of a sudden they’re finding they have less contact with colleagues and friends and less of an opportunity to socialize with people that they kind of consider to be a secondary family in many ways. That’s a big loss for them,” said Dr. Tory Seif, a psychologist and manager of the Forest Hills clinic for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.
“All of a sudden you don’t have it, and if you’re a creature of habit, that can really drive you bonkers,” Seif said. “If you’re used to an office environment or something and all of a sudden you’re thrust into isolation, you are not used to having to develop that — that’s a different roller coaster.”
Seif’s advice to ease that ride: Find ways to stay connected through texts, video conferencing, and daily phone calls. That’s the same advice Pine Rest has provided its own employees who now work from home.
Employees who’ve never had to work at home should establish a daily routine and structure. Continue your daily exercise or workout routine, set a schedule for the day, and separate work time from family time, Seif said.
“That sense of normalcy is good for us all,” said Seif, who also stresses that exercise, whether at home or going out for a daily walk, helps to burn off anxiety.
Employees are bound to feel anxious about the future if the company has had to halt any operations during the crisis or faces financial difficulty, according to behavioral health professionals.
The Grand Rapids-based Pine Rest in the last few weeks has had “quite a few” requests from employers asking how to help employees handle shifts in the business and work structure because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The change is even more difficult for introverts where work is their main social environment and they don’t do much socializing in the evening or weekends, Seif said.
“Now they’re in a spot where they don’t have any social opportunities. That’s a big change,” he said.
Seif also advises people coping with the pandemic to avoid spending too much time on social media, “to be sensible” about where they get their news or updates, and to avoid “information overload” that only worsens anxiety.
“There’s a certain point in time where too much information, even if you think it’s helpful, is just going to strengthen your fears,” Seif said. “I would advise people to check out information once a day at night, and then unplug. Read a book. Watch a movie. Play a video game. Chat with your family.”
Developing a new hobby or taking on a home project can help fill the time away from work, providing “something that at the end of this you look back on and say, ‘This is how I moved forward during this time,’ versus ‘This is how I waited this out for the impending senses of doom,’” he said.
Importance of listening
In Muskegon County, the community mental health provider HealthWest has seen a similar increase from employers seeking advice on helping employees cope with the crisis. HealthWest has been in constant contact with individuals, other agencies and businesses to look at partnering and doing shared messaging to staff on COVID-19, “and how to take care of each other,” said Community Relations Director Lauren Meldrum.
Meldrum encourages supervisors to make sure they take the added time and truly listen to the concerns of employees who suddenly had their daily routine upended.
Understanding and flexibility, particularly for workers with young children at home because schools are closed, helps to ease the anxiety and fears of employees, Meldrum said. Let them vent, she added.
“It’s really important to listen to your staff and to help validate their concerns of what they’re going through because it is scary and uncertain,” Meldrum said.
“People oftentimes are not looking for someone to try and fix a situation or have all of the answers, but it is very helpful to have someone who is willing to listen and to help them to know that what they’re feeling is normal and that it’s common, and that a lot of us are in the same boat in terms of feeling anxious or scared or feeling disconnected,” she said. “It can be really healing for people to just have that sounding board and that listening ear of someone to help validate what they’re going through.”
Employers also can establish “healthy boundaries” for staff now working from home. Let them know it’s OK during the day to take a break to prepare meals, do household chores, take a walk, or to spend some time with their children.
It’s also important to inform them “that when the work day’s done, it’s done and try to turn that off switch so they come back refreshed the next day,” Meldrum said.
“When people start working at home, sometimes it’s easy to work too much and not feel like there’s an off switch,” she said. “That can be a hard transition for a lot of people, feeling like they need to be on all of the time.”
Meldrum suggests that managers let staff know of any behavioral health or other support that’s available, perhaps through an employee assistance program or other means. Mobile apps, websites and online training on “mindfulness” can “help people focus on being present in the moment and try not to be anxious and worry for the future,” she said.
Employers should communicate to employees how they’re working to keep them safe and mitigate their risk during the pandemic, Meldrum said. They also need to make sure they help to answer any questions employees have and “be really honest and transparent in those answers.”
“At the same time, it’s OK not to know all of the answers. Be up front about that. Just to let people know that while you might not know what’s going to happen, that we’re in it together and that they have support from their leaders and people on their team” helps to ease anxiety, she said.
A sense of humor or lightheartedness can help as well, Meldrum said. One day last week HealthWest had a “pajama party and encouraged people to wear their silly pajamas. We could all see each other on the Zoom video,” she said.
Sharing jokes through group texts or chats can keep people connected when they are stuck working at home, Meldrum said.
As they navigate through the crisis, employers should keep work routines, schedules and staff meetings “when it’s possible.”
HealthWest has increased the frequency of staff meetings “so people are having that sense of community,” Meldrum said. Staff in the Zoom calls are encouraged to use the video function “so that they can see each other’s faces and laugh when someone tells a joke.”
“Actually seeing people’s kids and dogs in the background can help you to feel connected to someone in a different way,” she said.