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How bosses can help staff to manage stress when working remotely during the coronavirus outbreak

Many businesses and workplaces are now requesting that their employees work remotely where possible to minimise in-person interactions during the coronavirus outbreak. The idea of working from home can be a huge challenge for some people, which can lead to higher levels of stress and worry. We have looked at how managers can support their workforce and help staff members to manage their wellbeing during this unprecedented time.

Dr Paul McLaren, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Wellbeing Centres in Central London and Priory Hospital Hayes Grove, says: “Many staff will be used to working remotely and will have developed strategies for optimising their performance and wellbeing from experience.

“But the current crisis has brought enforced home working and it is important for bosses to recognise that some employees may find it a lot more difficult than others. We are social creatures and it is easy to forget the feelings of security and calmness that come from just being around other people. How much we need that will vary widely between individuals.

“If you are dealing with challenging or emotive issues as a boss, don’t rely on email communication. You can miss and misinterpret a lot in an email if you or your employees are already in an emotional state. If you are trying to deal with a sensitive issue, then pick up the phone or use the web cam. The telephone is probably more personal and sensitive as a medium than all but the highest quality of interactive video. If anyone feels distant or disconnected then check it out with them directly. Pick up the phone and call.   

“Don’t forget that home working for many people will be stressful because children will be at home and there will be real concerns and worries about health. If you are leading a team, then give them time to interact whether that is for a few minutes at the start of a call or videoconference or even build in some informal ‘watercooler’ time.”

Tips for supporting your remote workforce during the coronavirus pandemic

Dr Ian Nnatu, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital North London, has put together advice for supporting employees during this challenging time:

  1. Keep in regular if not daily contact with your employees, and be honest and authentic in your communication. There is a lot of uncertainty which leads to anxiety. Be open about this and try to be flexible and adapt as new information or guidance emerges and ensure clear communication through line management’s structures. You might want to consider sending out daily bulletins via emails and ensure two-way communication so that employees can feel heard.
  2. Pay attention to the diversity of your workforce; some employees may have underlying mental health issues that might be exacerbated by isolation. Offer support and access to your Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) which can offer a range of support.
  3. Try to facilitate opportunities for colleagues to maintain social contact, harnessing available technology such as WhatsApp, Slack or Skype, Facetime for video conferencing during lunch hour or coffee breaks and keep in touch with colleagues who are self-isolating to keep morale up.
  4. Ensure easy access to IT support as this is likely to be a lifeline for most.
  5. EAPs are employer-funded workplace wellbeing and counselling services that offer employees confidential counselling and advice on a wide range of work and personal issues. They are free to employees. Some EAP programmes offer 24/7 access to mental health chatbot programmes through a smartphone application and use online therapy and crisis texting programmes as well as phone support.

There are also paid-for alternatives, which also allow you to practise social distancing or quarantine restrictions while accessing a trained therapist and can be extremely useful in periods of acute stress. Research suggests that teletherapy is as effective as in-person therapy. Priory offers a paid-for online therapy platform for this called Priory Connect which might be available through health insurance.

Working together to manage stress and anxiety

More people are experiencing stress and worry as a result of the coronavirus outbreak. Everyone is affected by this, and it can be useful to reflect on the need to work together, for a common purpose, even if people are forced to stay apart. Dr Niall Campbell, Consultant Psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Roehampton has listed advice and information that you may want to share with your teams to help them at this time.

He suggests:

  • “Mindfulness, relaxation techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are all genuinely useful for people who are very anxious. There are many apps which people can use. For those who can’t leave home, much of it – including accessing therapy – can be done online
  • “Helping others, for example reaching out to elderly neighbours in the current situation, or contributing to a food bank – all of these things can make you focus on things outside of yourself and improve your mood and thereby reduce your anxiety
  • “Remember, most people who get COVID-19 are likely to make a lasting recovery, and that’s important. Try to stop the train of thought that will always lead you into a dark tunnel, imagining the worst case scenario. Challenge your negative thoughts. Separate what you can control and what you can’t. Stay in the present
  • “Give yourself a short period each day to think through your worries but then stop and don’t allow intrusive thoughts to impact your entire day. Think of negative thoughts as a train that you are getting off. Then give yourself a boost by talking to others, or listening to music, or cooking or doing something that takes up your time in a joyful way
  • “It’s a very worrying time for many but this period will pass. The world is working together and scientists and doctors achieve extraordinary outcomes. Stick to trusted news sources including health news sources and try and maintain normalcy in your life. Routines and rhythm are helpful whether it be mealtimes or sleep times and don’t be afraid to seek help if it becomes overwhelming, as help is available on a phone or online as well as in person
  • “Stay connected with friends and family, and value them – and it’s ok to reach out to a mental health professional. As the World Health Organisation says, protect yourself and be protective to others and know that every measure is being taken to save lives and protect the most vulnerable. Focus on positive news – it is there, from the small gesture to the amazing work being done across the world to combat the virus.”

Advice to share on self-isolation and social distancing

If your staff members are working from home or are self-isolating during the coronavirus outbreak, Pamela Roberts, a Priory psychotherapist based at Priory Hospital Woking has put together the following advice that you may wish to share with them:

  • “Ensure you are in a well-ventilated room and following basic self-care, so healthy eating, sleep, lots of hydration, and try to keep to a routine
  • “Set up a ‘buddy group’ with family or friends and regularly check in online or with Facetime
  • “If you feel low, journaling can be a helpful way to unload emotions
  • “Take things a day at a time – planning may have once been essential but projection can evoke fear and anxiety. Go with the flow. Tell yourself ‘what I am doing is enough’. Be good to yourself. If you have slept badly, accept you’ll be in a low, more anxious mood. Your energy will be low
  • “Try and relax and focus on positive things knowing that every effort is being made globally to bring this situation to a close, but it will take time. Being able to relax will help you through. When you’re tense you tend to dwell on things and make them worse
  • “If you are well enough, exercise is really good. Look for online classes or courses to help you take light exercise in your home
  • “Find music that helps boost your mood
  • “If you are able, get into your garden and get daily doses of sunshine
  • “If you feel well enough, maybe look at some free online courses offered by the Open University
  • “The mental health charity Mind has some very useful advice on self-isolating and your mental health. For support with grief, anxiety, or mental wellbeing, you can call or text an organisation like the Samaritans, or you can access therapy online with a trained therapist.”
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