MSUToday
Published: May 21, 2020

Ask the expert: How can employees care for their mental health while working from home?

Contact(s): Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 brooks78@msu.edu, Angela Hall Human Resources and Labor Relations office: 517-432-3446 athall@msu.edu

When an employee spends hours on a video call, isn’t physically comfortable and doesn’t leave the “office” at the end of the day, it can take a toll on mental health.

Angela Hall, a professor in Michigan State University’s School of Human Resources and Labor Relations, has been tracking workplace dynamics and changes since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and has said that employment will forever be changed as a result of how employers will need to view remote work.

“More employees will want to work from home even after social distancing recommendations are over,” Hall said. “They’ll say, ‘I did it before, why can I not do it now?’ and employers will need to be prepared to respond.”

Still, Hall says that this preferred way of working takes its toll on mental health — but that there are ways to curb its effects. Hall provides recommendations for employees and employers to stay sane during a long and challenging time.

People working remotely may believe there’s no reason to be burned out because they’re at home. Is it possible that video conference calls, like Zoom, could be more exhausting than in-person meetings?
Yes, Zoom calls are more exhausting. As humans, we are designed for face-to-face communications. We receive the best, richest information that way.

Even though we can see people during a Zoom call, it is a contrived environment. We are not looking at fellow attendees directly in their eyes, and we need to be staring straight at the screen to show attention when under normal circumstances, we would be moving and changing gaze more in face-to-face conversations. We even speak differently when on Zoom — typically louder and more deliberately.

Moreover, we have more meetings than ever now. Issues that could have been addressed with just a quick pop into a co-worker’s office, now require an email or a Zoom meeting. All of these can lead to emotional exhaustion, job-induced stress and burnout.

It’s very hard to avoid slipping into workplace burnout months into the health crisis. What can employees do to avoid burnout without slipping in productivity?
Employees need to create reasonable expectations for themselves, as well as their managers and subordinates.

Working during these times is stressful, and it is normal that productivity won’t necessarily be the same. Don’t beat yourself up and remember to be kind to yourself and others. It’s important for employees to maintain social work connections and doing things like check-in phone calls or virtual happy hours. People should also experiment in stress-reducing techniques such as yoga, meditation or other mindfulness practices. It’s a great idea to use the time that’s normally spent commuting to start a new hobby or volunteer by doing things like making masks or scheduling virtual visits with people in nursing homes.

Do you have any tips for employees who are struggling with having to ‘compartmentalize’ their jobs from their other responsibilities at home, like being a parent or caregiver?

1. Create an official workspace. Even if you don’t have a home office, workers should find a reasonably quiet space that is not within the hub of the home. Also, even though you might not have your ergonomic office chair at home, engage in healthy work practices such as sitting upright with your feet flat on the floor while you are working on your computer to avoid back strain, use boxes or reams of paper to make sure that your monitor is at the appropriate eye-level to avoid neck and eye strain and invest in a wrist rest to prevent or ease carpal tunnel syndrome.

2. Create a work schedule when you will have “office hours.” Dedicate yourself to your job duties at that time and don’t be tempted to throw in a load of laundry or vacuum. Part of this routine will be to create regular check-ins with your supervisor/manager, subordinates and co-workers. Also, know when to call it a day! At some point, employees should end their workday — this means stop reading and responding to emails once you reach quitting time.

3. Educate those who live with you that working from home still means that you are at work. Parents should have age-appropriate discussions with kids about not disturbing mom or dad when they are talking on the computer. Some kids might not comply, but with regular repetition, many will get the idea that there are times when mom and dad may not be immediately available. (This also applies to older persons in the home). When two parents or caregivers are working from home, they should try to schedule their meetings such that one parent can be the point person when the other parent is occupied.

4. Schedule breaks. A healthy schedule includes breaks. Most of us are unaccustomed to looking at a screen for eight hours straight, so take regular breaks to stretch, walk around the block or get a healthy snack.

Employers have made a point to share resources for mental health assistance with employees. In this unprecedented time, what companies are ‘doing it right’ when it comes to helping employees? Are there examples beyond pointing them to resources?
The best company practices right now include letting all employees who are able to do telework, work from home. Some companies are pushing the limits of whom they deem “essential” workers and are not allowing them to work from home.

Another best practice is not overwhelming employees with information, but rather providing regular concise communications that allow them time to adjust to our ever-changing “normal.” Some places are introducing virtual open-door policies, which allow organizations to address concerns weighing on employees, such as layoffs, furloughs and reductions in staff.

Employees know that we face uncertain economic times. Anything an organization can do to address their concerns — even if it means giving them information that might be uncomfortable to hear at the time — is better than making them wait to learn their hours will be cut or they will be laid off or furloughed. 

Angela T. Hall, is associate professor and associate director for graduate programs in the School of Human Resources and Labor Relations.