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How to Manage Stress as a Newly Remote Employee

The life of employees forced online.

Paul White, used with permission
Source: Paul White, used with permission

COVID-19 has changed many things. One of the most prominent changes is the shift for many to virtual work. Remote employment can have many benefits, but the current circumstances call for a deeper look into the challenges this type of work can raise.

Paul White is a psychologist, speaker, and international leadership trainer who “makes work relationships work.” His company, Appreciation at Work, provides training resources for corporations, medical facilities, schools, non-profits, and government agencies, including over 700 colleges and universities, and in over 60 countries. He is the co-author with Gary Chapman of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, which has sold over 500,000 copies.

JA: How did you first get interested in this topic?

PW: My professional focus for the past 10 years has been “making work relationships work.” I’ve co-authored 3 books with Gary Chapman, most notably The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, where we applied the concepts of the 5 love languages to work-place relationships. We have previously done research on how remote employees differ from onsite employees in how they like to be shown appreciation and encouragement. With the millions of new remote workers—who face different challenges than traditional remote workers—I thought it would be wise to explore the experiences, perceptions, reactions, and coping mechanisms of this group of workers (and what they are learning).

JA: What was the focus of your study?

PW: We wanted to learn about newly remote employees—who were forced to work remotely, who were working from home (which is different than just working remotely), and in the midst of the health and financial concerns created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

From 1200-plus applicants, we chose 50 individuals in order to get a balanced sample of gender, living situations (alone, with a roommate, spouse/significant other, children), location (urban, suburban, rural). Some of these individuals have been working remotely for years, but most of them had been working remotely less than two weeks when the study began.

We had them fill out an online questionnaire once per week for four weeks, looking at their concerns, the challenges they were facing, their level of anxiety (and what they were anxious about), what coping behaviors they were using, what feelings they were experiencing, and what positive results were coming from working from home. We also looked at their sense of connectedness and isolation, actions they and their colleagues took to stay connected, their level of hope, and on what they based their hope.

JA: What did you discover in your study?

PW: We found a number of themes—some confirming previously learned lessons, some interesting tidbits—and most of the results point to practical actions that leaders, managers, and even employees themselves can take to manage the stress and anxiety of having one’s daily work situation turned upside down.

First, it is important to note that this group is different than the general population about whom the major media frequently reports survey results. These individuals are employed versus unemployed or furloughed. Having said that, as a group they have a moderate amount of anxiety, seemingly at a level appropriate for their circumstances. They are anxious about their health (more so about their family members’ than themselves), about the impact of the pandemic globally and on the economy, and what their future lives will look like.

However, the biggest challenges they have to deal with on a daily basis are issues created from working from home (“working while overseeing my children’s schooling”), work-related issues (“trying to get all my work done while feeling scattered”), and family issues (“children’s behavior regressing—lots of crying and meltdowns").

A key set of findings related to how people cope with their stress and anxiety. Individuals who: a) got adequate sleep, b) ate healthily, c) limited their “binge-watching” of the news, d) took breaks from work, e) engaged in rejuvenating activities, and f) made efforts to connect with colleagues experienced fewer stress reactions and lower anxiety, and reported higher levels of positive feelings.

JA: Is there anything that surprised you in your findings, or that you weren't fully expecting?

Remote employees report strongly enjoying the extra time they have as a result of not commuting 1-2 hours per day. Specifically, they are enjoying more time with their families (“I get to have lunch with my wife”; “I love being at home with my baby”) as well as having more time for exercising and projects around the house. They also love the flexibility resulting from working from home (“taking walks for a break from work”).

Interestingly, some factors did not influence employees’ stress, anxiety, and positive feelings, including the age of the employee, location (urban, suburban, rural), living situation (alone, roommate, family), or their degree of extraversion/introversion.

Overall, the majority of remote employees continued to have hope that “things will get better.” The most impactful sources of hope were their religious faith, family and friends, and maintaining a positive attitude. Those who were most at risk for experiencing more stress and anxiety indicated they had no specific reason for their hope.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives, especially during COVID-19?

PW: A key finding with practical implications is that an important factor related to reducing remote employees’ stress, anxiety, and positive coping was the practice of actively reaching out to coworkers to connect. Employees reported that communicating via video (versus just email or phone), “checking in” occasionally, having time to chat with colleagues about non-work topics, and sharing funny texts or videos are all ways that helped them feel connected to their colleagues.

Additionally, a key message about keeping resilient through this difficult time is “it’s not rocket science.” Do those activities that we know—and which working from home remote employees report—are helpful: get adequate sleep, eat a healthy diet, take breaks, stay connected with others, limit your watching of anxiety-producing news, and do something fun occasionally.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

PW: We have recently launched a remote version of our online assessment, the Motivating By Appreciation Inventory¸ that identifies how each team member prefers to be shown appreciation and provides actions relevant to long-distance relationships.

Additionally, we are “translating” our Appreciation at Work training resources into a virtual training kit that can be used with remote employees through an online videoconference methodology. Our goal is always to provide practical, relevant resources to help build positive workplace cultures and to “make work relationships work.”

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