Leaders should create a culture of empathy and honesty for remote workers.
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  • Dr. Shauna Springer is an author, expert on trauma, and chief psychologist at Stella Center, a treatment center for trauma-related symptoms.
  • Just as companies prioritise tech support and productivity aids for working virtually, Springer says they should also focus on supporting their employees' mental health.
  • Leaders should create a culture of empathy and understanding and be accommodating to workers who might be overwhelmed with childcare or other personal commitments.
  • Encourage employees to take mental health breaks, schedule company-wide time off for self-care, and be respectful of different time zones when scheduling meetings. 
  • For more stories, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za


Covid-19 has caused businesses of all shapes and sizes to pivot in terms of strategy, communication, and even location. Supplying PPE or allowing work from home can help keep employees physically safe, but what about supporting their mental wellness? 

Shauna Springer is an author and chief psychologist at Stella Center.
Shauna Springer

This pandemic has been likened to other traumatic experiences that leave people without direction or clarity, but with one unique quality — no one knows when it's going to end. This ambiguity creates constant background anxiety, and can retrigger or create new symptoms of trauma.

For those of us who are fortunate enough to still have a job, our work lives have also become much more complicated. Eliminating commuting hours seemed enticing at first, but there can be adverse mental effects of a "ten second commute" from the bedroom to workspace. The blurring of work and home, with no time to transition mentally or physically, is draining to our energy and mental wellness. Our brains and bodies need variation to thrive, something we lack during this time.

For many of us, work has become the focus of our lives

The amount of space work takes up in our brains has grown exponentially. For entry-level workers, this destabilising crisis is hitting at a time when they are learning how to navigate adulthood, support themselves independently, and build professional relationships with others. "Normal" has been thrown into a blender before normal ever felt normal for them.

For workers with kids, there can be a disconnect around the impact of having children at home 24/7 without any childcare coverage. Having children attend "virtual" school classes while parents are working from home all but guarantees a new level of parental guilt. 

Here's why — children are continually seeking the attention they want and need, during times when parents are expected to focus on work or attend back to back Zoom meetings. 

It's important to acknowledge this tension to create a safe and supportive culture for working parents

During this challenging season, business leaders should focus more than ever on creating mentally healthy working environments for all employees. Here are 10 ways they can.

1. Extra check-ins can go a long way

Using something like a "pyramid" model can rapidly create this extra layer of support. Specifically, highest level leaders can schedule an extra check-in call with those who directly report to them, and ask others to do the same. 

Quick phone calls to assess any new obstacles can prevent small challenges from becoming big ones. Sending encouraging group texts to all employees can also be helpful, but the interactive aspect of phone calls is where personal connections are made.

2. Plan a friendly "fake out"

Here's how this works. Leadership can schedule a "required meeting" for all employees, and then inform them at the appointed time that they should use the meeting time to do something fun and relaxing, like take a hike, or call a loved one. 

A close friend of mine who works at Oracle told me her team did this recently, and the leaders who initiated it asked people to post pictures of how they used the time to recharge. They led by example through posting pictures of themselves first. This kind of friendly fake out — the opposite of a "bait and switch" — can send a strong message of support. 

3. Build in mental health breaks

This will give employees permission to spend some time on mental wellness. Some companies may choose to do this during working hours, as a way to invest in employees' mental health. For instance, a company might give employees a half day of time for self-care every other Friday.

If this is not financially feasible for some companies, there are other ways to be supportive. Besides the friendly "fake out" suggested above, a company could schedule a short company wide break and bring in a speaker. I recently addressed a group of several hundred leaders in a top tier health organisation. They asked me to share insights about the unspoken psychological impact of disruptive change and share specific ways of coping. We had a good discussion, shared some laughs, and I received feedback that even this short break for mental wellness was helpful for their team.

4. Create a culture of understanding

Many of us are continually pulled between dual roles, as workers, and as supporters of those who rely on us. For example, an employee with an elderly parent with special health needs may have lost the support they had previously. 

Many people have moved elderly parents into their homes and are trying to balance their role as a caregiver and an employee. Parents with children in virtual school may need to help their children get connected to meetings, eat lunch in the middle of the day, and give them attention when they need it. Children will do funny things sometimes, like walk up to you during a Zoom meeting without pants.

If leaders can create a culture of grace and levity around these inevitable collisions of work and home life, employees will not forget this kind of support.

5. Make sure your people have what they need to succeed

Leaders can ask: "Do you have everything you need to work under these conditions?" and offer to help get their staff what they need. Many employees were not set up to telecommute when Covid-19 hit. They may lack the equipment or support they had previously. Some of them may not speak up about these needs, in a climate where many have lost  their jobs. There may be inexpensive tools or items they need that a company leader can easily authorise. 

As a leader, it's good to ask, rather than assume that employees will spend their time and money to acquire these items.  

6. Create opportunities to share humour and stories that are uplifting, not awful

My organisation, Stella Center, uses humour to create "Tribe." We don't take ourselves too seriously — which is great for our collective mental wellness. For instance, we are launching a monthly "newsletter" for coping with Covid. As the chief psychologist, I will write a short, not-too-serious piece to pair with a monthly theme. We'll be asking everyone on the Stella Center team to submit a photo for a monthly montage that is sure to spark some interesting conversations. We'll kick it off by asking for images of peoples' most creative Halloween costume and then move on to other themes like your high school prom or other outdated formal photo, an awkward family photo of your choosing, and more.

7. Use Zoom backgrounds to start a story

Leaders can host a meeting with employees with an off-the-wall Zoom background that is funny or that reveals something of the human side of who you are as a leader. We've all seen people play around with Zoom backgrounds. The idea here would be to create a Zoom background that hints at a story and shows people a little bit of who we are outside of our work role. 

Using your imagination here can help people connect with each other, create moments of playfulness, and build a culture of grace as described in idea No.4. 

8. Start an open forum for "crowd resourcing" between employees

We all know what "crowdsourcing" is: picking lots of peoples' brains for our own good. 

I created the concept of "crowd resourcing" for a different purpose. "Crowd resourcing" is when a leader of guide creates an opportunity for those in a team to share their best ideas for coping with a challenging time, including life hacks and sources of support that their coworkers might benefit from as well. 

9. Be mindful in scheduling Zoom meeting times

If you have employees working in different time zones, continue to be respectful of their "working hours" in scheduling meetings. To make this work, it may be necessary for your teams to get on the same page about the boundaries of "working hours" in the first place. 

These boundaries are so much more important now than they were before Covid. Employees are now taking meetings with people all over the country, inside and outside of their companies. Many of my friends in other companies have had required meetings as early as 6 a.m. or at 6 p.m. during what is their family dinnertime. Managers should be mindful of this, and adjust meeting times to be as accommodating as possible.

10. Set and hold boundaries for employees' non-work time

Here's an example to illustrate why this is important. With the advent of "virtual school," it might seem like working parents now get to spend all day with their children. In fact, this situation has brought next-level guilt to parents across the country.

As children seek the attention they need and want, parents often have to turn them away while they are in endless Zoom conferences. Weekends now may be a critical time for many of us to have undistracted time to focus on our loved ones. Leaders can support this protected time by telling employees to avoid working on the weekends when possible, and to take time off to re-energise and reconnect.

Navigating these life challenges requires us to find a new level of grace within ourselves, and to expand our empathy towards others. Promoting these kinds of caring practices will build loyalty, support a healthy workforce, and help those you support adjust to our new world. 

Your choices as a leader can demonstrate that you see, recognise, and appreciate the difficulties of maintaining a regular work schedule during a pandemic. We are all under heightened stress, and going the extra mile as a leader will not be forgotten by those you support.

Dr. Shauna Springer, known as "Doc Springer" in the military community, is the author of WARRIOR: How to Support Those Who Protect Us , and one of the nation's leading experts on trauma, military transition, and close relationships . As chief psychologist of Stella Center , she works to advance a new model for the treatment of trauma that fuses biological and psychological interventions. She now offers corporate speaking through Next Up Speakers .

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