Working remotely brings new challenges

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Some people have worked from home for years, but for others, working remotely — while also being home with family — is entirely new territory. And, it's challenging.

By MARTHA RASCHE
Special to The Herald

Some people have worked from home for decades. Initially most figured out what they needed to do to get their jobs done, figured out how to devote time and room to both family and job in the same space and carried on smoothly.

Other people, until a few weeks ago, had never worked from home. And they feel increasingly challenged by it.

The differences between the first group and the second, according to area mental health counselors, are multifold and not to be taken lightly.

Even some of those who have worked from home for a long time are having problems with it as they largely go nowhere else during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s not necessarily just the working from home that’s hard for people — it’s the change in routines and the isolation they are experiencing. The work-from-home plans went into place very quickly, and people experienced the changes of having to organize a home office and adapt to working in a different environment very quickly,” said Jessica Cooper, a licensed clinical social worker and the Employee Assistance Program manager at LifeSpring Health Systems in Jasper.

“The stress for that is magnified by trying to process all of the ways in which these changes impact day-to-day life while experiencing the trauma of a pandemic.”

Olivia Taylor, an advanced practice psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner for Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper, added: “You had issues with work-life balance when you actually went to your job every day, but they’re different work-life balances now that you’re in the home every day with your family.”

Cooper, Taylor and Heather Terwiske, clinical supervisor of psychiatric social work and on-call services at Memorial Hospital, took time out from always-busy schedules late last week to answer some questions about the new normal that for many families finds one or both parents working from home and multiple children, from preschool to college, learning online in that same environment.

All three of the counselors said that the role of an employee’s supervisor plays a huge role in how the employee is adapting to the new situation.

It’s really important for the manager to reach out to employees to offer reassurance and validation, they agreed.

“The managers need to thank their employees and validate: ‘This is a really hard period of time, but you’re doing a really good job,’” said Terwiske, on her second day of working from home rather than at the hospital.

From the employee standpoint, Taylor continued, having a manager take the time to check in “means a lot. Simple questions like ‘Are you okay?’ ‘How are you holding up?’ ‘What do you need from me?’” go a long way, she said. “We need to have expectations clarified while we’re at home just to make sure everybody’s on the same page, and we need to know that our employers care if we have the materials and the equipment we need to do our job.”

Check-ins several time a week, if not daily, are important. Terwiske and Taylor have an online support group with their co-workers available and, given their employer, receive a daily email with notice of the latest changes within the hospital as well as updates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the county and state health departments.

The challenge is to keep employees informed but not overwhelmed. Too many updates are anxiety-provoking, Cooper said, but supervisors staying in communication is essential.

Darcy Gruttadaro, a 17-year employee of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and now director of the American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health, suggested in a NAMI-sponsored “Ask the Expert” webinar last week that employers use video connections if possible. “It’s important to see each other,” she said. “It’s a reminder that the folks you work with and you connect with in your support network [are] out there.”

She also said that CEOs, school superintendents and other leaders “need to be willing to be vulnerable and say, ‘We’re all experiencing high periods of stress, anxiety, uncertainty.’ ... They need to show empathy and compassion and say, ‘We understand that people are experiencing tremendous challenges. We are not expecting people to be performing at their peak level. We know they’re juggling many things at home.’”

That doesn’t give workers leave to ignore the jobs they are being paid to do, but Gruttadaro urged employers to show flexibility.

“What we advise employers is to be reasonable with expectations. Ask what support is needed and provide it. We understand that jobs must be done regardless of what industry you’re in, but people are highly distracted and stressed, so flexibility is essential."

Terwiske cautioned employees not to compare their productivity today to what it was in February.

“You can’t measure yourself to the same person that you were six weeks ago, because you’re not the same person and this isn’t the same world and work flow right now,” she said. “Quit trying to compare yourself to what was going on, again six weeks ago, because it’s not the same.”

Two-way communication is the best way to keep on track, Taylor said, advising employees who are feeling overwhelmed or stressed out to reach out to their supervisors. “Say, ‘Here’s what I’m working on. Is this OK?’”

Terwiske suggested the supervisor outline the expectations as far as productivity, including specific, set goals as well as extras the employee “could do whenever you have time, whether that be a month from now, three months from now. And then just continue to validate that to the employee: ‘You’re doing what you need to be doing.’”

Working from home can be easier if the employee keeps a regular schedule and keeps in touch with not just the supervisor but also co-workers.

Taylor suggested taking small breaks throughout the day and taking as long for lunch at home as you would if you were at the office. And since you’re home anyway, she said, why not go outside and get some exercise during a break or play with your kids for a few minutes?

“Turn what could be negative into something positive,” she said.

The counselors advise supervisors to become familiar with what mental health treatment is available in employees’ health plans and EAPs and to share that information with their employees.

With many practices moving to telehealth, in many cases getting appointments with providers is easier than ever right now, according to Cooper.

While addressing the needs of employees working remotely, counselors are not forgetting those continuing to go to work, including those in essential businesses and health workers on the front lines.

“They are experiencing a lot of fear and anxiety about going to work. People are worried about getting sick themselves or exposing their families to COVID-19 due to their continuing to work outside of the home,” Cooper said. “Some people are feeling anxious due to work hours being cut and not knowing how they will make ends meet or how long they’ll continue to have to work these limited hours.”

Cooper noted that many people think they have to wait until a problem is “big enough” to seek services — but EAPs are meant to help people with a variety of problems. “Dealing with the challenges of working from home while trying to help your children adjust to major life changes, for instance, is enough of a reason to call,” she said.

Early identification of mental health issues is the best way to get early treatment and achieve the best outcomes.

“We know that from nearly every mental health condition out there. Early treatment and early care leads to the best results,” Gruttadaro said. “So we want to remind people who may be experiencing their first bout with mental health and substance use, this is essentially very, very important.”

If you are feeling depressed, anxious or overwhelmed, help is available by calling Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center at 812-827-6222 or LifeSpring Health Systems at 812-482-4020. 

Martha Rasche is a member of the Dubois County Public Health Partnership Mental Health Committee and the local affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. With funding from the health partnership, she writes about topics related to mental health. Read her blogs at TheseAreOurStories.com. Email her at mtrasche@twc.com.


Tips for working remotely

The American Psychiatric Association Foundation’s Center for Workplace Mental Health offers advice for managers and human resource professionals to help employees working remotely to stay connected to the workplace and each other.

• Show empathy and be available. Understand that employees are likely feeling overwhelmed and anxious about circumstances related to the coronavirus. Make yourself available to your staff to talk about fears, to answer questions and to reassure them about work and other issues that might come up.

• Stay connected with communication and meeting tools. Use virtual meeting options with video for regular check-ins and to allow teams to connect with one another “face-to-face.”

• Recognize the impact of isolation and loneliness. Working remotely can cause people to feel isolated, making it more important to routinely check in with your team, not only about their work product but also to see how they are doing. Loneliness can lead to depression and other mental health issues. Be aware of significant changes you may see in a team member’s personality or work product, because it may be a sign that the person is struggling.

• Encourage online training. This is a great time to encourage employees to sharpen their skills with online training. It is also a good distraction to focus on learning rather than worrying about other issues. Find online trainings and new learning opportunities to recommend to employees.

• Check in with your Employee Assistance Program and health plan. Confirm the availability of mental health treatment and remind staff that the benefits are there if needed. Coordinate support for employees. Be sure to include all relevant web links and phone numbers for both the EAP and health plan in communicating with employees.




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