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Research Shows That Newly Remote Employees Are Anxious—Here’s How You Can Help

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Dr. Paul White

Working from home has moved from a short-term diversion in our lives to a protracted period of life that, for many, is significantly challenging. Millions across the globe are having to cope with this major shift in the world of work.

Recently, we conducted a national four-week study following a group of newly remote employees.  The purpose of the research was to find out what the individuals’ concerns were, their major daily challenges, how they felt about their situation, ways they attempted to cope with the stress experienced, their mental health status and levels of anxiety, and what other factors contributed to their experienced stress and their coping abilities.*

From over 1200 individuals who applied to participate in the study, 50 were chosen with the goal of finding a representative group across a variety of factors including location (urban, suburban, rural), living circumstances (alone, with a roommate, spouse or significant other, with children), and length of working remotely. They were asked to complete a lengthy questionnaire weekly, once a week for four weeks.

Important Context to Remember

Remote employees have significant circumstantial differences than those who were working remotely prior to the COVID-19 crisis. They:

• were forced to work remotely, either by government orders or company decisions
• are working from home (as opposed to working in an offsite work location) 
• are concomitantly dealing with major health concerns for themselves and family members
• experiencing numerous additional external stressors– the pandemic’s global impact, broad economic concerns, job instability, disruption in daily activities, and financial challenges.

Additionally, two important contextual factors present currently are instability and unpredictability – and this is true for everyone: employees, managers, supervisors, as well as our family members.  These factors create an environment of overriding anxiety that seems to be almost ever present.

What We Found

Unsurprisingly, remote employees experience a moderate amount of anxiety.  Their worries include:

• health concerns for themselves and family members
• the impact of the pandemic globally and on the economy
• future financial difficulties and job security
• how long the current challenges will continue and what our future lives will look like.  

Respondents indicated their biggest daily challenges are created from the practical issues related to working from home (“working while overseeing my children’s schooling”), specific work-related issues (“Not being able to get information or resources I need easily”), and family issues (“children’s behavior regressing – crying and meltdowns”).

The importance of staying connected with colleagues was confirmed.  Those who both proactively reached out to their coworkers and who also felt others took actions to connect were more likely to experience less stress and anxiety and report a more positive experience while working from home.  What are some techniques that proved to be successful to connect with coworkers?  

• communicating via video (versus just email or phone)
checking in occasionally
• having time to chat with colleagues about non-work topics 
• sharing funny texts or videos

How people cope with their stress and anxiety was also a key them.  Individuals who experienced lower stress reactions, lower anxiety, and higher levels of positive feelings were more likely to:  a) get adequate sleep, b) eat healthily, c) limit their “binge watching” of the news, d) take breaks from work; e) engage in rejuvenating activities; and f) make efforts to connect with colleagues.  These results do not uncover any hidden truths, but rather confirm helpful habits considered ‘common sense’ by many.

Remote employees strongly report enjoying the extra time experienced as a result of working from home — over 50% of descriptive comments related to extra time due to not commuting (“I have more time to exercise”) or having more time with family (“I get to have lunch with my wife”).  They also love the flexibility from working from home (“taking my dog for a walk as a break from work”). 

Practical Implications

The results from this study have significant pragmatic relevance for those continuing to work from home and should be integrated into workplace cultures.

Understanding and managing anxiety.  Since the experience of anxiety is so widespread, understanding the individual sources of employees’ concerns and teaching them how to manage their anxiety is a major “take away” from the results of this research. Instructing team members in using simple cognitive tools can be highly effective. 

Staying connected.  Putting practices in place to assist team members in having ongoing interactions (both about work and personally) will be foundational to having a healthy workplace environment.  Discovering how each team member prefers to be encouraged and supported is critical. 

Healthy Habits.  A key message to team members about keeping remote employees resilient through this difficult time is relatively simple (but harder to implement.)  Encourage remote employees to do those activities that we know create a more positive, robust life:  get adequate sleep, eat a healthy diet, take breaks, stay connected with others, focus upon the positive, limit intake of anxiety-producing news, and do something fun occasionally. In our study, the more of these activities a person did, the better off they fared mentally.  

Positive “Work from Home” Factors. The fact that so many employees discovered significant positive aspects from their time working from home cannot be ignored. Over 90% of responses by employees report a great deal of satisfaction in their lives from:

• not having to commute every day (and getting dressed for work),  
• greater time with and connection to family members
• more time for personal activities, and
• the flexibility associated with working from home.  

Managing the desire by many who want to continue working remotely (after the current “stay at home” orders are lifted) will be a key issue to address.

Click here for the complete report of this study and our findings.

Dr. 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, government agencies, over 700 colleges and universities, and in over 60 countries. He is the co-author with Dr. Gary Chapman of The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, which has sold over 500,000 copies.