Well-being and stress during corona
It can be hard to tell if a colleague isn’t coping well and to be aware of one’s own stress symptoms when we work under conditions we’re not used to. SDU’s organisational consultant and psychologist Birgitte Aagaard Zethsen discusses well-being and stress during corona.
Long days in front of the computer at home, where work and leisure time blend together. Teaching online, where you're not sure if the students understand what you're saying. New routines and ways of working for almost everyone. Our daily lives have been turned upside down, and whereas in the spring we might have been able to mobilise our fighting spirit more easily, as the months go by it becomes tougher to work under corona restrictions.
SDU's organisational consultant Birgitte Aagaard Zethsen experiences this on a daily basis. She has worked as a psychologist for a number of years and she's the one you meet if, as an SDU employee, you need to take sick leave because of stress. Unfortunately, there are still as many employees as usual who need Birgitte's help, she says. The new working conditions, and the loneliness and unpredictability that can result from them, can be stressful.
- For many, the most difficult thing when you're working from home is the lack of contact with others. When you don't meet physically, you can become more sensitive to what's said at meetings, both by colleagues and management. It can be hard to perceive tone and intention correctly without the accompanying body language, and when you can't give the others a quick, affirmative glance or hear undertones or irony. Our communication with each other must be much more precise, because otherwise we risk misinterpreting each other, explains Birgitte Aagaard Zethsen and continues:
- It can be hard to sense where colleagues and managers are coming from. If a manager says he or she wants to talk to you, you can easily become a little insecure if you don't know why. It's also hard for managers because they don't have daily contact with the employees and so they have to put in some extra emotional work to connect with them.
- It's not easy to keep up with everything when we're not physically together and are deprived of many of the impressions that help us understand what's being said. This means we all need to be much more precise in our communication.
Loneliness, isolation and unpredictability
Although there are both advantages and disadvantages to working from home and the changes to everyday life, Birgitte Aagaard Zethsen has noticed some common themes when she talks to people who aren't coping well under the current conditions.
- Many of us feel a sense of abandonment and loneliness when we sit at home all day, and we underestimate the impact of that. Those who live alone find it especially difficult, because you have to make much more of an effort to feel you have a network and a social life when you don't have it in the workplace. So they are extra vulnerable.
- The initial studies show that what people especially lack and miss are their colleagues and a sense of community. Some might already have been on the fringes of their workplace before, and for them it's hard to sit at home.
But she also points out that there are employees who are very happy with working from home and the flexibility it gives them.
- Many mention the benefits of having peace and quiet to do their work. But what we know about stress is that it's not enough to have peace and quiet - there also has to be structure, and that can be hard to create when you're at home. And if you don't get frequent feedback from your manager, it's difficult to know how well you're doing, says Birgitte, and explains that the feedback must be specific to the task to really benefit us and give us a sense of meaningfulness in relation to our daily work.
Radio silence and lack of contact
But how can we spot stress symptoms in yourself and others when we don't see each other every day?
- First and foremost, watch out for radio silence from colleagues. And have the courage to reach out if one of your colleagues seems distant and doesn't contribute as much as he or she normally does. If you sense that this is the case, try calling or emailing your colleague and ask how he or she is doing.
- Of course, as colleagues, we have a responsibility for each other's well-being, but at the end of the day it's always the manager's responsibility. But you can help the manager if you suspect a colleague isn't doing well, says Birgitte Aagaard Zethsen and elaborates:
- It's also about how we felt when we first started working from home. For some, the new routine was just what they needed; for others it was the opposite. Not everyone works better from home, but some do. We have different preferences and reactions.
She explains that we should be extra aware of warning signs in ourselves, because it can be difficult to spot stress symptoms when you're sitting at home and can't see yourself from others' point of view. For example, you might feel embarrassed or guilty about not feeling well, and try to keep it hidden from the others.
- A good working community fosters a healthy working environment, and most people need social interaction. And many of us are really starting to miss that. It's a different way of being together, and we may need to become better at structuring daily dialogues and chats with our closest colleagues, she says, and points out that it's key to look at how we create a sense of community and cohesion and reinvent office chats when we work from home.
Figure out what works best for you
Maybe you see colleagues who just love every second of the new routine. And others who've been allowed to come to campus because they can't work well at home. But it is important to point out that what works for one person does not necessarily work for someone else, says Birgitte. She recommends that managers and employees discuss and agree on a routine that suits the individual's needs under the current conditions.
- You have to change your rhythm and find out what works best for you, because in this case one size doesn't fit all. So if something suits you, it doesn't necessarily suit me, and we must remember to talk to each other about it. Something as simple as lacking necessary working tools can put pressure on some people.
- You have to find your own way of working and be open to discussing it with colleagues. You can ask them if there's something to can do to make it easier for them to work from home. And you can discuss how you and others go about it, suggests Birgitte Aagaard Zethsen, who knows what tools she will take with her when we eventually come out on the other side.
- We've become good at holding online meetings, and that is something we can continue to do. I myself have been surprised at how much can actually be done online, something I never would have thought when we were sent home last spring.
The worst is the unpredictability
When we were sent home for a period in the spring, it was easier for many because it was a limited, albeit long, period. Also, we didn't have to consider conflicting political views and disagreements between experts to the same extent that we do now. At the moment, it's more difficult because we're unsure when our 'real' working life, as we know it, will resume.
- This uncertainty and limitlessness is hard to deal with. We humans don't like it. And the political disagreements can make you feel unfairly treated. There can also be a feeling of unfairness among staff groups when some have to or are allowed to be on campus far more than others. There are many more issues and complications this time round, and this can cause problems, Birgitte points out.
-We can see that the lack of formal and informal interaction is starting to wear on people. We need a deadline for when it will stop, and we can't get that kind of structure. That affects our working community. There's very little predictability and that has an effect on our well-being.
- Don't sit in meetings all day, but take small breaks. If necessary, block your calendar and set aside time for preparation.
- Set up your workspace and routines in a way that suits you within the framework you have. One size doesn't fit all, and we must respect that. Good leadership involves respecting diversity.
- Remember to talk about what we're doing well and where we need to find new solutions. This applies to the management, the degree of involvement and the individual tasks.
- Beware of the email culture, where emails are sent and read around the clock. There can be an unhealthy competition around answering emails as quickly as possible. If so, you may want to make email culture agreements with your colleagues and your immediate management.
- Look at the areas where you can influence your work and the conditions you work under. You can often change how you and others close to you work.
- Reach out to colleagues you can see are more sensitive or vulnerable because they are alone a lot.
- Try to create a sense community and cohesion, even if you're working separately.
- Finally, call your colleagues or your manager if you're in doubt about anything.