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Mitigating Isolation Among a Dispersed Workforce

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NooneisanislandNo one is an island—addressing the real threat of isolation when working from home.

Working remotely is not something most of us imagined we would be doing at the start of 2020. COVID-19 has forced many of us to shift from the workplace to the home office and, while we may not have embraced the concept in the beginning, both employees and employers are seeing the benefits. Beyond the obvious reduction of risk for COVID exposure, work-from-home (WFH) employees are also celebrating the elimination of long commutes, more time with their families and greater flexibility. Employers are also seeing the upside with productivity going up and costs to the business going down. Yet with these benefits come risks including a sense of isolation.

However, we are also experiencing at least some degree of isolation due to COVID-related restrictions. Our inability to do the things we used to take for granted like seeing friends and loved ones, traveling or enjoying a live concert is, at some level, affecting our mental health. People who are working from home are also missing those interactions with coworkers, clients and others.

While we understand the whys behind the shift to WFH, we tend to overlook the resulting impact on the workforce. On top of the common concerns like catching COVID, cabin fever and uncertainty about the future, dispersed employees must also manage their new workday realities. Adapting to new routines and technologies, managing family needs like childcare and remote learning, concerns about job security and fears around returning to the office all contribute to a greater sense of isolation and add additional stress to our already stressful lives.

Isolation affects each of us differently and some more than others. However, there are some common health-related effects that those working from home may experience. These include:

  • Loss of sleep
  • Fatigue
  • Increased anxiety or depression
  • Decreased concentration
  • Fear
  • Weight gain
  • Substance abuse

In addition, dispersed workers may be more distracted, feel more frustrated, perform at a lower level than normal, feel burned out or disengaged. Employees experiencing any of these effects can impact the entire team. Managers have a responsibility to act when they see an employee in distress. This is important, not only for this individual’s wellbeing, but for the entire team and the business as well. Things managers should do:

  • Know each employees’ situation. Do they have children at home? Have they or someone in their family suffered any health issues (COVID or other)? Have they been impacted financially (e.g. their spouse has lost his or her job)?
  • Demonstrate empathy and sympathy. Start conversations by asking, “How are you,” followed, if necessary, by, “No, how are you really?”
  • Know what support resources are available like your organization’s employee assistance program, occupational health and counseling services, and share this information with your team.
  • Be supportive during conversations with employees who feel isolated. Prioritize their mental health by shifting from discussions about performance concerns to conversations about how you can help them.
  • Consider scheduling some off-site meetings where co-workers can meet face-to-face safely for some needed human interaction.
  • Set a policy for work/life balance. Encourage your team to take breaks, exercise, separate their workspace from their family space, and shut off their computer at the end of the workday.
  • Take care of yourself first. You cannot help your team if you are also tired, disengaged, anxious or depressed.

Like it or not, working from home is here to stay, at least well into 2021 for many. It is important, as we continue to navigate this strange new world, to recognize that we are all susceptible to feelings of isolation at least one time or another. Managers who prioritize their employees’ wellbeing, provide support and remind them that they are not alone will build a stronger, more resilient team who will not only get through this but thrive.

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