If you’ve reached for your stress ball more often than you care to admit recently, you’re not alone.
You may have heard that we’re dealing with “unprecedented times.” And while that’s become a bit of a cliché, recent data from the American Psychological Association shows that about 70% of adults view work as a major source of stress. For those navigating full-time remote work for the first time, this truly is uncharted territory. Never mind doing it during a pandemic indefinitely.
You might be managing some people who feel this way, or maybe you’re struggling to motivate an entire stressed-out team.
Mental health is a tool that can combat work stressors, but managing employees from a distance while continuing to navigate your own demands has rendered it a relatively low priority for many. You’re putting out so many fires that you likely haven’t been able to fuel the one thing that enables you and your team to perform: your mental health.
How does work affect mental health?
Even when you have the most manageable to-do list, it’s important to remember you don’t always control the stressors you face and you have limited capacity to meet everyday demands. Work demands can run the gamut: specific tasks, meetings, customer calls, checking emails, etc. But stressors can also come in more abstract forms, such as time pressure, lack of role clarity, ambiguous tasks, and a swelling workload.
When you continue to experience new demands and stressors, you have to expend resources such as energy, thought, and time. And in the process, your capacity becomes depleted throughout the course of a day – even if you can’t tell.
Your ability to meet work demands and cope with work stressors is dependent on your available resources. Resources can come in the form of personal characteristics such as self-efficacy, optimism, and active coping. But they can also appear in the workplace in the forms of coworker support, autonomy, variety, or recognition.
If you continually face new demands without adequate resources, you may begin to show signs of burnout. Burnout can manifest as:
- Feelings of inefficacy
You might also be start to exhibit fatigue, anxiety, or depression. And when that happens, you must replenish your resources daily and over time in order to prevent depletion and the associated psychological costs.
What is recovery from work?
To replenish resources, it’s important to find recovery time. Recovery from work occurs through specific activities (socializing, reading a book, physical activity) or experiences (mentally detaching from work, relaxing, forms of mastery). Maybe these take one day; maybe your recovery requires longer periods of time.
Certain activities are more complicated when social distancing mandates are in effect. But if you’re intentional about your efforts, and make recovery one of your highest priorities, it’s well worth it.
Research shows that sleep, psychological detachment from work, and social activity are particularly beneficial for resource replenishment. Sleep is crucial for recovery because it:
- provides a mental break from daily activities
- restores physical and cognitive energies
Psychological detachment requires you to mentally let go of and disconnect from work during nonwork time. By mentally disconnecting from work, you interrupt the need to expend cognitive energy on work, and improve your capacity for other responsibilities or relaxing recovery activities.
And no matter your behavioral pattern, you need some human interaction. Social activity is a particularly useful way to replenish resources because it buffers against the negative effects of stress and directly builds interpersonal and social resources.
Your nonwork time and the ways you unwind probably look different than they have in the past. It’s harder to recover this year, and because recovery has a direct impact on your ability to dedicate time and effort to work, it’s essential that organizations attend to employee mental well-being and recovery.
How can you support employee recovery and mental health?
Managers are in a somewhat paradoxical situation when it comes to promoting recovery. As a manager, you might have higher demands than your direct reports, which makes it more difficult for you to recover.
But research has demonstrated that when managers experience stress and lack of recovery, their employees do too. This underscores how important it is for managers to set norms and expectations around recovery.
Here are a few things you can do to manage team health and recovery from work:
- Evaluate and improve your own recovery routine. Research has demonstrated that manager stress can trickle down. Managers who don’t have positive sleep or detachment practices are at risk for impaired ability to lead. To inspire employees, build positive relationships, and manage a team, managers must make first take care of themselves. Think about what recovery activities fill your cup. People with higher extraversion drives are generally energized by socializing. Others need time to relax or meditate, or wind down through mastery activities. Once you complete your workday, unplug and set aside time to recharge.
- Model your recovery behaviors. Managers set the tone for recovery, so it’s important that you model positive recovery behaviors. When a manager signs off at 5:00 PM and doesn’t appear back online until 9:00 AM the next day, it makes it okay for employees to do the same. Full-time remote work blurs a lot of boundaries. It’s easier for many to complete work tasks during nonwork time and to take care of other responsibilities during business hours. This flexibility can be a positive thing, but only if employees are able to create boundaries and time for recovery. Make it obvious that you are balancing work and nonwork time. Emphasize the importance of recovery and mental health to your employees often. Encourage them to take breaks and time off.
- Check in with your employees and ask them what they need. While sleep, psychological detachment, and social activity are key to recovery and mental health, different people have different preferences when it comes to how they recover and feel the most replenished. Some employees might need extra support when it comes to maintaining work-nonwork boundaries. Others might need a little more structural support or recognition when it comes to meeting job demands. And maybe some people just need to be told it’s okay to take a few days off, even if they aren’t going on vacation.
Think about your employees’ strongest behavioral drives. You can use a relationship guide to steer your conversations. Ask your employees what they need, and help them brainstorm ways they can protect themselves from resource depletion.