The past year has been stressful for everyone. For me, it was difficult in ways that I hope very few people will ever experience. Our family lost our 16-year-old son to a very rare cancer. The pandemic combined with the serious life-threatening disease of a child brought intense grief to our family’s life, overlaid on top of a public health emergency.
Many people have experienced uniquely stressful times, even though not everyone has dealt with the loss of a loved one. I remember talking with one of my clients early on in the pandemic about how the public health emergency made us all acutely aware that we never know what the future holds. Vacation plans, holidays, graduation, work events and so much more were canceled in 2020. That brings an unprecedented level of stress into people’s lives—and into organizations.
And of course, in homecare, that pressure has been compounded by questions about staff and client safety. In an industry where burnout was already high and staff retention low, there is a whole new level of stress. Employees wonder: “Am I going to get sick?” “Am I going to bring the disease to my family?” “Am I going to bring the virus to my elderly clients?”
Here are some tips to help you manage employee stress.
1. Take care of yourself first.
On an airplane, the emergency message always says to put your own oxygen mask on before assisting others. The same is true for workplace stress. It’s important to be aware of your own feelings and to be aware of what we can do to feel better.
Even before the pandemic hit, I always found it useful to take note of that sinking feeling that accompanies stress or sadness. It’s important to take a step back and reflect on what is causing the feeling. Awareness is the first step in dealing with any problem. Doing some conscious breathing or going for a walk are some simple ways to handle rising stress.
Several years ago, I attended a seminar at a human resources conference titled “Happiness Matters.” It was one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen. I learned how to create little lifts you can give yourself when you need a happiness boost. Maybe that’s having something on hand like music that makes you feel good. For me, it’s Pharrell Williams’ song “Happy” and some videos of Olympic swimmers lip-synching to “Call Me Maybe.” Having these go-to videos to watch or songs to listen to can change your mood.
2. See how that translates into your workspace.
The environment you work in is very important. Fluorescent lighting, for example, can be awful for the eyes and for the soul. Something as important as shifting to warm lighting can really increase comfort and reduce stress. When I worked in an office, I brought in lamps and turned off the glaring overhead lights and everyone came to congregate in my office! That cozy feel creates a subconscious feeling of ease and relaxation.
Of course, with the pandemic we’re also rethinking how to lay out shared workspaces. Are cubicles and an open plan really the best idea? What filtration systems do you have? Some changes may be prohibitively expensive, but it’s worth at least asking the questions, especially if they translate to employee safety and comfort.
3. Clarify expectations.
For employees working remotely, make sure they know when they’re expected to be working.
People working at home during the pandemic tend to work more hours than they did in the office. If management sends emails at 9 p.m. or 5 a.m., employees see that and it sets a tone. Having conversations about expectations is really important, as is making sure you’ve modeled those expectations yourself.
Some of my clients do a mental health day, which might just be announcing on a Friday afternoon: “Hey, everyone’s worked hard and we’ve just accomplished something significant. Take a break, go for a hike, walk your dog, call your family.” If that’s already a part of your company culture, it might have gotten lost with people working remotely and experiencing Zoom fatigue. If it’s not existing, now is a good time to add it in.
4. Provide physical breaks.
Beyond an official mental health day, make sure your employees know they can take the time to step away from work when necessary.
Maybe it’s just sending a note to your team on a nice day to say “Hey, I hope you’re using your lunch hour to take a walk around the block or sit on your front porch.” Giving people the license to unplug and get 45 minutes in the fresh air is good for everybody. And if people are working at home, it helps to remind them to get up and move even if just between calls.
In fact, doing so can also increase productivity. It has been proven that unstructured time is where we do our most creative work. That doesn’t mean just artistically creative—it’s when we have insights, solve problems and come up with new ideas. Taking time away is really not a waste of time, it’s just a different way for the brain to function.
5. Communicate—but not too much.
In the early days of the pandemic, a lot was made of the need to share with employees, whether that was the basics of understanding the disease, or company policies, or how to wear personal protective equipment properly. But communication for the sake of making noise is a big turnoff for employees, especially in times of stress.
The other thing you can do is just pick up the phone every so often and not talk about PPE or scheduling; have a personalized check-in. Those individual touch points make a difference. Employees are very appreciative and it will set your organization apart as one that truly cares for its employees. If your company is large, you can take your employee roster and divide it up—maybe each manager makes 10 calls to employees for the week. Try to call when it’s convenient for the employee receiving it. You can just text or email them to ask when it’s a good time to call.
6. Express gratitude.
I have a client, a homecare agency in Colorado, that filmed personalized video messages for their caregivers. The message was very simple and unqiue to each caregiver. For example: “We really appreciate that you took on this new client, we know it was hard, thank you.” The caregivers were just floored that the owner or others in the office took the time to send a special message to them, even if it was just a one-minute phone video. They really were touched. Think about what you can do to let your staff know that they’re doing important work in this scary time and that they are valued for it.