For the first month of working from home, many employees were in a state of semi-shock; so much energy was focused on just figuring out the logistics of working remotely that there wasn’t time to grapple with the emotional aspects. But as people have settled into a routine, as the panic over remote working logistics have decreased, we can now see troubling signs of the emotional pressures facing employees working from home.
How can you tell if your team is cracking under the stress of working from home? Here are three warning signs:
Warning Sign #1: Decreased Resilience
In the past two weeks, more than 5,000 people have taken the free online Resiliency Test (it tests how you handle adversity and react to failure, criticism, stress, etc.). And we’ve discovered that fewer than a quarter of people have high resilience at present. Given that resilience is our ability to handle adversity, it’s a good barometer of how well employees are feeling about, and managing, the current pressures. You can have your employees take that test for themselves to accurately gauge your team’s current resilience. And you can also ask them directly on your next video conference staff meeting. Pose this question: Compared to how I felt four months ago, I find myself experiencing…
- Difficulty concentrating
- Loss of interest in things I used to enjoy
- Feeling hopeless about my future
- Feeling distant or cut-off from others
- Feeling irritable or angry
When you see multiple employees checking-off those items, you know your team is cracking a bit under the pressures of working from home.
Warning Sign #2: Your Employees Are Making Mistakes
One sure sign that people are starting to burn out working remotely is when they make more mistakes and miss more deadlines than normal. People don’t typically perform as well in highly-stressed states as they do in a more relaxed frame of mind. And that stress often manifests in sloppy, inaccurate or late work.
Before you start seeing incorrect work, you might also see a general distractedness or spaciness amongst employees. This might show up as people zoning-out during a videoconference, or it could appear as forgetfulness. Have you seen any of your employees forget little things, like sending follow-ups or logging a customer contact or even omitting a signature line in an email? Those might seem like minor issues, but they often represent early warning signs that the pressure is getting to your team.
Warning Sign #3: Your Employees’ Language Is Becoming More Negative And Emotional
When people feel stressed, it’s common for their language (whether in email, phone calls or face-to-face) to evidence more negativity and emotionality. For example, in non-stressed situations, an employee might say, “this project is going to be hard.” But in a highly-stressed environment, they might say “this project is impossible,” or “I’ll never finish in time.”
Notice the differences in that language? Words like “impossible” and “never” are called absolutes. They represent a form of black-and-white thinking (i.e., thinking in extremes), and it’s a well-known cognitive distortion. Most situations in life are subtle shades of grey, not black-and-white. Yes, this project may be difficult, but is there truly no way, in any universe, that it could somehow be accomplished? The more someone engages in black-and-white thinking, the less likely they are to see hidden opportunities or possibilities. And that can lead directly to feelings of despair and hopelessness.
Another related cognitive distortion that appears in employees’ language when they’re stressed is catastrophizing. This is when people magnify an unpleasant situation into a life-and-death catastrophe, exaggerating a bad situation into an intolerable one. And anxious employees are especially prone to catastrophizing. When you hear an employee say, “If I fail this assignment, my career is over,” you’re hearing catastrophizing. Be on the lookout for employees saying or writing phrases like the following (because they’re clear signs of stress):
- There’s nothing I can do
- There are no options
- I can’t do anything
- This is impossible
The past month or so has been unprecedented for most of us. Never before (at least in modern times) have so many employees worked from home. The logistical challenges, which would have seemed insurmountable a few years ago, have actually been managed fairly well. And thanks to highly-focused attention and effort, employees went suddenly remote with surprisingly few hiccups. But those of us who have studied remote workforces for years knew that the adrenaline rush of making an emergency shift would wear off at some point. And now we’re starting to see the signs of employees struggling psychologically with remoteness.
Your goal, as we move into this next phase of working remotely, is to be aware of the warning signs that your employees are struggling. Once you know the signs, you can then start to assess your team and intervene as appropriate. And if you know what to look for, you’ll be far ahead of the vast majority of leaders and your employees will have a great chance of weathering this storm.