How can I manage telework stress?

8 min. May 27, 2021
How can I manage telework stress?

While telework has been a part of our daily grind for many months now, an unsettling factor has latched itself to health constraints that were already oppressive: stress. Let’s go back in time, in a world where COVID-19 didn’t yet exist and most employees were enthusiastic at the idea of working from the comforts of their home. Our new reality has revealed that telework can be a vector of stress. Given that May 3–9, 2021, was Mental Health Week, the time feels right to pause and reflect on our stressors and the range of solutions available to us.

Understanding stress
Scientifically speaking, what does stress do? It allows us to survive. Stress is a survival mechanism that is triggered when we are faced with changes in our environment: “Our brain’s primary function is to detect potential dangers in our environment so that we can adapt and react,” says Marie-France Marin, doctor in neuroscience and researcher.

As far back as we can go, stress has always existed. It can, however, be fully apprehended. Just remember that stress is a code; learn its combination to unlock the solution. Simply put, Sonia Lupien, doctoral student in neuroscience and scientific researcher, sums it up in four letters: N.U.T.S. We are not talking food, but about four stress ingredients: Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to the ego, Sense of control. Analyze your telework in light of these factors and you will be able to anticipate stressful emotions.

Stress and the pandemic
Your employees always thought they would be more efficient from the comfort of their home, but the opposite now seems to be the case? Rest assured, many of us are faced with this realization and according to Geneviève Roy, a certified trainer and business manager who is passionate about human development1, this is perfectly normal.

In a conference about stress and telework, she explains: “Telework was imposed on us! Because it is no longer a choice, it may at times take away an element of control over our lives”. As in the “S” in the above-mentioned acronym, a sense of control allows us to stay in charge.

A survey carried out by University Laval’s Faculty of Business Administration indicates that close to 50% of Québec’s workers suffer from a high level of psychological distress.

Telework is beneficial for some, increasing their effectiveness. However, for a minority, the feeling of confinement grows as telework continues, and stress creeps slyly in their daily lives, interfering with productivity. When working remotely, numerous are the related sources of mental health problems. Isolation, organization, communication, concentration … and the list goes on!

The feeling of not having two distinct environments is also a big part of the problem. Indeed, over time, the lines between our workplace and living environments tend to blur and it can become increasingly difficult to fully appreciate our home, which would normally be a restful haven after a busy day. Sitting in their living rooms, your employees are being eyed by their office and their files!

Although technological advancements are beneficial, our devices are now an extension of ourselves; when our phones are vying for our attention and notifications assail us, it becomes difficult to say no … even once our work day is over.

Employers, this is where you have an important role to play. By setting an example, you invite your teams to adopt good telework behaviour. Teach them how to prioritize their tasks, which will in turn lay off some pressure.

Solutions exist
To manage your stress, eliminate as many stressors as you can throughout the day. Are you aware that there are a good number of solutions within reach that could considerably improve the telework experience for your teams?

Be careful of the messages you send to your brain. This highly developed muscle interprets even involuntary signals. Yes, working in pyjamas may be irresistibly tempting. Nonetheless, taking the time to get dressed in the morning sends this important message: I am awake and ready to go!

According to Geneviève Roy, the same thing goes for your work space: “Working in an area that is normally dedicated to leisure could be a serious obstacle to getting down to work. Put all the chances on your side.” Equipment in place and tools ready to use, recreating your office environment is the idea.

Once your work space is under control, let’s look at time management, which starts with good self-management. Sometimes by trying to do it all, nothing gets done. On the contrary, we must accept that we are not machines and that responding to the slightest request is not always the best decision.

Invite your employees to set aside time during their day to respond to the multiple questions asked. It is better to schedule a specific time for following up on messages received, rather than systematically breaking our concentration.

Time management also means taking breaks. Pay attention to their well-being; screens strain the eyes and sitting all day is hard on the back. In the collective consciousness, taking a break does not go hand in hand with efficiency. Yet, it has been found that rest improves productivity! Invite them to take several short breaks to maximize concentration.

That isn’t all. Now that you know how to keep an eye on telework stress, you will need to do the same on a grander scale, in every aspect of your life. Taking care of yourself has never been so vital.

It is normal for excessive behaviour to appear. The current situation leaves no one unaffected. Nevertheless, health is a state of mind and body. Regular physical activity releases the stress accumulated during the day; stretch, work standing up, practice yoga. The important thing is to stay active.

Don’t forget to rest! Telework does not encompass your whole life and sleep should have an important place in it. It’s nothing new, people go to bed later and later, sadly cutting back on their restorative sleep cycle.

In January 2021, Québec’s Public health and reference centre (INSPQ) reported that 40% of Quebecers noticed a deterioration of their sleep cycle. And yet, a good night’s sleep has restorative benefits. Therefore, a healthy lifestyle should include rest.

Stress: Always negative?
Even if the term “stress” is commonly used, we should in reality use the term “distress” when referring to negative emotions. The fact that the word “stress” is so commonly used in everyday speech reveals that it usually carries a negative connotation.

There can be a good kind of stress: positive stress exists and is even essential to professional fulfilment. Monotony and apathy are not emotions that will stimulate you to find satisfaction in your work. Haven’t you ever felt an adrenaline rush that propels you forward? Good stress is in fact a motor for motivation.

“Good stress propels us forward and is what allows us to surpass ourselves. In my trainings, I ask participants to name their stressors. Everyone, without exception, brings up causes of distress, while my question was neutral.” 

– Geneviève Roy, Certified trainer in personal and professional development, as well as business manager

Visualize good stress as an ascending curve through which you evolve during a day of telework. Between meetings and presentations, you reach an achievement zone, which is accompanied by multiple emotions, such as motivation and creativity. You feel productive and satisfied.

The downward curve is another story. The markers from bad stress appear: pressure, fatigue, or exhaustion. Navigating through this zone of disturbance is detrimental to the human body and it can lead to depression or burnout.

Be tuned into your emotions to remain in the zone where stress is beneficial. Watch for various indicators to anticipate bad stress: frequency, quantity, duration, control, and intensity of your stress.

Numerous specialists agree that the stress mechanism is not made to be activated over a long period. When this is the case, acute stress may lead to chronic stress. In the human body, this translates into real medical symptoms such as migraines, palpitations, or even eczema.

The pandemic has incited many employers to seek training on how to alleviate the lack of control over the external situation: “Given that we do not have much control over our external environment, we have turned to training to help us find a degree of control over our internal environment and reduce bad stress,” confides Geneviève Roy.

In any event, you have the opportunity to help your employees regain control of their telework experience and stress. The body sends us signals when it’s time to take back the reins; listen to it, trust it. That’s the key to success.

The answer

How can I manage telework stress? Telework has its advantages! You can invite your teams to put into practice three things to manage their stress levels, therefore helping them to benefit from the advantages of working from home. First, choosing a designated area for the office: this will motivate your teams and help them to stay focused. Then, humanize telework; certain careers are solely founded on it. Workers should not forget to socialize, which is inherent to our nature. Finally, remind your team of the importance of taking breaks. You can even integrate social activities during the week.

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