Practice some working-from-home empathy

As the pandemic continues into another holiday season, it's important to keep mental and emotional health in mind.

It's hard to believe we're coming up on two years of living in pandemic times. For many of us, everything about our everyday routines has been disrupted to some extent.

Here at ZDNet, we've written extensively about how technology supports unexpectedly rapid digital transformations, but it's not just the bits and bytes that are important. In this article, we're going to talk about the numerous people-related issues your company may be facing, as well as what can be done to retain employees and support their mental health. 

When the pandemic started, many office-based workers suddenly found themselves working from home. Almost two years on, some employees are back in the office, some are still working from home, and some are coming in a few days a week in a hybrid work style. Many businesses are struggling with the constantly changing news about virus strains and their consequences, so policies are almost always in flux. 

This is leaving leaders, managers, and employees standing on shifting ground, which fosters stress at home, as workers have to coordinate schedules with other family members and roommates.

When it comes to empathy, keep in mind that everyone needs it. Everyone in the organization is getting work done under unprecedented pressure. If your organization has middle managers, they may be feeling it especially keenly. They're not just responsible for their direct reports, they're also feeling pressure from their managers.

Everyone on the org chart is feeling some level of unrest and uncertainty, and everyone needs to practice compassion. Remember that compassion starts with self-compassion; make sure you're being kind to yourself. 

Some of your most critical team members may not even be full-timers. Freelancers are an increasingly important component of the flexible business. While most freelancers were more comfortable working from home than displaced employees were, they faced even greater uncertainty, and still do. In the past, companies have treated freelancers as field-replaceable units. They're pros, and they're used to this, but they're human, too.

Connect carefully 

Keep in mind that kindness is also a matter of enlightened self-interest. Everyone is on edge. People feel pushed to their limits. Seeming like a Scrooge could result in angry pushback or complaints, which could have negative ramifications. 

Management Study Guide talks about the importance of knowing your employees. Their premise is that it helps employees feel connected and helps employers take unique employee needs into account. In pandemic times, this is even more important, especially when individual circumstances are so widely varied. But be careful. There are both limits to what you can ask, and what additional liabilities you might absorb based on what you ask employees to disclose. Check your institutional policy, check with HR, or consult an attorney if you're unsure where those lines are.

For our purposes, let's assume you've learned enough about your employees to gain insight into how you can help them perform better. You might need to help fund some tech purchases, or provide a bit more flexibility in terms of presence during the work day. Conversely, you may need to set clear boundaries for those employees who might want to take advantage of the more loosely coupled management nature of hybrid work.

There are a few specific aspects that are worth pointing out. Be careful of overburdening one employee because another has external obligations. For example, parents may need to be cut some slack because they're navigating school closures and remote learning. But that doesn't mean everything can be piled on child-free workers, because they may also have their own home life challenges. People caring for young children may have an extended support system; people caring for elderly relatives often don't.

Here's another thought. It may be the person who seems to be shouldering extra burdens without complaint is the one you need to pay extra attention to. They may not tell you if they are being pushed or stressed beyond their limit. 

Practice listening skills. Manage tone of voice. Think about what you're saying and how it may be perceived by people who have different life circumstances. Harvard Business Review talks about the toxic effects of branding a workplace as a "family," so resist that urge. 

Prioritize mental health

A 2020 American Psychological Association (APA) study showed that "compounding stressors … and the persistent drumbeat of a crisis that shows no sign of abating" have resulted in a national mental health emergency, the magnitude of which is "hard to fathom." That's why it's so important to make kindness and empathy a priority throughout the organization. 

Since many of us are much more comfortable with technology issues than feelings issues, it's worth reinforcing that, while Zoom, Slack, and Teams may provide consistency and collaboration, they can also be sources of stress. Don't push anyone to turn their cameras on or join meetings at odd hours, if possible. Beyond that, we recommend this list of mental health resources, originally published in the Washington Post. Of course, consult your physician or a qualified professional if you feel the need, and consider providing mental health benefits for your employees.

Remember to take breaks, hydrate, stay calm, get enough rest, and cut yourself and your coworkers a little slack. That way, we'll all be ready to tackle 2022.