Working from home will be stressful. Here’s how employees (and employers) can handle it

Chair of psychiatry and behavioral health at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine offers advice on getting ready to work remotely for 1st time

By Tom Bergeron
Nutley | Mar 23, 2020 at 6:00 am
Q&A

Monday marks the first morning that most New Jerseyans will be working from home. That means more social distancing, more time with your immediate family — and much more stress on your mental health.

People around the state are going to have to get used to this new normal. And we all — employers and employees — are going to have get used to the new stresses that come with it.

On Sunday, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli announced the state was increasing its mental health services with a mental health hotline (866-202-HELP) that will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Gov. Phil Murphy always has taken pride in the fact that the state considers mental health as important as physical health.

We agree. And, to help prepare you for the weeks and months ahead, ROI-NJ spoke with Ramon Solhkhah, the chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University and the chairman of psychiatry at Jersey Shore University Medical Center.

Solhkhah said the state’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been outstanding. Except for one issue: some of its verbiage.

“One of the issues that I’ve been raising with people is that I think we’ve gone about this wrong in terms of talking about social distancing,” he said. “I think that’s exactly the opposite of what we need. We need physical distancing in order to maintain the safety and the infection piece here. But we need social connectedness more than ever.”

New Jerseyans also need to maintain as much normalcy — and control — of their daily lives during these tense times.

How do we do that? Glad you asked.

The following is a Q&A with Solhkhah, edited for content and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Our world and way of life have been turned upside down. What is the biggest stress from all of this?

Courtesy photo
Dr. Ramon Solhkhah of the Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine at Seton Hall University.

Ramon Solhkhah: There really are two pieces here. I think the short-term stress is driven by the fact that a lot of this is out of our control. Most people like to be in control of our daily lives. Here, the situation is changing so rapidly that it’s hard to predict what we’re doing one day to the next. And, second of all, is the fact that it’s such a large virtual boogeyman here. A virus that you can’t see and can’t really wrap your mind around — and I think that that’s really fueling a lot of anxieties here.

ROI: You mentioned that it should be ‘physical distancing’ not ‘social distancing.’ Talk more about that.

RS: I’m thinking back particularly to Superstorm Sandy and some of the lessons we learned there — where communities were disrupted, our normal social supports were disrupted and how catastrophic that was and what it caused in terms of mental health impact care on the Jersey Shore.

I think that New Jersey is going through something similar right now with this. And we really need to come together — even if that is digitally and virtually — but at least make sure that you are still connected to people.

ROI: For those who have kids, we’re guessing all this unusual connectivity during the workday is going to be a huge stress. And it’s going to be a wakeup call that being at home while working is different than just being at home, yes?

RS: Correct, because it’s obviously not a vacation. I think it always has been part of the fantasy that working from home means we’re going to be just kicking up and lounging in the yard.

And I think we’ve all gained a huge appreciation for the work that teachers do and how they manage these kids, day in and day out.

ROI: So, does that mean everything has to be completely different?

RS: Not at all. There’s still an opportunity for us to do as much of the normal routine as we possibly can. That can be waking and sleeping at the same time as we’re used to. If you take time for exercise, take time for exercise. And work with your spouse if you can. Say, ‘I’m going to take 30 minutes of me time, and you keep your eye on the kids while I’m doing this or that, and I’ll do it for you.’

There are still those opportunities to do the things that we all do to help manage our stress, manage our anxiety and just let us chill. If you can’t take it in a 30-minute block, then do five minutes here, 10 minutes there. Just do that constantly during the day to make sure you’re still doing the things that you normally do.

The biggest issue right now is lack of control. So, where do you have control? Your schedule — you can regulate it a little bit more. Take a fresh air break outside with your family, go sit in the backyard for 10 minutes together and just feel the sun on your face or do whatever it is to ground you and help you being the moment.

ROI: Being in the moment. I know that’s a big thing for you. And I know you don’t mean living in fear of what’s going on in the world. Talk more about that.

RS: One of the biggest concerns we have right now is that we’re all thinking about ‘tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow.’ You gotta be in the moment right now, focus on what you have here, right now. That’s the best that any of us can do. And I think that, that will help mitigate some of that stress.

This is a dramatic time. I wish I had a magic wand to wave over everyone to make them not stressed and not anxious. I can’t. This is about managing that and controlling as much of that as you can.

I think studies have shown that one benefit in folks who telecommute is that they have a little bit more control over their day-to-day lives. So, if the baby’s crying, you can go run to them, take care of them for 10 minutes, and then come back and work on what you need to do.

ROI: This all sounds great — but have you cleared it with the boss? Working from home adds new layers of stress to the supervisor-employee relationship. What advice do you have for the boss about managing people remotely and digitally?

RS: Pace yourself. This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. We know, based on experiences in Asia and Europe, this is not going to be over in a week or two weeks. We should all be planning for the long haul here. Is that a couple months? Is that three months? Four months? I don’t have a crystal ball. But I do think that we know it’s going to be awhile. So, I think the word to our employers is to pace yourself.

Think of it this way: I’m in health care and we’re telling all of our team members to pace themselves. We can’t burn everyone out here in the first week. We want people to go home. We want people to take two days off. We want all of those things, because we’re going to need our team to be in crisis mode down the road here. So, we want people to make sure they’re recharging their batteries where they can.

ROI: What’s the biggest takeaway you want to give to employers and bosses?

RS: I think there’s a paradoxical benefit here for employers — that it’s going to be a productive time and people will actually be able to utilize their time. You’ve taken away their daily commute, you’ve taken away a couple of other things. Hopefully, that gets employees refocused back on productivity. At the end of the day, you want your employees to be safe and healthy, that’s the most important thing.

ROI: Is there anything else people need to know?

RS: Yes: People need to avoid negative coping strategies. And the one I’m thinking of is drinking more at home. People need to be mindful of that, especially those who are at risk with either mental health issues, physical issues or a history of substance abuse. When you’re at home and you’re stressed, that can be a negative coping mechanism. You really need to avoid that.

Read more from ROI-NJ on coronavirus: