Remote workers face added stress, says Preferred EAP’s Carolyn Lamparella. Here are tools to help.

Dawn Ouellette Nixon//April 26, 2021

Remote workers face added stress, says Preferred EAP’s Carolyn Lamparella. Here are tools to help.

Dawn Ouellette Nixon//April 26, 2021

Pandemic life has just passed its first birthday.  We’ve collectively had time to adjust to mask wearing, homeschooling and working from home.  Adjusting, however, does not come without stress.  For many, the increase in overall pressure from this massive lifestyle shift, with its isolation and blurry work/life balance, has become difficult to manage.

Of employees who work at home, 41% consider themselves highly stressed compared to just 25% of those who work on-site, according to verywellmind.com, a Manhattan-based online mental health resource.

Reasons for this include the loss of social interaction with colleagues and adapting to the constant change of new procedures, says Carolyn Lamparella, program director for Preferred EAP, the Allentown-based Lehigh Valley Health Network-affiliated employee assistance program.

“We have seen an increase in reports of anxiety and depression for remote workers,” Lamparella confirmed. “The boundaries between work and home are being crossed for many for the first time. Add to that caring for children who can’t go to school. It’s a lot.”

The good news is that we can breathe new life into 2021, she said, by understanding how stress works in the body and managing what we can.

First and foremost, our breathing is an indicator of the level of stress in our body, according to Lamparella.  Breathing gets faster under pressure, she said, and by learning to slow down and focusing on our breath, we can help calm our minds.

-“We are all in this together,” says Preferred EAP’s Carolyn Lamparella. “It’s ok to reach out.” – file photo

An easy way to do this, she explained, is to practice breath work while washing our hands.

“We are all washing our hands more often these days,” Lamparella said. “Use that time to bring in air with five slow breaths to the count of five. It’s an opportunity to slow down, and pause and restore energy before you move on.”

Learning habits like this can work to manage stress, she said, and not the stressor.  “There is so much we can’t control,” she said. “But we can control our daily habits. Develop sustainable daily habits and you can help restore yourself, so you don’t get too mentally exhausted.”

A meditative habit like breath work inserts a needed pause and can be done anytime, anywhere, breaking through the mentality of just wanting to get through the day.

Working from home can create the pressure to always be “on” for responsibilities both at home and at work, Lamparella said, and this can make remote workers vulnerable to issues like substance abuse.

“It’s key to train managers to know if an employee is in distress,” she said. “Substance abuse can be an indicator of other mental health conditions. Know when it is time to have a conversation with an employee. And have a policy to help get them into treatment.”

Social isolation can have a depressive effect too, Lamparella asserts, and many are missing the camaraderie of hanging “around the water cooler.” They miss the everyday conversation about a child getting into college or what happened over weekend, she said.

“We can keep those bonding sessions alive,” she said. “Managers can arrange virtual water cooler meetings. It’s a really big loss, these in-person social connections.”

Another way to support remote workers is to remind them to keep movement in their lives, Lamparella said. We tend to be less physically active when under stress and at home, which can contribute to anxiety and depression. A simple reminder on our computer to get up and move every 90 minutes can help keep us from falling into overwork and exhaustion.

“Post a little sign to encourage you to remember to slow down,” Lamparella said. “Take those physical activity breaks. It becomes a little mental health break too.”

Managing mental health has become more important than ever, Lamparella said.  And training and development to get the message out to employees and managers can make taking care of our mental health easier for everyone.

“Start each meeting with a mental health message,” Lamparella said. “Ask how everyone is doing. Remind them that there are resources for help, like the company’s EAP program.”

EAP programs are free work-based services that offer confidential assessments, counseling and referrals for mental and physical health issues.

“We are all in this together,” Lamparella said. “It’s OK to reach out.”

On the journey to better mental health, she said, just knowing that it is all right to need help is a critical first step.