Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
As COVID-19 upends everything about how we work, many employers with newly remote staffs are trying to figure out how to support employees emotionally during these weird and trying times. In an effort to relieve employees’ stress and build camaraderie, some companies are leaning heavily on things like virtual happy hours, team games on Slack or Zoom, and personal check-ins centered on mental health. But in the process, some are actually increasing employees’ stress rather than easing it.
Some of that is exhaustion from the sheer number of these activities, but some of it is because the initiatives themselves feel more intrusive than supportive.
Here’s how one overwhelmed person described her company’s numerous efforts:
• My manager hosts a weekly Skype team chat check-in.
• His manager hosts one that we also all attend.
• There have been anonymous questionnaires to check on people’s emotional states.
• There’s a web page set up just for company COVID news.
• My manager’s manager sends about five emails per day sharing news articles indicating how COVID is impacting our industry.
• Information packs about workplace mental health support and resources have been emailed out.
• There have been three company-wide remote meetings to discuss the issue.
• Several people in overlapping teams have started organizing “fun” activities over work email.
• We also have a team WhatsApp which has been pretty much a constant stream of COVID-related memes and humor.
The most recent is a “buddy system” the company has launched. Entirely voluntary, in which you can sign up to be paired with another employee with “similar interests” so you can have a friend to talk to about what you’re going through. And I cannot think of anything I would like to do less. But my manager has directly asked if I’ve thought of signing up for it. … While the gesture is lovely, all these little workplace initiatives are causing me more stress, not less.
Here’s another person who’s feeling similarly overwhelmed:
I’ve been added to a company-wide Slack channel for being social and supportive during quarantine that I cannot mute or leave, there are social quarantine “fun” challenges at the start of all-hands meetings (best photo of a pet dressed for work! best work-from-home outfit! best Zoom happy hour photo!) and now I’m getting chain email requests to share new recipes to try while working from home (I do not cook at the best of times, and I have neither the time nor energy to start now). There are sessions on the ergonomics of working from home, the psychology of stress and working from home, and how to be supportive while working from home.
I have more meetings now than I ever had in the office, and this is while also juggling a full workload.
Many managers also are making a point of checking in on people’s mental health—not a bad idea in theory, but it can be carried out in a way that feels intrusive and overstepping:
I have a line-manager who I haven’t always had a great relationship with, and I’m exhausted by the constant “mental health check-ins” with someone whose intentions I don’t entirely trust and would much prefer to only interact with on work-based topics. Now I’m expected to discuss my mental health challenges with near strangers who aren’t paid professionals?!
No one should have to discuss their mental health with their boss if they don’t want to. But that means managers need to accept deliberately vague answers like “I’m doing fine” and “still hanging in”—signs the person may not want to share more. Some managers, though, are disregarding those signals and pushing past the boundaries most people prefer with their employers:
In our weekly team meetings, my supervisor has started having everyone answer the question “How are you doing emotionally and mentally?” … I’ve just been going with a quick “fine” and then changing the subject, but I’m starting to get some pushback like, “OK, but really, how are you?”
Do I really have to share my feelings? And if my feelings are “everything is on fire and I’m worried about death at every moment,” how on earth am I supposed to phrase that to my manager in a way that doesn’t alienate everyone?
(Companies truly concerned about employees’ mental health would be better off offering and promoting EAPs and strong health insurance so employees can have access to trained professionals, rather than expecting managers to act as therapists—a role they by definition can’t fill without conflicting with their primary role.)
But not everyone is put off by these efforts to provide support. Some people do want more connection from their colleagues right now:
I’m really struggling to adjust to this new reality. We collaborate online and keep in touch, but it’s not the same. I have to make a concerted effort to talk to people now and I’m constantly worrying that I’m annoying people or distracting them from their work. I didn’t realize how much I rely on work for stability until this happened. … I know it would help if my manager were to check in with me on the phone every day or two, but I don’t know how to ask without seeming needy and I feel like I’d be wasting his time.
One reader in HR reports that her company is doing a lot of the outreach described above and people are still pressing for more:
I’m in HR at a big company so it’s my team that’s responsible for implementing a lot of this stuff. It’s definitely not my cup of tea personally but you would be amazed at how many people are asking for even more than what we are already doing. And not just from other HR people and leaders but employees at all levels are asking for it.
When some people want this kind of support at work and others feel overwhelmed and stressed by it, the key to balancing those differing needs is to make it all optional. It’s fine to offer virtual happy hours and Zoom scavenger hunts and pet challenges and all the rest, as long as there’s no pressure to participate and people can easily opt out without penalty. And that means truly without penalty—not saying it’s optional but then looking askance at people who don’t participate or telling them repeatedly how much they were missed.
It’s also important that employers not just give lip service to wanting to support employees; they need to show it in ways that carry real weight. In fact, what most bothers some employees is that while they’re being overloaded with Zoom happy hours, their employers aren’t doing the things that would actually help:
My company has swamped us with weekly all-staff emails about working-from-home Spotify playlists, weekly pub quizzes, online “daily walk” groups, video messages from the CEO, etc. What they could actually do is allow more flexibility around output, but instead it’s “business as usual output plus hours of video calls” and everyone is working part of the weekend to keep up. I don’t even have kids, and the parents on my team are barely keeping it together, but are somehow still expected to attend the virtual weekly town hall in costume theme.
What would be far more helpful than quizzes and playlists would be for employers to make real changes to people’s workloads and deadlines; offer as much flexibility as possible around schedules and, when work is done, adjust expectations of productivity downward; provide more paid leave; and encourage people to continue to work from home long-term when their roles allow it. Those are things employees really want—but they’re a lot harder to provide.