Modern Life

Making mental health a priority for an isolated workforce

Creating a healthy and productive environment during this period of extended remote working is necessary for both employees and employers.

By Jared Lindzon — April 9, 2020

Erin Bionda has been managing her anxiety since her college years. Now the marketing manager for a network infrastructure company says the outbreak of COVID-19 and sudden social isolation that came with it threaten her progress.

“I’m worried about my brother’s small business, I’m worried about my parents who are over 60, and I’m worried about my friend who’s a nurse,” she says. “COVID-19 has been all-consuming. It’s all everyone is talking about, and that weighs on you.” 

Bionda — who has never been clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder — is one of millions of workers around the world who are struggling to overcome the same sense of worry and fear as they adjust to this new reality. 

According to a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, 73% of American adults have felt anxious or on edge, and nearly one in five has experienced a physical reaction when thinking about the pandemic. Online and app-based platforms for mental health and virtual sessions with therapists are also seeing an uptick in demand. The crisis is creating a perfect storm of health, family, economic, and social concerns for wide swaths of the population, and while social distancing and remote work are some of the most powerful tools we have to protect our physical well-being right now, they can also create new challenges for mental health. 

“Fortunately for a lot of people, these are temporary situations, and if work can be more accommodating, they can get through it,” says Brie Reynolds, career development manager of FlexJobs, a remote work resource and job search site. With social distancing policies likely to remain in place for weeks or even months, it’s critical for employees and employers to pay attention to the psychological aspects of remote work now, taking steps to maintain mental well-being and foster a culture that supports those efforts. 

Focus on what you can control — not what you can’t 

Stress and anxiety, at least in small doses, can be a positively motivating force that spurs us into action. During a global pandemic, however, the lack of control people feel can put them at greater risk of experiencing mental health-related issues. 

Jerry Bubrick, a senior psychologist at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute, says that the first step toward managing stress and anxiety in trying times is coming to peace with what you can’t control. Overcoming anxiety, he says, is like building a muscle, and can take time to develop. Part of that exercise routine should include an awareness of our internal dialogue, as the way we speak to ourselves can have a significant impact on our outlook.

How to deal with anxiety while working at home

Andrea Manzati

Overcoming anxiety is like building a muscle which can take time to develop.

“If the conversation in your mind is ‘I don’t know if I can handle this,’ then your emotions are going to follow that,” he says. “If you change the conversation to a positive one, or at least a neutral one — ‘I’ve handled transitions before, I can handle this one,’ — it paves the path for you to have a more successful run at it.”

Other healthy habits that have been proven effective, according to Bubrick, include regular exercise, establishing a routine, and maintaining close contact with others, even when physically separated. 

“Even though we’re quarantined, you can still leave your house, you can still open the window and get fresh air, you can sit outside and read a book under a tree, so I encourage people to get out and get sunlight,” he says. “Try and do the things you’d normally be doing if you were going to work; you have to have the same structure.”

Professionally social while physically distant

Beyond feeling worried about the pandemic and its impacts on health and the economy, the reality of being isolated from co-workers and the broader workplace community can be difficult to manage day-to-day — especially for people who didn’t have experience working remotely before the current crisis.

“The isolation aspect of remote work is heightened right now because so many of the ways we would have gotten our social fix are off limits,” explains Reynolds. “You can’t go out and have lunch with a friend or go for a walk with your neighbors or be around people physically, so right now it feels even more isolating.”

After several weeks of isolation and working from home, Bionda says she’s gotten used to the situation, thanks in part to a workplace culture that emphasizes human interaction, even during social distancing. 

“We have a strict camera-on policy,” she says. “You still have to show your face, so it feels like we’re getting face time, and we’re doing more frequent meetings, because nothing makes up for the water cooler talk or the chance to ask a quick question.” 

“Even though we’re quarantined, you can still leave your house, you can still open the window and get fresh air, you can sit outside and read a book under a tree.”

— Jerry Bubrick, senior psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute

Paula Davis-Laack, founder of the Stress & Resilience Institute, says employer policies that acknowledge the unusual circumstances of the current situation and the stress that can come with them are critical to helping employees stay productive and calm. For example, employers can help foster good mental health-habits among employees working from home by setting predictable meeting times, discouraging work after normal work hours, and encouraging employees to block time on their calendars for family or exercise. 

“We can’t just put the onus on the individual,” Davis-Laack says. “It’s really something leaders and the organization itself need to establish as part of its culture.”

Find balance between uptime and downtime

While technology like video conferencing, online collaboration tools, and digital project management platforms can help remote employees stay productive and connected, they can also contribute to an “always-on” mentality that can add to employee stress and, over time, lead to burnout and exhaustion.

“One of the things that helps to prevent burnout is being able to detach from our work, being able to go home or elsewhere, and take a pause,” says Davis-Laack, who advises organizations on strategies to prevent burnout. 

Unfortunately, detaching from work can be a huge challenge for remote workers, as work and life responsibilities blur together, and parents and other caretakers juggle competing priorities and distractions at home on top of work commitments.

Sara Denning, a New York-based psychologist specializing in anxiety treatment, and founder of, says it’s critical to be intentional about taking breaks from work on a regular basis — something that could actually be easier for workers at home. Instead of viewing work and home as competing responsibilities, Denning recommends using them as a counterbalance, with each providing a distraction or way to take a break from the other. 

“Any overstimulation can cause burnout,” Denning says. “What you need is an interruption of some kind to pop you out of that continuous effort.”

Address the bigger picture — beyond work

Though nobody could have predicted this pandemic, those organizations that established a culture of supporting their employees’ mental health before the outbreak are well-positioned to continue doing so through the current crisis and beyond. 

Elaine Beddome, the global head of compensation and benefits at HP, says the company takes a holistic approach that subtly embeds prevention strategies for stress, anxiety, and burnout into its everyday culture — which is more important now than ever as employees try to keep work moving while managing heightened levels of stress.

“We try to create an environment of engagement that helps contribute to solving both physical and mental stress-related illnesses or symptoms,” she says. 

Andrea Manzati

Finding a way to detach work time from home time is the key to avoiding burnout.

Beddome says that HP is updating its internal employee portal daily (and even set up a new mobile site), with helpful content to help employees work better together from home and manage stress. HP’s employee outreach program includes themed days that address not just how employees are working, but how they’re feeling and coping with stress during this time. For example, Motivation Mondays help build community through employee recognition and appreciation; Well-being Wednesdays offer ideas and resources for mental, physical, and financial health; and Family and Friends Fun Fridays provide ideas for creative activities and ways to step away from work. 

Strategies and tools like these will become increasingly important as the current crisis evolves and even after it’s over, when some employees may want to remain working from home and as more employers provide flexible working options. Bubrick says what we learn from this experience could help in the future.

“We can get a little more comfort, more family time, and more time to structure daily work tasks on our own rather than being imposed by our employer,” he says. “There are a lot of potential benefits to working from home and having this temporary transition.”