Remote Team, Part 3: How to Address Mental Health Issues and Prevent Burnout at Work

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Olga Demidenko
Author, Geomotiv
Published: Dec 14, 2020

Today we’ll investigate the effects of remote settings on the mental health of software teams. As we’ve operated remote and distributed development teams for years, we understand the work format’s specifics like no one else. With the advent of social distancing measures, our experience helped us to prevent burnout and job exhaustion.

Involuntary isolation can cause emotional and cognitive pressures for remote development teams. They can struggle with the loss of focus, commitment, and appreciation of their once-beloved job. As a result, psychological support is increasingly becoming a part of the internal corporate culture. It helps to combat the problems before it is too late.

After all, the benefits of working from home are too good to give up. Let’s tackle them first.

Notable Wins of Remote Work

Remote software teams can unlock numerous benefits that we explored in a previous part of the series. They also increase productivity while disrupting the balance between work and personal life.

It is especially notable among software development teams that have reported soaring productivity rates.

A recent survey conducted by Audit and Analytics Services (ASG) showed that 59% of IT managers reaffirm that point. In particular, 347 respondents said that their software development teams were more productive than before the pandemic. Remote software engineers are used to working outside a traditional office. They know how to adopt the latest technology tools to connect with their peers and establish efficient workflows.  

Another research conducted by Mercer revealed that 94% of 800 US employers enjoyed the same or higher productivity levels for their remote teams. Other benefits include 41% lower absenteeism and a 12% employee turnover reported by top researchers focusing on remote work studies. However, despite the great potential of remote work, it comes with certain limitations.

Possible Downsides of Remote Work

Unfortunately, the lack of seamless one-on-one communication can pose specific struggles for remote software teams. The hardest part for many is getting involved in remote work. A hectic new environment, lack of social interaction, and feelings of uncertainty aggravate the situation. It forces a person to be more flexible and show resilience. However, not everyone can cope with the stressors of that kind. Here’s why.

The Origins of Stress

UCHealth describes the coronavirus pandemic as “the trigger of our deep fears.” The human brain and nervous system do a great job dealing with physical threats. It would trigger every responsible mechanism to let us fight for our lives when there is physical danger. But when dealing with social isolation and anxiety due to pandemics, we don’t receive a clear energy outlet. As a result, we have to face the stress overload that impacts our mental health.

In this respect, two primary mechanisms come into play:

  • Mobilization -  that is a form of a “flight or fight” response that resembles over-productivity and working longer hours;
  • Immobilization  - that might resemble a lack of productivity in your newly-remote workforce.

When facing an invisible danger, such as Covid-19, remote teams can get stuck in one of the above modes.

Experts from MentalHelp, mental health, and wellness education resource, recognize the impact of socialization on coping with stress. Specifically, positive outcomes of social interaction serve as protection measures against the harmful effects of stress. But the pandemic complicated that a lot, too. It made remote teams involuntarily reimagine their social activities and embrace lockdown. People find it hard to navigate that stressful situation as a result.

According to a recent survey by FlexJobs and Mental Health America, 75% of people have experienced burnout at work. 40% of the polled indicated they’d experienced stress during the pandemic specifically. 

An important point here is the relationship between the client of the software development company and their dedicated team. Clients may have different attitudes towards developers outside their in-house teams. But in reality, dedicated software teams tend to associate themselves with the client's project. They become a part of their in-house team for some time and concentrate only on their tasks.

It turns out clients should also focus on the psychological state of dedicated developers. Their motivation and moral health require constant attention from both the vendor and client. 

It is easy to miss non-verbal cues when no longer sharing physical space with their colleagues. Luckily, remote work relies heavily on consistent online communication. Any deviations from the norm can be warning signs of burnout at work, stress overload, or depression. 

Look out for these red flags:

  1. Any odd changes in messaging or emailing styles;
  2. Lack of former initiative and interest in the work processes and things they used to enjoy;
  3. Difficulty in concentrating and missed deadlines or inaccurate work as a result;
  4. Regular overworking that impairs work-life balance or underworking;
  5. Violation of the work schedule and inability to follow the usual schedule;
  6. Frequent last-minute leaves and absences;
  7. Negative assessment of one's achievements, underestimation of the level of competence. Loss of faith in a successful outcome of events.

Besides, numerous development teams worldwide had experienced remote work involuntarily for the first time in their lives. They need clarity and direction towards efficient stress and burnout management. Company leaders should be supportive and keep tabs on the mental health and well-being.

How Companies can Support Remote Workforce

Keep Employees Connected

Create an environment where project managers, product owners, team leads, and developers can communicate easily despite remoteness. It is your responsibility as an executive to make everyone feel like a part of the team. So, to monitor remote software developers, hold regular face-to-face meetings with the whole team and one-on-one video calls with each employee, or use any other applicable means of online communication.

It is vital to ease that process with casual interactions at the beginning of each online activity. Use online coffee breaks off-topic Slack channels, where you can exchange jokes, memes, or any other non-work-related info. Create other informal events to help employees unplug from work.

Listen and Take Action

Seek feedback from your employees on how they are coping with the struggles. For example, a general question such as “How are you doing with remote work?” can help detect symptoms of work exhaustion and other psychological troubles. 

Make sure you are available for a conversation and ready to listen to your employees. Take up the challenge and respond to the signs of distress using available resources in your company. Focus on employee well-being using, for instance, anonymous polls or regular video calls. The idea is to make the discussion of psychological problems as necessary as the discussion of work tasks.

Help Prevent Problems

You don’t have to guess what your employees are up to when you clearly understand what troubles they face. That helps prevent job exhaustion and develop a guide on sustaining healthy well-being while at home. Focus on the below problems and provide direction and support:

Work-Life Balance

  • Encourage your employees to establish clear boundaries between work and personal life;
  • Promote a healthy lifestyle, including regular breaks, walks in the fresh air, and exercise;
  • Support them on possible work-life conflicts. Offer informational resources and tools to sustain positive mental health when juggling work, family care responsibilities, and spare time;
  • Let them try a co-working hub when there is no way to work at home. Cover their expenses.

Recovery

  • Raise their awareness about the importance of recovery and unplugging from work;
  • Make sure the employees dedicate a little time only to their emotional and psychological recovery to avoid feeling burnt out at work.

Boundaries

  • Prevent your employees from working long hours to get more work done;
  • Encourage them to work and communicate within official hours;
  • Set and review contactable hours for the team.

Procrastination

  • Employees can always postpone some time-consuming tasks and focus on shorter-term ones instead. Help them understand the fears behind that issue. Make sure they are not overwhelmed by the consequences of non-fulfilling the task;
  • Help them defeat procrastination with constant focus and concentration;
  • Perhaps your employees are overwhelmed by the global nature of the task. To cope with that challenge, encourage them to split one task into smaller chunks, making it look and feel manageable.

Multi-Tasking

  • Mind that some workers tend to set too many tasks at once and do not know where to start. Help them to prioritize the things that require urgent attention in the first place;
  • Encourage remote workers to reserve similar activities at fixed times of the day;
  • Promote planning ahead and efficient goal-setting.

Breed a Supporting Culture

Invest time and effort in a supportive and caring culture. The core thing is to treat everyone on the team as essential members contributing to the company’s success. Consequently, support begets loyalty and results in more happy employees in the long-term.

In Conclusion

This article is the final in a series of materials about the work of remote development teams. The first part was devoted to the tools that facilitate online collaboration and enable team-building activities. After that, we turned to the best practices of working with a remote team in this article.

Today’s topic dealt with another not-so-obvious aspect of remote software team management. Mental health has become a critical ingredient in a “secret sauce'' to employee success. It's important to acknowledge the psychological impact of remote work and reduce stress and burnout in remote workplaces. 

As a company leader, you need to make sure the remote software team has everything they need to accomplish their ongoing tasks. It is necessary to detect and understand your workforce’s problems when shifting to remote work. Probe the triggers and help the team prevent issues in the future.

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