COVID-19 stress among your workers? Healthy work design and well-being solutions are critical

Physical distancing by working at home and avoiding in-person meetings or social gatherings can help reduce disease transmission – but also affects access to social support and can result in feelings of isolation and added stress, according to NIOSH.

Not all jobs are amenable to remote work. Workers who must continue to report to a physical workplace may experience fear about their health and the health of their loved ones, as well as challenges arranging care for elderly or young dependents. Many jobs carry the risk of exposure to sick and asymptomatic individuals with COVID-19 – such as those in healthcare settings and others (i.e., service occupations) that must be done on-site and require frequent contact with the public.

Workers’ well-being can be further impaired if they lose access to health-enhancing benefits available at the formal worksite (e.g., access to on-site health clinics and health and well-being programs). And those who live or usually work alone may be particularly vulnerable to the “loneliness epidemic” as their infrequent person-to-person contact dwindles further.

Additional concerns can include: the struggle to attend to personal and family needs while working; managing a different workload; lack of access to tools and equipment needed to perform work (including limited or no internet access for remote workers); feelings of not contributing enough to work or guilt about not being on the frontline; uncertainty about the future of the workplace and/or employment; and challenges related to learning new communication tools and dealing with technical difficulties. Compounding the risk, workers who already struggle with mental health conditions are particularly vulnerable to experiencing additional emotional symptoms and somatoform disorders during an outbreak, and those who must undergo quarantine are at additional increased risk for mental distress compared to workers who are not isolated.

Working at home could be considered somewhat of a luxury during this time. Yet, telework presents its own risks. And, as the home has become the workplace for many, the issue of stress spilling over from one domain to the other has very likely increased. Many parents feel conflict when juggling dependent care, trying to oversee children’s remote learning, and meet their own work demands. Workers who are not used to telework may be at increased risk of injury if their workspaces are configured without appropriate employer guidance. And, while technology use may help workers meet their job demands, it can also extend working hours and further blur work-home boundaries, which can be consequential for workers and their families. Specifically, workers’ ability to psychologically detach, or “switch off mentally” at the end of the workday can be compromised, which has been associated with many indicators of poor well-being, including anxiety, depression, negative affect, emotional exhaustion, and fatigue.

There are steps that individual workers can take to build resilience and increase their capacity to detach – such as using a journal to set work-related goals and participating in mindfulness. From an organizational perspective, when supervisors support workers and encourage their efforts to manage work and non-work demands (e.g., increasing control over work and schedule flexibility or offering access to Employee Assistance Programs [EAPs] and paid time off), workers report lower levels of work-family conflict and improvements to their sleep, schedule control, job satisfaction, well-being, and physical health. Early identification of risk factors, strengthening peer support at work, and promotion of mental health services (i.e., through remote access) could help workers cope with the ongoing challenges and prevent the onset of maladaptive behaviors.

Improve sleep: Tips from NIOSH to improve your sleep when times are tough

Most adults need 7 or more hours of good quality (uninterrupted) sleep each day, according to NIOSH. Some may need even more.

Adequate high-quality sleep is especially important during stressful times. To help you adapt to quickly evolving demands and changes in your personal and work life during the COVID-19 outbreak, NIOSH offers the following evidence-based suggestions to help improve your sleep.

Set aside enough time for sleep.

Give yourself enough time in bed to get the amount of sleep you need to wake up feeling well rested. This varies from person to person, but most healthy adults need 7 or more hours of sleep.

Consistent sleep times improve sleep.

Go to bed and get up at about the same times every day, including days off. Ideally, you should go to bed early enough that you don’t need an alarm to wake up.

Exercise improves sleep.

During the day, get some exercise. Even a 10-minute walk will improve sleep, and more is better. Plan on finishing exercise at least 3 hours before sleep is planned.

Bright light during the daytime helps.

Getting bright light during the daytime strengthens your biological rhythms that promote alertness during work and sleep at the end of your day. So, during the daytime spend 30 minutes or so outside in the sunlight. Getting bright light during the first hours of your day is particularly helpful. Even time spent outside on a cloudy day is better than exclusive exposure to dim indoor light. If you can’t get outside, spend time in a brightly lit indoor area.

Where you sleep matters.

Have a good sleep environment that is very dark, quiet, cool, and comfortable.

  • Make the bedroom very dark, blocking out any lights in the room (especially blue and white lights). Cover the windows with opaque window covering if necessary. Use an eye mask if it’s hard to avoid lights from traffic or streetlamps.
  • Use soft ear plugs if your sleep environment is noisy.
  • Have a comfortably cool room temperature—about 65º to 68º F for most of us—and use covers.
  • Have a comfortable mattress and pillow.
  • Do not let pets or phones disturb your sleep.

Use your sleep space for only two things.

To condition your brain to relax when you go into the bedroom, use it only for sleep and intimacy. Do not watch TV, read, or work in the bedroom.

Prepare for a good night’s sleep about 1.5 hours before bedtime.

Follow a relaxing routine 1.5 hours before bedtime to help your body make the transition from being awake to falling asleep. Consider setting an alarm 1.5 hours before bedtime to start preparing for sleep. Don’t expose your eyes to computer or phone screens. Avoid excitement like watching an action movie or reading upsetting news stories. Brushing your teeth, washing your face, and getting into a pre-sleep routine will help you relax. Transition to dim lighting during this time (for example, don’t use a bright light in the bathroom). 

Try relaxation techniques.

  • Taking a warm bath 30 minutes to 2 hours before bedtime can help promote relaxation and optimize body temperature changes that aid in sleep.

Check your intake.

  • Avoid heavy or spicy meals 3 hours before your regular bedtime.
  • Limit liquids several hours before sleep to avoid having to get up to go to the bathroom.
  • Avoid alcohol near bedtime. It may help you fall asleep but can cause sleep disturbances. If you plan to drink alcohol, finish several hours before bedtime.
  • Avoid caffeine, chocolate, and nicotine for 5 or more hours before sleep is planned—more if you are sensitive.

Pay attention to your body’s cues. If you get very sleepy earlier than usual, then by all means, go to bed. This will allow extra time for sleep. Drowsiness is your body’s way of saying that you need sleep. Your body may be fighting off an infection or needing extra sleep to recover from what happened during the day. Researchers theorize that sleep and the immune system work together to fight off viruses and other pathogens. Your body also needs more sleep after experiencing high mental or physical demands.