Balancing Mental Health and Productivity: Suggestions and Solutions for Remote Workers


If you’re like me, mental well-being has been a challenge to maintain during the pandemic. I find it especially difficult to get ahead of work between back-to-back calls, long slack threads, and a never-ending work backlog.

I believe this is partly because of a work culture unprepared for remote work, as well as the fact that productivity tools are designed to maximize speed and quantity of output, not our mental health. This leaves the door open for startups to re-invent productivity tools and help companies retain workers in a remote-first work environment.

A 2020–2021 study by Microsoft showed that 41% of people are considering leaving their employer, and 46% are considering a complete career pivot. This is evidently because:

No Time to Work on Mental Well-Being

Microsoft’s study was published around the time it launched Viva: An “employee experience” platform that includes insights on our individual and team engagement and wellbeing. It’s their attempt at helping workers recognize unhealthy work habits. The idea is that if I know I’m struggling, I can make changes and turn things around. Viva Insights can for example surface the fact I’m working after-hours a lot, in which case I should stop.

Microsoft is responding to a big opportunity: 91% of workers feel their employers should care about their mental health according to McKinsey. However, insights alone won’t change a corporate culture that prioritizes business results. Company priorities will almost always trump our mental health needs as we seek to do a good job.

Proposed mental health best-practices for remote work are also difficult to implement, for example:

Best-practice #1: Protect my time, embrace async work, and respect breaks

Reality #1: Unpredictable COVID trends and confusing government policies have led to extremely fast-changing consumer behavior. The “Need for Speed” has in turn become a top priority as organizations try to keep up. Leaders want prototypes built in days and decisions made now. Speed has however brought much chaos and miscommunication. The result is that we need to meet even more often. Forget “protecting time.”

Best-practice #2: Take a moment to reflect, document feelings.

Reality #2: Noting down the fact I feel anxious won’t help resolve it. It just makes me more aware that I’m not in a good spot. To properly address stress, I need time to reflect and understand why I feel this way. Yet again, there’s too much to do, and we may not always be comfortable asking our bosses for mental health time when the rest of the team is scrambling.

Best-practice #3: Leaders need to empathize with employees’ needs

Reality #3: 60% of CEOs believe their organizations are empathetic, but only 24% of workers agree. It’s been noted that becoming powerful makes one naturally less empathetic. The result is a gap between what leaders perceive as problems and priorities and what front-line teams perceive. Remote work only amplifies the issue as leaders no longer see people doing their work.

I believe that all these challenges are opportunities to re-think how productivity tools can put mental health first.

Creating the Space to Reflect: Managing Up

While waiting for our work culture and new tools to make remote work less taxing, I’ve been practicing different habits to take back control of my time, and in turn, create room to reflect.

My plan centers on proactively managing up and focusing on what matters the most in a sea of distractions. This helps me gain autonomy over what I do, how I go about it, and when.

Here are 3 situations I’ve learned to get ahead of:

Situation #1: Whack a mole

My energy is drained by never-ending ad-hoc requests and urgent fires.

Before: I react to the fires and push back the work I had planned to do. I also neglect time for personal learning and growth. Over the long run, I lose motivation over my work.

Now: I categorize work into 2 buckets: Stuff that energizes me (e.g. deep work or 1:1 collaborations), and stuff that drains my energy (e.g. responding to fires). I then make sure I work on at least one task that gives me energy every day. This has made me feel more fulfilled.

Situation #2: Unrealistic Expectations

Stakeholders and clients often set tight deadlines and lofty goals that are difficult to achieve.

Before: I work extra hours and/or hack my way with existing tools and resources available. That has often left me feeling burned out and frustrated people don’t appreciate the herculean effort it took to achieve our goals.

Now: Before saying yes and starting any work, I identify what it will take in terms of resources (human, tools, time) to achieve these goals by asking: “What do I ideally need to get this done?” I then present a proposal including 1) resources I need to achieve the high expectations, and 2) an alternative plan with realistic goals we can achieve with existing resources. With clarity on the effort required, clients typically reset their expectations or allow more time to complete their tasks.

Situation #3: Too many cooks in the kitchen

I’ve often been given different and conflicting feedback from clients, leaders and colleagues, all of whom may share different motives.

Before: I try to incorporate everyone’s feedback and make everyone happy. This leads to multiple meetings, changes, and iterations. Over time, I lose my individual voice on the project, and with that, my interest.

Now: I take ownership of solution planning. I document all feedback to make people feel heard, and I proactively prioritize what to incorporate into the solution. Some asks will be pushed into future iterations, and some will not be addressed at all, with clear reasons why. The plan is shared with everyone. It shows stakeholders I’m on top of the problem. That there’s a plan. I noticed that people tend to leave the plan as-is due to the default effect, and the fact they’re able to see a holistic picture of the problem and solution from different people’s perspectives. I’ve since felt more in control of how I deliver projects.

Let’s Disrupt Productivity Apps

Simply managing up is not enough. It’s time to re-design productivity tools. Tools should help workers take command of their time and priorities, not just output more work faster.

So here are 3 ideas for the next batch of YCombinator founders who want to disrupt productivity apps:

The future of work is not back-to-back calls. It’s enabling every person to own and find purpose in their work. Control their time.

I’m impatiently waiting.

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