Nearshore Americas

Managing the Mental Health of an Isolated Workforce 

Early debates about work-from-home (WFH) tended to focus on the practical implications: the missed deadlines, the patchy internet infrastructure and the complex new hiring processes. But four months into the WFH transformation, the Nearshore community is waking up to the more complex issue of managing the mental health of their largely isolated workforce.

Increased detachment from the former ‘office’ environment, a lack of routine and difficulties balancing work and childcare duties are all triggering heightened stress among tech-industry employees. And while Nearshore clients may feel that mental health initiatives should be left to the discretion of providers, a growing body of research has highlighted the monumental cost of failing to address psychological problems – a cost that will inevitably pass through the supply chain.

The good news is that Nearshore software companies have already begun to adopt a range of new measures in support of mental health. In some cases, companies have added psychologists to the payroll. In other instances, the protection mechanisms have centered around virtual yoga, Pilates, mindfulness and other initiatives.

A Multi-Layered Fatigue

The change to remote working is just one aspect of the new risk factors threatening employee wellbeing. The Covid-19 pandemic has compounded the existing mental health risks associated with WFH arrangements, adding health worries and job insecurity into the mix.

In May, the United Nations (UN) secretary-general António Guterres called on the international community to address issues related to Covid-19-induced psychological problems such as depression and anxiety, which he said were already “some of the greatest causes of misery in our world.”

The Commonwealth Fund recently found that more than one in five adults surveyed in eight countries (Australia, Canada, France, Netherlands. New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States) were experiencing stress, anxiety or great sadness that was difficult to cope with alone since the outbreak started.

In a series of interviews with Nearshore Americas, Latin American tech firms also reported significant rises in stress, anxiety and depression among their staff.

Diana Bermúdez, the human talent director at Aldeamo

“Mental health is something that we monitor every six months with a psychosocial survey,” said Diana Bermúdez, a trained psychologist and the human talent director at Aldeamo, a Colombian telecommunications firm. “We recently discovered that people were psychologically harmed by what was happening. They are facing uncertainty; they do not know what is going to happen in the short or medium term.”

The firm, which has formed strategic alliances with tech giants such as Google, WhatsApp and Rackspace, opted to invest in a psychologist and offer free therapy to staff.

“For the company to work well, we need all the parts to be well,” Bermúdez said.

Novacomp, the Costa Rican IT Nearshoring firm, is also providing professional counseling to employees because of the pandemic. The company has combined that offering with a range of online activities, classes and courses to keep staff engaged. These include yoga and Zumba sessions, birthday celebrations, bingo, cookery classes and one-on-one meetings with senior staff.

The Mexican IT services provider Softtek has an internal wellness program that focuses on nutrition, physical culture and sports, integration and mindfulness. The last of these was developed in direct response to the pandemic. The company is offering live meditations led by a certified mindfulness facilitator and a digital community in which employees can share their experiences with the practice. Softtek is also connecting employees with mental health experts.

Back Home with the Family

Andy Kieffer, founder and CEO of Agave Lab Ventures

Agave Lab Ventures, a Mexican tech incubator based in Guadalajara, has also stepped up its leisure and wellness program since the pandemic hit. Andy Kieffer, the group’s founder and CEO, said more people were attending English and Pilates classes. Kieffer said Agave Lab has introduced new yoga classes, as well as online trivia contests and happy hours.

Agave Lab staff members were initially positive about the shift to WFH, Kieffer said. But some have encountered problems with the setup as the months have passed.

“One of the interesting things to see is that some people do really well in that environment and other people don’t,” Kieffer said.

He added that some employees are suffering from loneliness and a sense of disconnectedness.

“We were such a social group,” Kieffer said. “We would hang out together, we would have lunch together… we would have a carne asada (barbecue) every week… so I think people are mourning that a little bit.”

Kieffer also highlighted some of the distinguishing features of WFH in Mexico.

“When many of [our workers] went back home, they didn’t go to their apartments, they went to the family house and are quarantining with their entire family,” Kieffer said. “They have a huge familial network to fall back on…  I’m from San Francisco and that is pretty lonely. When you are by yourself, you are really by yourself.”

While such family support can prove vital in times of difficulty, Kieffer said it also brings new challenges to the table. It must be “a bit of a stressor to be back in your childhood bedroom for four months,” he said.

Agave Lab Ventures offers yoga classes to staff
Agave Lab Ventures offers yoga classes to staff

Mental Health as a Business Strategy

One Mind at Work, a workplace mental health charity, has sponsored a body of research that demonstrates the negative impact of psychological issues on productivity, absenteeism and presenteeism (the issue of workers not fully functioning on the job).

Garen Staglin, the co-founder and chairman of One Mind at Work (photo courtesy of One Mind at Work)

Garen Staglin, the co-founder and chairman of One Mind at Work, argued that employers have a moral duty to attend to the mental health of their staff.

“What we’re describing is the ‘next wave’ or ‘second’ wave of the pandemic, which is the dramatic increases – of something like 40 to 50% – in the level of anxiety and depression experienced by workers,” Staglin said. “Evidence of the second wave and it’s growing impact on employee populations around the world is quite significant.”

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Staglin also stressed that well-executed wellness initiatives lead to a more productive, loyal and cost-efficient workforce. According to the World Health Organization, “for every $1 put into scaled up treatment for common mental disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity.”

One Mind at Work has even developed a cost calculator that helps companies estimate the economic impact of depression in their organization. The calculator builds its conclusion around publicly available data and inputs such as workforce size and average salary.

“It’s an astounding number,” Staglin said. “If you can make a 5 to 10% improvement in the level of depression in your workforce you will get a return on investment that [would be] the most important thing you can do for shareholder value in the next six months.”

Addressing mental health issues could also help reduce employee turnover – a longstanding goal of the tech sector, which has an average estimated tenure of only three years.

Claudia Selva, marketing and communications director at Novacomp

“No one’s going to leave if they feel satisfied, if they feel productive and if they feel rewarded and recognized,” said Claudia Selva, Marketing and Communications Director at Novacomp. “So absolutely, mental health has to do with that.”

Selva told Nearshore Americas that the pandemic was not only a threat to employee well-being but also an opportunity for companies to focus on mental health in the workplace. She said that executives across the Nearshore were talking about these issues now more than ever.

“They see people socially distancing and staying home and not necessarily interacting with other people,” Selva said. “I think that the world in general… is even more open now.”

Stephen Woodman

Stephen Woodman is an independent journalist based in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. He has six years’ experience covering business and culture in Latin America. Stephen has been published in numerous international media outlets, including The Financial Times, BBC News and Reuters. To share story ideas, drop him a note here

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