If you felt employee mental health was overlooked or taboo in the office, it’s become even more intractable and difficult to approach in the virtual workplace. Employee mental health should always be of vital importance, and yet it’s taken a global pandemic to highlight just how crucial it really is. Companies can no longer ignore the fact that they need to make a concerted effort and develop a proper employee mental health strategy to support employee wellbeing. But what does such a strategy look like in the virtual space? How exactly do you support remote employee mental health?
While working from home may initially seem like a fun and exciting perk, during lockdown many people have discovered that remote work goes hand-in-hand with feelings of loneliness and isolation. The invisibility of remote work can also breed new problems, like virtual presenteeism and serial overworking. When mixed with the protracted uncertainty of living during a pandemic, these remote work issues quickly form a formidable cocktail for stress, anxiety and burnout.
Managers have a huge responsibility to protect remote employees against these problems. While it might seem hard to support someone when you don’t see them in person, it’s certainly not impossible. Here are just six ways to support the wellbeing of your remote team.
Despite your best intentions, if you don’t know how to approach employee mental health the support you offer will always be limited in value. Employers should take proactive steps to learn about what they’re dealing with by actually investing in mental health training. Mental health training programs can teach you about different types of mental health problems, how to spot the signs of mental ill health, how to approach an employee to talk about it, and how to manage someone who’s struggling. By learning about employee mental health you will be better equipped to handle any problems and offer the right support.
Not everyone wants to tell their manager that they’re struggling with their mental health... but this doesn’t mean they won’t open up in an employee-owned discussion group. As a manager, you need to be able to normalize discussions about mental health, so think of different ways to encourage your team to speak openly about it outside of one-to-ones – like focus groups, team away days and workshops. Thanks to tech, there are many ways you can start conversations about mental health, so create spaces where employees can discuss their remote experiences. You could set up a special Slack thread, which acts as a “virtual water cooler”, where employees can come together, get to know each other, build connection and share their experiences. Not only can this help normalize talking about mental health, but it can also go a long way in alleviating some of the isolation often felt by remote workers.
Working remotely can mean that employees are more susceptible to certain causes of stress. When you work from home the lines between our professional and personal lives become blurred, which causes many people to work longer hours, take fewer breaks, and take on a bigger workload. It’s easy for remote workers to lose sight of their work patterns and healthy boundaries.
So, as an employer, it’s up to you to set a good precedent for what a healthy work/life balance looks like and ensure employees don’t suffer from burnout. You could encourage employees to have ‘off time’ where they don’t check work emails or reply to messages. You could request that employees take regular breaks, or go for walks when they take phone calls. It’s also super important to keep a keen eye on your team’s capacity, so you can quickly see who’s overloaded and then identify further resource to help out.
Remote employee wellbeing rests on regular, open communication, and feedback is a key part of this. Without receiving honest feedback you won’t know where you need to improve. Being asked to give feedback is equally important for employees, as it signals their employer actually values their opinions and voice. There are lots of ways you can gather remote employee feedback, whether it’s via surveys, polls, suggestions boxes, or one-to-ones. Think about how you can make some feedback anonymous – employees will feel psychologically safer opening up and sharing their honest opinion when they know it won’t lead to unwanted attention or social ramifications.
Supporting employee mental health isn’t just down to individual manager intiative – it should be a key priority the entire company, backed up by a robust remote work policy and proper investment. Virtual wellbeing tech can help to inform both, helping to surface unhealthy work habits across the company, understand employee engagement, keep team work visible, and bring greater structure and control to remote work life. Some of the most interesting include:
It’s important to note that when it comes to mental health, there’s no single approach that works for everyone. Each employee has different personalities, stresses and grades of mental health, and these need to be supported in a way that suits the individual; a “one size fits all” approach here can be extremely damaging. While you should be supportive, as a manager it’s not your job to design someone’s path to stability or recovery. Instead, defer to mental health professionals, and give people space and time to manage their mental health the way they choose.
Rather than talking and trying to offer advice, listen and facilitate. Help to connect people to the right resources, tailor your support and lobby the rest of your company to prioritize employee wellbeing. Above all, cut everyone some slack – whether it’s adapting to last-minute health appointments or requests for time off, or building greater flexibility into your workflows. Mental health affects us all, and during such a sustained period of uncertainty, we’d all do well to protect more space and resource to support it.