Remote work used to be one of many “future of work” trends that only applied to some companies. But once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the remote work model rapidly became the new standard for pretty much any company that could manage to function virtually—and this turned out to be a lot of companies.
While adapting to a remote working setting has been a practical and necessary shift, it’s one that has done a number on employee mental health.
The feeling of isolation, the sudden shift in daily routine, the lack of accountability and structure, the lack of physical activity, the blurred line between work-life and home-life that leads to overwork… these are all aspects of long-term remote work that has truly added up and has led to higher levels of employee burnout than we’ve ever seen before.
Employee mental health isn’t only an issue for remote employees, but it’s especially challenging to support employees when you don’t share the same space and therefore can’t rely on physical cues that signal mental health struggle. And with Zoom meetings being the only scenario where managers can see the people who report to them, there’s so much that gets missed if the struggling employee is good at putting on a positive face for the sake of the meeting.
This blog post offers five ways that employers can offer genuine support and resources to help employees cope with their mental health challenges, whatever they may be and whether pandemic-related or not.
Talk about it
Both employers and employees should keep in mind that mental health issues will only get worse when they deny that they exist. The stress of finding balance when working from home and dealing with feelings of isolation can quickly lead to remote employee burnout if not addressed head-on. Some common symptoms of burnout among at-home workers include:
- Appearing tired on Zoom meetings due to not getting enough sleep.
- Managers sensing a feeling of lost motivation where employees do not seem as driven to succeed as they previously did.
- Irritability and increasing argumentativeness with co-workers and managers.
- Patterns of mistakes and oversights that seem careless and out of character.
While managers do not need to ask personal questions, occasional team check-in followed by incorporating some fun activities into online video meetings can lighten the load for everyone. The danger in ignoring signs of burnout is that employees will quit, become more disengaged or absent from work (taking more sick days), or have high health insurance claims from stress-induced illness.
Talking about and offering flexibility in their daily schedule can go a long way to lighten their load. Working from home also means dealing with spouses and children who need the employee’s attention too. Flexibility with start and end times gives people the time they need to attend to their home, family, and personal life without feeling overwhelmed by it all.
Set healthy boundaries
In a study conducted by GetApp last year, more than 80 percent of work-at-home respondents stated they feel pressured by management to devote more time to work than they would like. Unfortunately, the pressure quickly leads to resentment that can affect the morale of the whole team.
The best way to avoid this problem is to encourage all employees working from home to strike a healthy work-life balance, which can be especially challenging when work and home are in the same space. Some ways to do this in practice is by setting up working and communication norms such as:
- Aligning as a team and with individual employees what the working schedule expectations are and what communication methods are best to use
- Committing to not emailing, messaging, or calling employees outside their regular work hours unless it is an emergency OR agreeing that if messages do come during off-hours, they are not expected to reply immediately.
- Accepting and encouraging employees to use their paid time off to get an occasional mental health break
Offer meaningful support
No employee wants to feel like they are on the spot to talk about their personal struggles, especially in front of their co-workers. Employers need to practice discretion by distributing a list of mental health resources to all employees privately. The email or letter should also include information about accessing mental health resources through the company’s employee assistance program if it has one.
Regular one-on-meetings are a great opportunity for managers to gently gauge how each person is handling their mental health. Employees need to feel that they can trust their managers if they do discuss sensitive topics, so keeping the lines of communication open and pressure-free is critical, as is confidentiality and trust. A simple “How are you doing?” stated with genuine concern is often all that managers need to say. Employees will take it from there if they feel comfortable.
Offering benefits such as a flexible wellness stipend can also help. This benefit includes a fixed amount that employees can spend on services such as a massage, gym membership dues, or therapy—whatever they feel is most meaningful for their mental health. Employees are sure to appreciate the flexibility and the fact their employer cared enough to make such a benefit available to them.
Give and take feedback
Part of the tension employees feel working from home is that they do not always feel free to share their frustrations about workflow, meeting agendas, and other common issues. At the same time, they also don’t feel certain about the company priorities and direction, which also causes anxiety and stress about the future. Both of these worries boil down to transparency and having a healthy culture of giving and receiving feedback is the ideal remedy for that.
The first step is for managers to make clear—by example—that employee feedback is always welcome and that they will always hear it out with a fair and open mind. The next step is to implement processes and traditions within your organization where giving feedback is both easy to do and a regular occurrence. This can be accomplished by introducing a meeting agenda item to all regular company meetings, such as 1v1s, weekly team meetings, and all-hands meetings, that’s all about sharing feedback.
The point is that the more people hear and feel that their opinions matter, the more comfortable they will feel expressing them. Open communication is a great deterrent to stress, resentment, and burnout.
One of the tough things about employee burnout is that it’s experienced differently from person to person. But there’s one thing that all people respond positively to when it comes to mental health and that’s kindness. So when it comes to remote team members, remember that this long-term remote working arrangement has been an ongoing adjustment for everyone, and it will take some time to find a comfortable rhythm. Knowing this, it’s important to remind your employees to practice kindness towards themselves and others.
Managers can also do their part by offering praise for excellent work quality to ensure that at-home workers do not feel overlooked if part of the staff still works from the office. Creating wellness incentives such as a weekly step contest, a daily 5-minute stretch break, or a dedicated “no meeting day”, can add levity to the workweek or workday, while also encouraging employees to care for themselves.