Zoom calls instead of in-person meetings. Long hours spent working in isolation. Eating lunch alone at your dining room table instead of with colleagues. Balancing the demands of work, home, and school for your kids, all in the same physical space.
These are the challenges of remote work. Thanks to social distancing policies resulting from COVID-19, they’ve been ramped up to critical levels with no way to determine when we can expect a return to normal working conditions.
While remote work has long been a coveted perk for many, the forced isolation employees are experiencing now is a far cry from what they envisioned. With no option to meet up with colleagues as needed and nowhere to go after work or on the weekends, many people are experiencing crushing feelings of loneliness, isolation, and burnout. Add to that the stress of sharing living and working space with a partner and/or children and the fact that the lines between work and home have been blurred like a Monet painting, and you have the perfect recipe for mental health struggles.
According to the Center for Workplace Mental Health, promoting the well-being of remote workers requires action from both individual employees and managers. Here are nine ways companies can encourage both.
- Recognize the problem.
The first step in solving any problem is recognizing that it exists. Lack of social connection and face-to-face interaction, loneliness, distractions, and difficulty accessing necessary tools and information all contribute to poor engagement among remote workers. To solve the problem, train managers to understand how these factors affect the well-being and productivity of their teams. Training programs and protocols should also empower leaders to support employees with coaching and communication.
- Coach employees on how to prioritize their own well-being.
Newly remote employees may initially struggle with establishing a functional work-at-home routine. Encourage them to prioritize their well-being by taking steps like these:
- Shift focus – Don’t stare at the computer screen for eight hours straight. Instead, work in intervals if possible. Try creating a rotation of tasks: focus computer work, phone calls, Zoom meetings, checking email, etc. Switch up your location with each task as you move through the day.
- Take regular breaks – Whether it’s a walk to the kitchen for coffee or a walk around the block, breaks give you a chance to regroup both mentally and physically.
- Get exercise and sunshine – Exercise and sunshine both improve your mindset and energy levels. Open the blinds, take a quick walk outside, or do an exercise video before or after work each day.
- Build social interaction into every day – Connect with colleagues via chat tools or video conferencing, and take the time to pick up the phone rather than sending an email when possible. In addition, look for ways to connect socially outside of work. Text a friend, call a family member, or send a message to someone you haven’t heard from in a while.
- Take time for reflection and gratitude – Clear your mental space by practicing mindfulness and gratitude.
- Use technology to help employees stay connected.
Set up a virtual space where employees can interact and build connections. Tools like Zoom, Slack, and Facebook can all meet the critical need for social connection, while also promoting collaboration at work. And while it’s important to keep employees on task, allowing them the freedom to chat about life outside work as well (think virtual water cooler) can have a significant impact on mental health.
- Check-in with employees regularly.
Managers should check in with remote employees daily by phone or email to keep tabs on projects and make sure they have what they need. In addition, set up weekly meetings on Zoom or over the phone to track goal progress, talk about any struggles or challenges employees have, and acknowledge successes.
- Implement remote recognition strategies.
Recognition is a key component of engagement, and that’s just as true for remote workers as it is for those in the office. A simple thank you can go a long way toward developing trust and morale among team members. In addition, develop more structured recognition strategies to reward productivity and progress toward goals.
- Ramp up communication from managers and team leaders.
It’s virtually impossible to over-communicate in a remote work Use video conferencing, social channels, chat tools, email, and phone calls to stay connected with teams and make sure everyone has what they need to get work done. Implement weekly or monthly staff meetings where people can “see” each other on a video call, create daily work checklists, encourage employees to reach out with questions or problems, and provide frequent performance feedback.
- Offer flexible working hours.
Working in a home office isn’t as straightforward as clocking in at your office building. Employees may be trying to share workspace with a spouse or partner who is also working from home, and they may also be caring for children. In these scenarios, it is helpful to offer flexible work hours so your team members can stagger care responsibilities and working hours with a partner. If the role permits, shift the focus to performance expectations rather than being on the clock during specific hours.
- Provide mental health support through your health plan or EAP.
If possible, offer remote mental health services through a telehealth system to employees who are working from home. Services may include online counseling or therapy, and employees may be able to engage anonymously if they feel uncomfortable sharing personal information. If you have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), you may be able to include mental health support as part of the service offering.
- Keep tabs on your employees’ well-being.
However you choose to approach the issue of mental health for remote workers, remember that most people won’t be quick to speak up when they are struggling. That means managers should take the initiative to ask. One way to do this is to send an anonymous employee survey to monitor stress levels among teams as a whole. Managers should also check in with employees individually on a regular basis to show that they care.
Well-being is a key component of employee health, and it is also an important contributor to engagement and performance. Mental health can be an uncomfortable subject for some employees, but that doesn’t make it any less urgent. The best way to help your team members navigate the challenges of working alone at home is to offer regular, personalized support and coaching. No matter where they work, your team members deserve the care and support they need to thrive.