How to manage employee mental health remotely

Managing employees’ mental health has become a priority for employers over the last couple of years.

Regular meetings, managing workloads and mindfulness techniques are all measures that managers have put in place in order to keep an eye on the stress levels of their team.

Training such as Mental Health First Aid actively encourages managers and colleagues to know the signs and symptoms of mental ill health so they can intervene if needed.

However, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are now working from home. The regular contact that would reveal if something is wrong has been taken away.

So how can we manage employee mental health remotely? Here, we look at what we can do.

What are the problems with remote working?

Working from home – and flexible working in general – is often cited as being very beneficial for our mental health.

After all, we can choose our working hours, avoid the commute, see more of loved ones, and be close to our ‘creature comforts’.

However, these benefits are mainly felt when flexible work is exactly that – flexible.

At the moment, many of us are working from home because we have to. Whereas offices and workplaces are generally open, many employers have rightly decided to adhere to social distancing measures.

With local lockdowns and the three-tier system being introduced too, many workplaces that were gradually moving back to normal have reverted to remote working.

This has left some people feeling isolated and disconnected from both their colleagues and the wider world.

Loneliness, combined with a lack of support, leads to mental health problems including depression, anxiety and increased stress. The impact of long-term loneliness on mental health can be very hard to manage.

Employees working from home also have a tendency to work longer hours and struggle to separate their home and work lives.

In 2010, a Chinese travel agency conducted an experiment where half of a 250 group of employees worked from home and the other half continued to work in the office.

At the end of the experiment, the employees working from home were found to have been more productive, but less happy. Half of the home-based group wanted to return to the office, citing loneliness as the reason.

Another study involving 2,533 office workers found people working from home would undertake an extra month’s work a year as they were allocating some of the time previously spent commuting to work.

Preventing loneliness and managing workloads are two of the challenges facing managers as they must adapt to maintaining positive workplace wellbeing remotely.

Keep in touch

In the workplace, best practice regarding mental health involves keeping an eye on employees’ behaviour. A key sign that something has changed in someone’s mental state is a change in how they act, such as being late when they weren’t before, seeming withdrawn, or a dramatic downturn in the quality of their work.

Many signs are traits that some would see as positive, such as a working extra hours or seeming more boisterous than usual. However, this behaviour could be the individual overcompensating or trying to distract themselves.

Managers have always been ideally placed to notice these changes as they see their team on a daily basis. However, when we work from home, we obviously can’t see a difference in behaviour as clearly.

The best way to counteract this is by keeping in touch with employees and speaking with them regularly. This should be a one-to-one conversation at a pre-arranged time, either over the phone or through a virtual meeting. This way, we can still ask the questions and have the conversations that allow us to keep up to date with how employees are feeling.

Ask open questions

As we can’t see the everyday tell-tale signs that someone is struggling, it’s important to give employees the opportunity to communicate how they feel in a non-judgemental way. The best way to start the conversation is by asking open questions.

Asking “are you ok?” for example, will more often than not leads to a simple ‘yes’ response that reveals nothing. This is natural – many people are reluctant to share problems. Asking “what have you been getting up to this week?” on the other hand means the employee has to elaborate.

They may talk about their work or the personal lives, but either way, if there’s something that could be flagged as a problem, you can then investigate. Asking “why do you feel that way?” is a good way to enquire further in an unobtrusive way.

Show empathy

The current situation is hard for everyone. Regardless of how well we think we are handling it, the global pandemic is something that has had a huge impact on all our lives. Our way of living has been altered in a way like never before.

It’s worth remembering that we are attempting to work despite all this. Many people are worried about their physical and mental health, the health of their loved ones, their freedoms and what will happen in the future. This is on top of daily stresses that would have been there regardless.

When managing people, it’s important to keep all this in mind. Empathy goes a long way, especially in a time of crisis when understanding is needed more than ever.

Emotional Intelligence training can help managers identify and understand the emotions their team are experiencing. They will also know how to respond through greater self-awareness, allowing members of their team to feel heard, understood and supported.

Normalise conversations about wellbeing

Start every one-to-one team meeting with the question “how are you feeling?”. This requires the employee to describe their current mood and state of mind, rather than simply speaking about the quality or quantity of their work. It allows them to articulate how they feel about the ‘bigger picture’, seeing as work and home are now interlinked.

Even on team meetings, it can help to start the conversation with casual chat rather than getting straight into the business side of things. Showing that managers are listening and care about employees’ daily lives goes a long way towards building trust, so that a team member could open up should they need to.

If anyone on the team has been furloughed, then be sure to check in on them too. As well as regular conversations, invite them along to virtual meetings so they can be kept in the loop should they wish.

Signpost to support

Most managers are not trained mental health professionals and shouldn’t be expected to be. Even with Mental Health First Aid training, the key is to be able to identify potential mental health issues and signpost people to where they can find help (if needed).

As such, communicate to the team where this help can be found. This could be via email, in your company’s employee handbook, or through an intranet link. Common sources of help include NHS services, independent helplines, or your company’s employee assistance programme. This can connect them with counsellors, cognitive behavioural therapy and occupational health facilities.

Of course, if a mental health issue is identified, discussed with the employee and referred to a professional, it’s important to regularly check in with your member of staff to see how they are doing and whether the circumstances have changed.

Encourage a healthy work-life balance

People working from home have a tendency to work longer hours, either because they feel they can’t switch off, or because they are trying to prove that they’re still being productive despite being ‘out of sight’.

It’s good to remind employees that they are only required to work their contracted hours as normal and not expected to be ‘always on’. Discourage the checking of emails during non-work hours, remind the team to take regular breaks away from their monitors and devices, and make sure that they still take their allocated holidays.

If they do decide to work some overtime, ask them to agree it with you first and pay them accordingly.

Look after yourself

Remember, you are not expected to ‘cure’ mental health issues or protect members of your team from every stressful situation. Your remit is their working life, so you couldn’t possibly be expected to manage stress that occurs in their personal lives. Avoid putting pressure on yourself and aim to simply do your best.

In the CIPD’s regular podcast, they identify three areas managers should work on; modelling, coaching and caring. The first is for managers to act as a role model and take care of themselves first. The concept is like putting on an oxygen mask first so that you’re then able to help others – there’s no use trying to ensure others’ wellbeing if you’re unwilling to follow your own advice.

This then leads to coaching; the conversation you have to identify mental health issues, followed by caring – the action you take.

Keep in mind that any support services offered by your company are there for you too. Never suffer in silence if you feel anxious or stressed. We are all human and living through a tough time right now, so it’s never been more important to create a supportive network built through communication and trust.

To find out more about working from home, managing employee mental health and workplace wellbeing, please visit www.bounce-back.com.

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