With remote working adding an extra obstacle to workplace conversations about mental health, managers need to know that it’s ok to ask.
With no end to the lockdown in sight, employees are facing the prospect of many more months of working remotely, meaning that the mental health challenges associated with lockdown - isolation, loss of contact with family and friends, and specific anxiety regarding the virus - are set to continue.
Remote working presents an additional challenge for managers trying to identify employees who may be struggling with their mental health, as they are unable to pick up on visual cues and behavioural changes, like someone appearing quieter than normal, that are easier to identify in the physical workspace where you may spend more time together. Employees may likewise find it harder to disclose problems in a remote-working situation, with the option of knocking on a door or a less formal chat with a manager or colleague no longer available.
To support the mental health of remote employees, managers should create an environment where employees feel empowered to open up about mental health. Adopting a compassionate leadership approach can help. Compassionate leadership is not about diluting the commitment to high-quality performance. It is about listening to employees, understanding the challenges they face, expressing empathy regarding their difficulties, and taking caring action to support them - while maintaining professional boundaries.
Here are ten tips for recognising signs of mental distress among employees, and how to support workers who disclose a mental health problem:
- Make talking about Mental Health normal. Establish mental health as a regular, legitimate subject for team discussion, for instance by holding events dedicated to the topic, and by using mental health awareness days throughout the year (like Time to Talk Day) as a basis for conversations.
- Notice changes in mood and behaviours. When our mental health deteriorates, this shows in changes in our behaviours. The changes can be subtle at first, but the signs are there. So, during video calls and telephone conversations be alert to signs of change. For instance, an employee may look or sound different. Consider whether they appear more excitable, or more withdrawn. Are they still humorous or do they appear more cynical?
- If you don’t ask, it may be too late by the time you find out. Be prepared to ask questions, which could include how employees are coping with their workload, or whether they are struggling with the lockdown and issues outside of work.
- Don’t feel awkward about asking. Don’t worry that asking would make the situation worse or whether you may say the wrong thing. Saying nothing can be more harmful in the long run. Many managers get advice from HR if they don’t feel equipped to talk about mental health to their employees.
- Make time to listen. When discussing a colleague’s mental health problem, ensure that there will be enough time to talk about any issues that may come up. Make sure that you will not be interrupted, and that the discussion is not overheard. It may be easier to hold the conversation on a virtual ‘walk’ together by both leaving the house and speaking via a mobile video call. As well as avoiding interruptions, this may help employees to speak more freely if the problem is at home.
- You don’t need to solve their problem - support them to access the right help. If they disclose poor mental health, try to understand their difficulties, and direct them to the appropriate support or services. For instance, encouraging them to access wellbeing company resources or visit their GP. An occupational health assessment can provide you with additional insight.
- Reconsider your onboarding process. Be aware that newcomers to the business may find it harder to form relationships working remotely, identify the unspoken rules of the new workplace and seek help from colleagues. These challenges could make matters worse if their mental health was already challenged by a period of unemployment or furlough. Create extra opportunities for social interactions to support their integration to the team.
- Keep your team cohesive. Keep team members updated with regular upbeat communications outlining progress within the business and team achievements. These can foster a sense of belonging and can help counteract the isolation some experience when working remotely.
- Be aware of your assumptions. Don’t assume that a particular demographic in your workforce is more prone to mental health issues than others. While there’s evidence to suggest that younger people’s mental health has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, mental health issues can affect everyone.
- You have mental health needs, too. Leading with compassion can make a real difference to your employees, but don’t forget to take care of your own mental health and wellbeing needs. You cannot be truly compassionate towards your employees unless you learn self-compassion first.
It’s more important than ever to make staff aware of available support, including EAPs and private medical insurance, and to empower both the Mental Health Champions and Mental Health First Aiders to function effectively in the world of remote working. While the casual interactions of the physical workplace are not currently possible, employees may need to be given explicit permission to ask for help, and understand that their problem, whether big or small, will be treated compassionately.
Dr Nick Zygouris
Consultant Clinical Psychologist and Director of Mental Health at Health Management
If you are struggling in work because of your mental health, you can access support through the Access to Work Mental Health Support Service.