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Remote Working & Mental Health

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Did you know it’s estimated that in Australia,  1 in 5 people will experience a mental health problem each year? With increasing pressures at work and living in a world that is only getting faster, it’s sadly unsurprising that so many people will suffer from poor mental health.

Negative mental health can have a devastating effect on individuals, which can in turn impact the company they work for. Over recent years, more and more companies have realised just how much mental health can affect business. Regardless of the size of your company or the industry you work in, if your workforce includes human employees then their mental health is an important factor that needs considering when running the business day to day.

Given that remote working has rapidly become the ‘new normal’ brought about by coronavirus, it’s important to be aware of the way that working from home can impact your employees’ mental wellbeing.

In this article, we’ll cover some of the most important things to consider when evaluating your team’s mental health, as well as providing actionable tips and advice which you can use to help support your employees with positive mental health throughout challenging times.

Coronavirus and remote working

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, studies showed that:

The world of work has changed significantly over the past couple of decades, and it’s clear that advances in technology have made it much easier for employees to work remotely whilst still collaborating day to day.

There is also a difference in remote working pre-COVID 19 and post. Whereas before employees were working from home out of choice and able to take part in social activities in their free time, now it has become a necessity for many and that avenue for socialising with friends has been closed off.

The impact of working at home on mental health

While the flexibility of remote working can bring about many positives for people, it’s important to be aware of the potential downsides too. Remote working can be isolating if not managed properly, which can in turn trigger a variety of mental health issues:

Loneliness

Loneliness can be a real problem for companies making the transition to remote working for the first time, particularly for larger firms. The sudden loss of human connection, even if it is just missing a quick chat in the kitchen, can be unsettling and leave team members feeling isolated and missing a sense of camaraderie.

Signs to look out for include: reduced social interaction, self-doubt, negative self-worth, surface-level engagement with others.

Burnout

In a home office, the boundaries between work and life are more blurred than ever. This can lead to overworking in some cases as employees find it difficult to ‘switch off’ at the end of the working day. If allowed to go unchecked, this kind of overworking or other sources of stress can manifest in the form of ‘burnout’ – a state of being emotionally, physically, and mentally exhausted.

Signs to look out for include: stress, frustration, feeling drained, reduced work performance, lack of creativity, physical ailments like headaches and stomachaches.

Anxiety

As a general population, our anxiety levels are higher than ever and this has not been helped by the sudden shift in the way we work and live our lives. Staff can be left feeling unsure of themselves and their job security, as well as struggling to cope with new-found demands that come with working from home, for example also dealing with childcare. As a manager, it’s important to keep communication flowing both ways to provide reassurance and support where needed.

Signs to look out for include: fatigue, feeling irritable, excessive or unwarranted worrying, lack of interest in work, a sense of jitteriness, difficulty sleeping, poor memory.

Many of the signs of these mental health conditions can be tricky to spot in a remote team, so it’s important to take a proactive approach to opening up conversations around mental health and to equip your team members with the support needed to help them conquer any struggles they may be facing.

How to support your team’s mental health during COVID-19

Encourage your team to disconnect and maintain a healthy work-life balance

Now more than ever it is hard to switch off at the end of the working day. But being able to walk away and have some downtime is crucial for maintaining positive mental health.

Actionable tips to recommend include having a physical door or barrier present where possible which separates working and living spaces. Not only does this physically put work out of sight, it also acts as an extra defensive measure against the urge to work after hours. If your team doesn’t work flexible hours, you could also consider using your online chat software to make a point of saying goodbye at the end of the working day.

Encourage employees to take sick days for their mental health

Mental health sick days are invaluable in supporting employees through challenging times. Be clear that mental health is just as important as physical health, and should be treated as such when it comes to sick leave. The risk of presenteeism is particularly high in remote teams, with workers more able to be physically present at work even though mentally they are checked out. This can be avoided by making it clear that sick days are there for a reason and should be used whenever an employee feels that they need time to rest and recuperate from whatever ailment they are facing, whether it be physical or mental.

Check in with team members regularly one-on-one

If you aren’t already having regular one-to-one chats with your team members, now is absolutely the time to start. Video calls are preferable if possible too, as this face-to-face communication can offer a real mood booster and give a much better sense of how an employee is feeling.

Use this time to have a chat about how things are going, both in terms of work tasks and wider wellbeing. By leading this conversation, you will help to nurture a two-way sense of trust and find it easier to spot and address any issues sooner.

Make sure your team know where to find support and assistance

Check that your HR policies are well defined and, if you have one, make sure that you are familiar with your Employee Assistance Programme. This involves more than just having a website link that you can pass on – take the time to familiarise yourself with the resources available and the process that someone will have to go through to get the help they need.

You should also have several contacts that team members can speak to if they are struggling – not everyone will be comfortable speaking to HR and, though managers always hope that they are approachable, this is not always the case. By giving people several options to whom they can reach out, you create a more robust support system for different scenarios.

New ways of working means new ways of tracking performance

A huge part of a successful remote company is the trust that managers have to place in their team members. While it can be tempting to want to ramp up the measurement of performance through, for example, message response times, calls made, or even screen monitoring, this risks employees feeling patronised, demoralised, and like they are working under surveillance.

Rather than focusing purely on tracking how much time and effort is going into producing work, concentrate on measuring output instead. For example, rather than looking at how many emails your employee has sent, look at the number of deals closed or tickets resolved. This helps to encourage productivity, effective prioritising, and ultimately add more value to the company.

Keep an eye on absences or sick days and always follow up

Be sure to keep an eye on how your team members are using (or as the case may be, not using) their sick days. While a high amount of absences can be a cause for concern, the same can be said for the opposite. Working from home can make it tempting for employees to ‘push on’ even when they are feeling under the weather, meaning that they don’t give themselves time to rest and recover properly. This presenteeism also means that the work they produce will be substandard and could lead to further headaches in the future.

Taking advantage of time & attendance software to help you keep on top of employee absences is a great way to ensure you are being diligent in your duty of care to your staff, without having to dedicate a big chunk of time to it. Simply set up automatic reports that can flag any potential issues, giving you enough notice that it may be a good idea to schedule a catch up with any employees who may be struggling.

Questions you can ask as a manager

How are you finding the work-life balance at the moment?

This is a nice question as it is very open-ended and gives team members a good opportunity to bring you up to speed on how they are handling the sudden shift to remote working, and offers the chance to raise any concerns they might have.

What is your working space or environment like at the moment?

By learning more about the setup that your employee has at home, whether they are lucky enough to have a home office or are having to share a kitchen table with their partner, you will have a better understanding of the potential physical challenges that they might be facing.

Do you need any additional office equipment?

If you can make any changes to support your employee by supplying them more appropriate equipment, for example with an external keyboard or mouse, a back support, or even a monitor riser, then this is highly recommended. For an inexpensive investment, the benefits it will bring your team mentally and physically will help to support increased productivity throughout the working day.

Are you facing any challenges that make working more difficult? For example, homeschooling children, caring for dependants, etc.

Understanding any issues or obstacles that may be making it harder than usual for team members to get their work done will help you to take action to support them in the best way. For example, introducing flexible working hours for parents may improve the quality of their work as they can account for any distractions throughout the day that may take them off-task.

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