4.7 million people work remotely in the United States alone. With more and more employees working from home, employers have to change their day-to-day operations to accommodate workers in different cities, states and countries.
Protecting the mental health of remote workers can be one of the most difficult challenges for employers. How can you recognize the signs of a problem or offer support when you’re in a different location or time zone? This article details 12 ways you can support your remote employees’ mental health.
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As the stigma surrounding mental health decreases, more and more employers are taking their employees’ mental health as seriously as their physical health.
You wouldn’t expect an employee to come to work if they broke their arm or had a fever. You would probably even discourage them from coming in not only so they can rest and get well, but also so that they don’t spread their illness to coworkers.
The same should apply to mental health.
If an employee comes to work suffering from anxiety or in a manic episode, they can’t give you their best performance and need time to recover. Poor mental health can also lead to physical health problems, such as sleep deprivation, high blood pressure and ulcers. And while mental illness isn’t contagious like the flu, other employees could lose focus because they’re worried about their coworker.
One of the easiest ways to promote total well-being is to allow “mental health days.” Just as an employee can call off work when they are physically unwell with no questions asked, they should be allowed to take a day off when they don’t feel up-to-par mentally, too.
More importantly, include mental health services in your employee benefits. Show you care about employees as whole people by including the following in your benefits package:
- Employee assistance plan (including access to counsellors and support groups)
- Mental health coverage
- Substance abuse coverage
- Mental health information sessions in the workplace
- Stress management programs
In addition, consider offering employees subscriptions to online therapy alternatives such as Talkspace and BetterHelp. These are more private and less expensive than in-office appointments. They’re also helpful for remote employees who may live in areas with limited access to mental health services.
21 per cent of remote employees cite loneliness as their biggest struggle when working from home. Without having to leave the house for work, they might not interact with another person for days, leading to feelings of isolation. Even if they aren’t always alone, working remotely can lead employees to feel left out.
Support the mental health of remote workers by helping them stay connected. Platforms such as Slack and Zoom make it easy for teams to work together even when they’re physically apart. Emails work, too, but can feel too formal. Instant messages, on the other hand, are perfect for quick updates.
Video calls are the next best thing to an in-person meeting. They’re ideal for talking out issues, brainstorming ideas and building team spirit in ways that written communications can’t.
Encourage employees to communicate not just for work-related reasons, but for socializing, too. Remote employees miss out on lunchroom conversations and water cooler conversations, which help coworkers bond and let off steam during the work day.
While they can’t pop over to a coworker’s desk to ask a question or chat, technology can help remote employees feel less isolated from their coworkers.
As mentioned above, remote employees shouldn’t just communicate with their teammates with work-related questions. Encourage them to connect socially, as well.
Start by creating fun channels on your company’s instant messaging platform to help employees bond. These are great places for workers on different teams to chat about common interests. Some example topics you could use include:
- Cooking or baking
- Specific television shows
- Outdoor activities (e.g. hiking, kayaking, camping)
- Specific sports (playing or watching)
- Local restaurant recommendations
- Activities for kids
- Foodie interests (wine, beer, coffee, tea, food)
To really shrink the distance, hold virtual social events over video chat. Even though they can’t be together in person, employees can mingle with coworkers in a non-work setting. A virtual set-up also removes the pressure to network or stay a certain amount of time. Try one of these ideas:
- Happy hour (BYOB!)
- Coffee social
- Online gaming
- Chat roulette
- Storytelling or poetry slam
- Pizza party (with pizza sent to all employees’ homes)
Remote employees’ mental health may suffer if they feel isolated for too long. Going days without communication with their teammates may make them feel worried about their performance, confused and disconnected. To keep them in the loop, managers should check in with their remote workers regularly.
Managers should start with a daily check-in with each employee. This can be a simple “good morning” message or a longer email detailing their expectations for the day. Even a short interaction reduces feelings of being forgotten, as well as ensures remote employees stay on track with their work.
In addition, managers should meet each of their remote employees via video call once per week or month. Use this time to discuss accomplishments, areas of improvement, goals and career path.
This is also the perfect time for managers to get to know their employees’ personalities. Encourage small talk and personal conversations during these meetings, too.
Further, managers should consider organizing weekly or monthly video calls with their entire team. Use this time to discuss how each person is contributing to the team’s larger goals. When teams work remotely, it can be harder to see past individual tasks to the big picture. Include virtual team building events, too, to establish team bonds from afar.
Research shows that physical exercise enhances mood, relieves anxiety and improves sleep. In fact, one study found that an exercise program had similar effects on depressed patients as taking antidepressants.
Ensuring remote employees stay active is not only good for their physical health, but their mental health as well. Along with the benefits listed above, exercise can also give employees a sense of accomplishment and breaks up their day between work and personal time.
Two of an employer’s main concerns for their active employees should be keeping them active and encouraging them to take breaks. Incentivize active breaks to achieve both.
One option is to ask employees to log physical activities they do on their breaks (e.g. walking, running, stretching). At the end of each month, reward the employee with the highest number of active break minutes with a gift card or their birthday off.
Other ways to promote physical (and mental) fitness for employees include:
- Offering a wellness stipend, which can be used for anything from exercise classes to equipment to massage therapy
- Purchasing fitness trackers for remote employees with built-in activity and sleep goals
- Providing a list of free online fitness resources
Employees who work from home often choose to do so for flexibility. They may have to balance child or elder care or medical appointments with their work tasks. Working remotely also gives employees the freedom to address physical and mental health needs in private and as necessary.
Trying to juggle these already stressful situations with traditional work hours puts the mental health of remote workers at risk. They may skip therapy appointments or work in a distracting environment, both of which could negatively affect not only their well-being, but also their productivity. In turn, these employees might feel stressed, overwhelmed and insecure about their work.
Rather than requiring a certain number of weekly hours, shift your focus to weekly output expectations. Managers should work with their remote employees to set realistic goals that are neither too small nor overwhelming.
Before finalizing an employee’s objectives, make sure that they are SMART:
- Specific: includes the who, what, where, why and how of the goal
- Measurable: includes criteria that determines progress
- Achievable: strikes a balance between being challenging and attainable
- Relevant: aligns with the company’s mission and your career path
- Time-based: there is a clear deadline or timeline for achieving the goal
When employees work remotely, they’re often disconnected. They don’t receive feedback as often and can struggle to see where their tasks fit in with the overall work of their team.
As a result, remote employees could feel confused, lack confidence in their performance and lose motivation. If they don’t know if the quality and quantity of their work is acceptable, they don’t know how to proceed. Furthermore, employees working from home could feel left out of the group and their coworkers are taking credit for their work.
To combat this and support your remote employees’ mental health, recognize and reward good work. Shout out top performers in a monthly company-wide email. Offer incentives for employees who meet their goals. Ask managers to provide regular feedback to remote employees and share their successes with the whole team.
While monetary bonuses are nice, consider the following incentives for remote employees who perform well:
- Technology upgrades (new laptop, headphones, monitor)
- Home services (house cleaning, gardening or landscaping, childcare, meal kit delivery)
- Home office rewards (new chair or desk, coworking space membership)
- Extra paid time off
- Gift cards
- Special deliveries (flowers, pizza, sweet treats)
For many remote employees, work/life balance improves when they start working from home. They don’t have to spend time commuting and can use the flexible hours to change up their schedule when they have other responsibilities. However, working remotely can send some workers into “workaholic” territory.
Because their home is also their workplace, remote employees often find it difficult to achieve work-life balance. They may feel guilty if they log out when there’s still work to be done or if they take a break. After all, they have 24/7 access to their office.
This inability to unplug can negatively affect the mental health of remote workers. They may work too many hours and burn themselves out. Working late into the night or starting early in the morning might disrupt their sleep patterns. These employees might even start to withdraw from family and friends to keep their productivity up.
Help remote employees achieve work/life balance by encouraging them to:
- Set up a specific area in their home as their “office” and not working outside of that
- Work only a set number of hours each day
- Shut off work devices after the set work hours have passed
- Take regular breaks throughout the day to eat and stretch
- Get a full night’s sleep
- Say “no” to requests if they’ll add extra work time outside of their set hours
No matter how many video meetings you hold, there is something about seeing coworkers in person that can’t be replicated. Ideas seem to flow more easily and stronger bonds form. Employees who work from home miss out on that, which can deepen feelings of loneliness.
If possible, plan events and meetings where employees can get together in person. Monthly team meetings, company parties and organization-wide quarterly meetings are all perfect opportunities for remote employees to socialize and learn with their coworkers.
In addition, consider sending a remote worker to a conference with another employee. They’ll get to know each other in both professional and social settings, plus the work-from-home employee will feel included.
Is your entire staff remote? You can still hold real-life meet-ups. Pair up employees who live in the same city, then ask them to get together for coffee so they can put a face to a name.
Or, hold a retreat weekend for all employees at a resort or camp. An overnight company trip where remote employees can meet and do team-building activities in the flesh gives them something to look forward to.
When employees only get to see their coworkers a few times per year, they want to let loose and have fun. Ensure things don’t get out of hand using our lawsuit-free company party checklist.
Even though society has been fighting the stigma surrounding mental health, not everyone is comfortable discussing the topic, especially when it comes to their own struggles. Employees might feel ashamed, not want to bother their manager with personal issues or not even be sure they have a problem.
Remote employees might be even less inclined to ask for help because they don’t feel bonded enough with their manager to disclose their concerns or because they think such a serious matter should only be discussed in person.
To monitor employees’ mental health without being intrusive, send out a company-wide survey every quarter or six months. Ask questions that can help you assess well-being such as:
- On a scale of 1-10, what is your stress level on an average work day?
- How do you deal with stress?
- Do you feel comfortable discussing your mental health with your manager? If not, why not?
- How do you feel at work? (include emotion faces or words to circle) Describe why you feel this way.
- Do you think [company name] provides enough mental health resources? If not, what suggestions do you have for improvement?
Not only will these surveys help you get a read on your staff’s mental health, but they can also help you take preventive measures. For instance, if an employee shows signs of burnout or depression, you can intervene before things escalate.
Employees may not know where to start when seeking out mental health resources. This can be especially true for remote employees who don’t get to attend in-office information sessions or see helpful posters on bulletin boards.
To support the mental health of remote workers, share a list of resources where all employees can easily access it. For example, send it out annually in a company-wide email and post it on your HR platform. Review the list regularly to make sure all the resources are still active and have up-to-date contact information.
Resources to include on this list include:
- Therapists covered by your company’s benefits
- Mental health hotlines (e.g. distress, suicide, substance abuse)
- Local shelters and treatment centers
- Educational online resources that describe signs, symptoms and steps to take for mental illnesses
- Telemedicine mental health services (especially helpful for remote employees)
Additionally, consider offering a health advocacy program to your employees. These programs give workers access to professionals who can help them make informed decisions about their health, understand their benefits and even liase with healthcare practitioners on their behalf.
Finally, the best way to protect remote employees’ mental health is to foster a culture of open communication. This should apply to work conversations, of course, but also personal communication as well.
Let employees know that they can go to their immediate supervisor, senior managers and HR whenever they have a question or concern about their mental health. Express that their well-being always takes priority over work tasks.
Train managers to be good listeners and to learn their employees’ habits so they can spot strange behavior. Hire employees who are compassionate and will help a coworker when they are struggling.
While holding annual seminars or training to communicate this message of openness works well for in-office staff, remote workers may not be able to attend these events in person. To reach them, record a session and upload it to your HR platform.
Protect the Mental Health of Remote Workers
As an employer, it’s up to you to create a workplace supports every employee’s well-being, inside and out. A healthy, happy staff boosts efficiency and also shows potential hires that your company is a great place to work.