Boosting employee mental health while WFH: Virtual commute anyone?

boosting employee mental health
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Hannah Paterson, Principal Consultant at Step5, points out how to spot if someone is struggling with their mental health from a distance and how to encourage a culture of wellbeing to prevent issues from developing in the first place

Working from home has its perks. As a working mum, it gives me far more flexibility. Because I’m no longer commuting, I’m always around for the kids’ bedtime. That said, working from home for almost a year amidst a global pandemic poses some unique challenges. From the general disruption of our normal daily lives to our inability to meet relatives, friends or colleagues face-to-face, it’s easy to see why some employees might be feeling the strain. But how can you tell if someone is struggling when your only interaction with them is virtual? What are the signs to look out for, and how can you foster wellbeing in your team so that mental health issues are less likely to arise in the first place?

Look for changes

According to Jon Manning, founder of mental health consultancy Arthur Ellis, you should be alert to psychological, physical or social changes among members of your team. This might be someone asking more probing questions or using more negative language than usual, or seeming more apathetic or even flippant. Physical signs can be more difficult to spot from a distance, but marked changes in someone’s appearance or even background on video calls, such as mounting piles of dirty dishes or laundry, could be a red flag. Social cues could be someone becoming withdrawn, consistently missing or being late for team calls or never turning on their camera. One isolated change isn’t cause for alarm but if in doubt, it’s better to ask the person how they are rather than wonder if everything’s OK. They may be reluctant to open up, but knowing that they can and that you’re there to listen is important. I also find that sharing my own personal challenges establishes common ground and shows people that it’s OK to admit you’re not OK.

Prioritise wellbeing

Rather than reacting to mental health issues when they develop, experts recommend taking a more proactive approach to wellbeing. According to Deloitte, employee mental health initiatives are most effective when they focus on prevention or build employee resilience.

Regular physical activity has a positive impact on how people feel. Getting out into the fresh air and exercising raises energy levels, improves cognitive function and boosts our mood overall. A group of academics agrees and recommends people do a pretend commute when working from home to protect their health and create a clear distinction between home and work life.

It’s easy to get engrossed in a task and barely leave your desk, so the key is to encourage your team to make time in their schedule for exercise. That might mean giving employees a designated lunch break or diarising exercise time. I regularly book ‘walking meetings’ with my team: doing a lap of the park while chatting on the phone offers a welcome break from the intensity of video calls too. Collaboration tools have been our lifeline during the pandemic but it’s important to switch off from the screen from time to time.

Build connections

Research consistently shows that social interaction plays an essential role in wellbeing which, in turn, has a positive impact on employee engagement and performance.

Building social connections is much easier when you’re in the office; catch ups at the coffee machine, chats in the corridor, a quick drink after work are all part of normal working life. And you can usually see if a team member is more stressed than normal.

Opportunities to communicate diminish when you’re working from home, and you have to make a conscious effort to stay connected and stop people becoming isolated. I regularly check in with my team individually, especially people who I know have a lot on their plate or who live alone, and I build in time at the start of calls for a general catch-up. Not everyone is comfortable chatting on the phone, so I also use instant messaging to keep the channels of communication open.

Model healthy behaviours

The best way to encourage healthy behaviour is to practice what you preach.

I try and lead by example. As a working mum of two under-fives, late afternoon and evening are my most challenging times; I block them out on my calendar so that no one arranges meetings, and I let my team know that if I’m needed, the phone is the only route. I hope this shows them that working flexibly around other commitments is both possible and accepted.

One of the biggest challenges of working from home is creating boundaries. People often end up working longer hours – more than two hours a day since the start of the pandemic, according to research – which can lead to stress, fatigue and even burnout. Several years ago, Robbert Rietbrook, then CEO of PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand, encouraged his leadership team to “leave loudly”, to promote a healthy work/ life balance. His idea was that if the senior team were seen to go home, everyone else would feel comfortable leaving. So, I’m very open and vocal about logging off for the day or taking a break, and hope my team will feel inspired to do likewise.

Put people first

In the space of a year, the way we live and work has fundamentally changed, creating new challenges for businesses and putting new demands on leaders to support their teams. Just as the most effective digital transformation programmes prioritise the user experience, the most successful companies will prioritise their people and treat them as individuals.

In the new world of work, where remote working will continue to be part of the mix, retaining talent is no longer enough. Organisations need people who are healthy, happy and engaged, resilient enough to manage the challenges of hybrid working and perform at their best. There has never been a more legitimate time to ask your team how they are and to really mean it.


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