How can employers support the mental health of employees while working remotely?

Need to know:

  • The pandemic has caused a huge number of employees to work from home, with many having to do so while balancing their childcare responsibilities as well.
  • Employers should check in with their employees on a regular basis to gauge their mental wellbeing.
  • Mental wellbeing support, such as employee assistance programmes (EAPs) or mental health first aid networks, should be promoted regularly.

The Covid-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic has put enormous strain and pressure on all areas of businesses, and from a workforce point of view, this is none more prominent than in the mental wellbeing of employees. A survey of 22,000 Unite union representatives, published on 11 May 2020, found that nearly two-thirds (65%) had reported an increase in members reporting mental health-related issues.

Employers face the challenge of managing a workforce consisting of employees working from home, for whom many it will be a new experience; employees working onsite only if it is necessary and distancing measures can be adhered to, or employees that are on furlough. So, how can employers keep in touch with these dispersed teams to ensure they are aware of how employees are faring during these difficult times?

Recognise the challenges

Working remotely from home is something that many employees have been doing for years, while for others it is completely new. Ama Afrifa-Tchie, head of culture and wellbeing at Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England, says: “We are working in extraordinary times. We’ve never been through this experience before and people are getting used to working in different ways. Some might be used to it and be able to take to it like a duck to water, and some might find it quite challenging because they’ve never ever had to experience it before. So how do they convert their mindset to be able to do that?”

Home working will affect people in different ways, especially depending on an employee’s personality type. Dr Wolfgang Seidl, partner and workplace health consulting leader at Mercer, says: “The introverted employee probably doesn’t mind so much because they probably enjoy the fact that being at home allows them to structure their day better. People who are introverted would probably think, ‘well now I am in charge of my workflow and I can produce at least as much as otherwise’. But, over time, many people get upset and find it difficult to be confined.

“On the other hand, the extroverted people definitely don’t enjoy working from home so much because they are used to bouncing around ideas off of other people, and they can only thrive if they are in that type of environment.”

As well as the challenge of adjusting to a new work environment, many employees have the added pressure of having to balance working from home with childcare responsibilities while schools and nurseries remain closed.

The combination of pressures while working from home can exacerbate employees’ tension, says Naomi Thompson, head of organisational development at Benenden Health: “Anxieties have evolved. Those people that are home schooling are really finding it tough because it’s that sustainability: it was a bit of a novelty, particularly for the kids in the first couple of weeks, whereas now it’s becoming a bit more of a sustained reality.”

By recognising the pressures that employees are under, employers can offer support and ways of relieving some of the stresses. The blurred lines between home and work can really put pressure on employees’ mental wellbeing, says James McErlean, general manager at Headspace for Work Europe. “There’s a piece around fatigue and the transition between work and home, and taking breaks,” he says. “I think people find difficulty in separation sometimes. That fatigue creeps in when [we’re] not getting the transition of a commute to break up [our] day.  [We’re] constantly context switching really quickly. I think that’s really difficult for people, finding that space to have a microbreak or a break within the working day.”

Constant communication

One of the most straightforward ways of keeping track of employees’ mental wellbeing is through regular communication, but with recognition of the challenges employees are facing.  “As managers and leaders you have to acknowledge that this is different, this is challenging,” says McErlean. “We’ve been used to working face-to-face with people for years and now that’s been removed, it doesn’t mean we should still apply the same practices. We need to think differently about the practices we apply. Looking through a lens of compassion towards your employees immediately changes the way that you have a conversation. I think the conversation piece is most important.”

Regular check-ins with employees is important, for both those that are working from home and those that are on furlough. It is acceptable for employers and colleagues to keep in touch with furloughed employees on a purely social basis, and it can be beneficial for their wellbeing. “Employers should be checking in and finding opportunities to have one-to-ones with those that are actually still at work and still working, but also opportunities for those that have been furloughed to connect,” says Afrifa-Tchie. “It is quite key just to make sure that people are okay and [employers] can’t do that unless [they] check in on them. Find out how their workloads are, how they’re coping at home. Is there anything that needs to change, do other work patterns work for them? Employers need to be more empathetic and more compassionate in the way that they’re thinking.”

Providing regular updates about how the business is faring and any plans for the future can also help allay employees’ worries. Benenden Health has been sharing information constantly and remains in contact with employees on a regular basis. “Communication has been absolutely paramount in our organisation,” says Thompson. “We still send out a daily email telling [employees] what’s going on, how our business is impacted, and really giving people a message that they’re not on their own and that we’re all in it together.”

Many employers have encouraged virtual social connections; Benenden has created an internal social media page on which employees share homeworking hacks, news on their pets and blogs.

Mental wellbeing support

While working remotely, it is as important as ever to ensure employees have access to the correct mental wellbeing support. This could include reminders about schemes the employer already has in place, such as an employee assistance programme (EAP) or a mental health first aid network.

Part of the role of any manager is to look out for any signs of mental ill health that an individual may be showing. While this may seem to be more challenging when it is not in a face-to-face setting, there are things a manager can look out for.

As well as reminding employees about the schemes in place, employers should pay attention to individuals’ tone of voice and facial expressions during phone or video calls. “We can’t relinquish management’s duty of care and responsibility,” says Seidl. “Watching out for their wellbeing is still part of our role. Managers have a lot of tasks, but they can’t relinquish that part of the job because relating to people with empathy, being the caring face, exploring how people feel but then very quickly referring them on, is part of the job profile.”

Employers can also signpost staff to external avenues of support, such as resources published by mental health charities. Living in this new normal and working in different environments has prompted conversations around mental wellbeing in a big way, says Afrifa-Tchie: “People are quite tough on themselves. They might feel that they haven’t achieved much working from home. My advice to those individuals is: you are allowed to have your ups and downs, and down days, we have to learn to be kind in this situation. Just take it a day at a time. Set achievable day-to-day goals. It’s about winning in small steps, and don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can.”