COVID changed the way we do a lot of things in life, including how we shop, eat out (or eat in), how we greet people (Is it okay to shake hands? Give hugs?), the availability of products we use regularly, our medical care (telehealth, elective procedures, and so on), how we view someone coughing near us, and more. Specifically, COVID has affected the way many of us work. One day, we’re working in an office building away from home, the next day, we’re working someplace in our home—a room, a table, a corner—anywhere we could find to get the job done.
Even though life is returning to more of a pre-COVID environment, remote work is here to stay. Based on a May 2021 Gallup poll, 56% of workers are currently working remotely. By 2025—less three short years away, 36.2 million Americans will be working remotely according to Upwork’s Future of Workforce Pulse Report. This number reflects an 87% increase compared to pre-COVID numbers.
While many workers did not work remotely pre-COVID, why are so many workers favoring remote work? The benefits (increased productivity, improved work satisfaction, reduced expenses, increased employment opportunities, etc.) are compelling.
Unfortunately, working from home also introduces some negative issues for workers, many of which are mental health-related:
- Blurred line between home life and work life. With an in-home office, it’s much easier to keep working, or “just check a few emails,” or just do one more thing, and so on, and especially where video conferencing is concerned, the number of meetings can seem endless, equating with a longer workday overall.
- Difficulty staying motivated and “on task” and issues with prioritizing work. While some workers flourish in a remote setting, others struggle to not get distracted in their home life and environment, and with some additional control over their workday, some workers can lose focus and struggle with time management.
- Insomnia and sleep problems. Due to those often-blurred lines between home life and work life for remote workers—feeling like they’re never “off” the clock, sleep issues can become a potential problem.
- Uncertainty about progress and performance. Since remote workers don’t have regular, in-person interactions with management, it can be more difficult to receive consistent feedback.
- Feeling isolated and lonely. Remote work is just that—remote, and the lack of in-person social interaction can be difficult for some workers.
While it’s apparent that mental health issues have the potential to escalate in a remote work environment, studies show that 25% of employees are afraid to seek help for mental health issues or take time off for their mental health for fear of retaliation from employers.
“It’s not surprising that in light of the pandemic that mental health is on peoples’ and employers’ minds....What’s worrisome is that given this discussion, many people, particularly younger people, are still worried about retaliation if they take time off for mental health. This is stigma in action, and it has to stop.” – APA President Vivian Pender, M.D
So, what can HR leaders and upper management do to improve mental health in a remote work environment? It’s not as complicated or costly as leaders might think, and while the following tips are focused on remote workers, they can be applied to hybrid and in-office workers as well, enriching any work environment where mental health is concerned.
7 Tips for Improving Mental Health in a Remote Work Environment
Tip #1. Invest in training to educate and better equip managers about mental health issues. Unlike physical health issues, mental health issues can often fall on a wide spectrum—no two experiences are alike, so it’s important for leaders to be aware of the warning signs and symptoms surrounding mental health. A 2021 study found that 59% of workers have mental health problems that are affecting their work, meaning some team members are dealing with mental health issues.
One of our goals at Campfire is to provide managers with top-level training, including training around mental health issues. Sign up for a FREE Campfire Session today to learn more.
Tip #2. Encourage and support discussions about mental health. While there is still some stigma associated with mental health issues, when companies promote a mental health-friendly company culture, where discussing and getting help for mental health issues is encouraged, employees will thrive and feel like they are being seen, heard, and understood.
Tip #3. Be empathetic. Empathy is defined as “the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else's position and feeling what they must be feeling.” While leaders might not have experienced the same mental health issues their employees are going through, empathy can go a long way to not only helping employees, but helping leaders learn more about mental health also. Be willing to listen and continue to learn.
Want to be the world’s best boss? Learn how to earn that title here.
Tip #4. Be patient and considerate of remote work environments. Since employees have less control over their surroundings when working remotely, it’s crucial for peers and management to remember that they are literally being invited into their employees’ homes. During meetings, attendees can potentially hear dogs barking, see that cat that jumps on the desk, have children appearing on camera, hear a variety of background noises, and so on. If employees are stressed about what “might” appear on their screens or be heard during calls, they’ll be less likely to fully engage in meetings, decreasing feelings of well-being and productivity overall. However, with patience and consideration for a remote work environment, co-workers across the org chart can feel more humanized and better understood as a complete person, leading to a better sense of well-being, more positive feelings about work, and that higher productivity we all aim for.
Tip #5. Offer company-provided mental health-related technology. Online programs and/or apps, including those that are on-demand or scheduled and that are designed for both groups and individuals, can not only help employees improve their own mental health, but they can also contribute to increasing the social aspect of working remotely. Some companies are doing yoga, stretching, meditation, simple workouts, and so on, all of which can be both desk-friendly and home office space-friendly.
Tip #6. Respect boundaries—both during work hours and beyond. When working remotely, especially during COVID and even in the present, the boundary between work and personal life can often get blurred, resulting in what author Greg McKeown calls a “Zoom, eat, sleep, repeat” cycle. And Zoom is not the only culprit in this blurred work and home life scenario. In the “olden days,” the phone in your office used to be the only way to communicate, but now, cell phones, emails, texts, Teams, Slack, Trello, Notion, and a plethora of other work-related options created to save time and money have exacerbated the problem in some instances, making employees available 24/7/365. In order to make this often-blurred line clearer, and to protect the mental health of employees, honor and respect their work boundaries as if the only time they work is when they are actually working in the office (even if that’s a home office).
Tip #7. Make social connection opportunities available. When working remotely, while it can be a benefit to work alone, it can also be lonely, as was shared before. However, there are some things leaders can offer to employees to help overcome this missing social aspect of work:
- Celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, births, and other important life experiences. Remember to offer sympathy for difficult experiences also.
- Offer online team building activities—get creative. Google (or your favorite search engine) can be helpful here.
- Offer challenges: Wellness, reading, movement—anything that will involve the group and provide some friendly competition.
- Offer career and personal development opportunities in a group setting, which not only helps the group improve personally and vocationally, but also provides the collaboration skills needed for successful teams.
- Create clubs for those with common interests like book clubs, exercise clubs, golfing clubs—any type of club where employees can share a common interest.
- Create a shared food experience. Some companies have gone the extra mile and sent remote workers a meal, a dessert, a drink (tea, hot chocolate, coffee, etc.) to recreate the shared “experience” of going out for dinner, or for coffee, or for dessert, which is not always an option when team members work remotely. Food is a common denominator with people, and these types of experiences can go a long way to nurturing those all-important social connections among workers.
Working remotely can be a different experience for each employee. Some will be successful, and others will struggle, especially where their mental health is concerned. Since a remote work environment is here to stay, it’s important for leaders to not only learn about mental health issues, but to also work to provide ways for their employees to thrive, both mentally and professionally, in their remote work environment. After all, when employees thrive, the organization thrives.