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At the beginning of 2021, the Office of National Statistics stated that the number of people suffering with depression has doubled since the same time last year. Remote workers often experience symptoms of anxiety and depression at a higher rate than people commuting into traditional office spaces. Specifically, they report feelings of isolation and loneliness and high rates of worry about job performance and stability. Insomnia and sleep disturbance are common, along with increased fatigue, irritation, sadness and feelings of disconnection. The last thing employers may wish for, while working to keep their business afloat, are employees struggling with depression and anxiety.
What is a mental health issue?
A mental health issue can be considered a disability under the law if all of the following apply:
- it has a ‘substantial adverse effect’ on the life of an employee (for example, they regularly cannot focus on a task, or it takes them longer to do)
- it lasts at least 12 months, or is expected to
- it affects their ability to do their normal day-to-day activities (for example, interacting with people, following instructions or keeping to set working times)
So, what steps can employers take to help their employees maintain good mental health?
Is working from home entirely necessary at all times?
Where employees express deep concerns about continuing to work from home then efforts should be made to return them to their normal workplace as soon as safely and practically possible. Carry out regular reviews. Is it safe for employees to travel into work? Are some employees better able to do so? Do they have their own transport? Are their children back at school and do they have back up child-minding support in place? Is the workplace considered to be COVID-safe?
A good maxim to adopt when considering returning staff to the workplace is:
- Is it essential?
- Is it safe?
- Is it mutually agreed?
If the employer can safely and practically return employees to a more “normal” working environment, then this may significantly improve employee’s wellbeing.
Regular communication is essential
- Employees working remotely in particular need to be kept informed and assured. Employers need to have transparency concerning the steps that they have taken concerning employee safety. Merely assuring staff that you are “COVID-safe” may not give them confidence that everything has been done, that can be done, to ensure their safety and wellbeing.
- Communication should allow for staff to raise any concerns or feedback. Involve staff directly in the completion of risk assessments. Any planned or implemented Health and Safety measures should be published and available to all staff / and others as appropriate. Inform staff of any arrangements in place for external counselling or simply have available a person nominated to act as a mental health support champion.
- Encourage employees to take their annual leave. There is an inclination to delay holidays at the moment as travel is limited and employees can carry forward holidays into next year. However, it is probably more important than ever that employees working from home take personal time away from their home-based workstation.
Spotting the signs
- Employees do not always disclose a mental illness voluntarily, and nor are they legally obliged to do so. This is where regular contact and sensitivity is essential. When managers notice remote working employees exhibiting behaviour that would fit the description of misconduct — whether that be uncharacteristic lateness, a general lack of focus resulting in poor work quality, or a disregard for procedures and protocol , the “knee-jerk” reaction can often be to performance manage or discipline the employee.
- However, the key question employers must ask before performance management (particularly with an employee only recently having to work from home) is whether the underperformance or misconduct is caused by depression or anxiety, or is it simply underperformance or misconduct? It is important to identify the reason for performance issues before taking any performance management or disciplinary action.
- If an employee expresses feeling of depression or anxiety working from home, then it is important that employers have a plan in place as to how best deal with this. Clearly the matter needs sensitive handling and not all line managers will be capable of dealing with this and employers need, more than ever before, to ensure that their managers are trained in dealing with mental health issues.
- It is critical that the employer creates an environment where employees feel that they can talk about these matters. Similarly, the employer should not feel they are being intrusive when investigating any potential illness.
Below are some remote working guidelines.
1: Remote working guidelines
Setting clear expectations is the first thing you need to do if you want to ensure high engagement among your employees who are working from home. Do your employees know exactly what is expected of them while they work from home?
To make that clear for all your employees, you should institute a remote work policy. This is a document that explains how your company implements remote work.
Guidelines should include:
- Do you have strict working hours, or do you allow your employees to plan their own working hours around personal/family demands? At what time of the day should your employees be available online and through which channels?
Regular (online) meetings
- Do you have some regular daily, weekly or monthly meetings your employees should attend?
- What communication channels and tools do you use? Do you use different communication channels and tools for different purposes?
- Who can your employees turn to for help if they have any difficulties and challenges related to remote work?
2: Regular checking-in
Regular checking in with your employees is a must when they’re working remotely. Regular check-ins will ensure that your remote teams are on the same page regarding their work duties. However, these meetings have additional value – they will create a sense of togetherness.
The best practice is to have a daily team or department check-ins, weekly coordination meetings and monthly all-hands meetings. Make sure your team leaders also keep their regular one-on-one meetings as well.
You can choose to have these meetings on a video call – whatever works best for your team. However, make sure that you have at least some of your check-in meetings via video conferencing tools, with your cameras on. Nothing can replace the human connection that is formed by looking someone in the eye – even if it is only via video conferencing.
3: Virtual tea breaks
“Virtual tea breaks” are simply short (usually 15 to 30 minutes long) video calls during which your employees come together for a round of small talk over a cup of tea or coffee. Virtual tea break guidelines:
- Schedule them regularly at predictable times
- Whether you decide to have your company’s “virtual tea break” once per day or a week, make it predictable. This will make it easier to adhere to
- Are your “virtual tea breaks” completely casual and optional? Or do you have some rules (such as: no phones or checking messages, be on time, etc.)?
- Keep it up to one to two “tables” max
- If you have larger teams, break your “virtual tea breaks” into smaller groups so that each person can be heard
4: Video meetings
Chances are your employees will have to attend a lot of video calls and meetings while working remotely. That’s understandable because face to face communication is the fastest and easiest way to get all your remote team members on the same page.
However, if you want to keep your employees engaged during your video meetings, make sure not to schedule them too often. Video meetings should be reserved for discussion and urgent issues and they should only involve people who have something to contribute to them.
Each of your video meetings has to have a clear purpose and well-defined agenda that is shared in advance before the meeting starts, so everyone can come prepared. It is also a good idea to have a dedicated timekeeper and facilitator. Make sure you rotate these roles and give each of your team members a chance to run a meeting, as this will help keep them engaged.
5: Online team-building
While you should always consider organising onsite team-building if possible, don’t underestimate the power of online team-building. Online versions can be just as effective! Some people even prefer them because they are more convenient and provide the same sense of togetherness, fun and enjoyment.
There are many different online activities and games you can use to help your remote employees get to know one another and build stronger connections. What type of team-building you organise should be directed by your company culture and your employees’ wishes. Considering suggesting a few options and asking your remote employees to choose the one they prefer.
6: Online knowledge-sharing sessions
According to scientific research, knowledge-sharing significantly and positively affects employee engagement. Knowledge-sharing among employees enables them to grow at both personal and group level, thus driving productivity and innovation.
Knowledge-sharing in the workplace is the process of sharing expertise, information and skills among employees in a company. This process happens relatively spontaneously when employees are working side by side, but when employees are working remotely, you need to put in some effort to structure it.
Some knowledge sharing ideas:
- Mentoring program
- Webinar watching
- Book club
- Problem-solving workshops
- Discussion group
- Monthly presentation or a talk.
7: Online recognition
Recognition not only boosts individual employee engagement, but it also has been found to increase productivity and loyalty to the company, leading to higher retention. The most effective recognition is honest, authentic and individualised to each employee.
This is why it is essential that you institute an online recognition system for your remote employees. There are many different ways to do it, but we suggest you start with something very simple.
8: Friday close-off meetings
When we work on-site, leaving the office symbolises the end of the workday and workweek. However, when you are working and chilling at the same place, it isn’t so easy to maintain boundaries between working and resting.
One of the biggest challenges of remote employees is cutting off from work. This is a very serious problem because staying plugged in means your employees aren’t able to rest, which will eventually lead to burnout.
At the end of the workday on each Friday, gather your team for a short, half an hour video meeting. Use it to acknowledge the work you have done during the week, celebrate your wins and share plans for the weekend.
9: Engagement surveys
Building and maintaining strong employee engagement can be challenging when you have remote employees – especially if they’re not used to remote work. Your remote employees might be facing different challenges, but you won’t know about them unless you ask.
It is not likely your remote employees will feel your daily stand up meetings are an appropriate place to address their concerns. Since face to face time is relatively rare and valuable in the remote working setting, you won’t have the opportunity to see if your remote employees are dealing with some work-related issues.
This is why you should conduct periodic, and regular, engagement surveys. Try sending out these surveys at least once a month. That way, you’ll be able to compare results and see if there are any changes or issues that need to be tackled.
Example of remote employee engagement survey questions:
- What do you think could help us to improve daily communication?
- Do you feel like you can easily reach your colleagues when you need them?
- How can we help you improve your work-from-home experience?
- Are you happy with your productivity level?
- What is the biggest challenge you are currently facing while working remotely?
The most important part of conducting employee engagement surveys is to act on them. Check in with your remote employee who is experiencing challenges and make a plan to successfully tackle those challenging issues.