Remote work, one year in: 5 ways to boost mental health

After a year of pandemic life, the challenges of remote work are taking a toll on many people. Leaders, consider these tips to help teams stay healthy and productive
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Working from home has its perks: As a working mom, I value the flexibility and the opportunity to spend more time with my family. No commute means less stress, and I’m always around for the kids’ bedtime.

At the same time, a year of restrictions amidst a global pandemic poses some unique challenges. From the general disruption of our normal daily lives to our inability to see relatives and friends or meet colleagues in person, and the sheer uncertainty of it all, it’s little wonder if employees’ mental health, happiness, and productivity are suffering.

[ Does remote work leave you exhausted? Read our related story: Remote exhaustion: 13 tips to reduce fatigue. ]

Remote work: 5 mental health tips

So, how can you support your team through this difficult time of remote working? Here are five tips to help you create and maintain a culture of mental well-being.

1. It's OK to not be OK

It can be difficult to spot mental health issues in your team when your only communication is via video call, but marked changes in behavior could be cause for concern. Perhaps someone is less engaged than usual – consistently late for team meetings, missing deadlines, or turning off their camera on calls. Or it could be that they’re using more negative or apathetic language or have suddenly started neglecting their physical appearance.

I also find that sharing my own personal challenges establishes common ground.

If in doubt, it’s better to ask the person how they are than to simply wonder if everything’s OK. Really listen to what they have to say and ask what support they need. They may be reluctant to share details, but just letting them that you’re there to listen can make a difference.

I also find that sharing my own personal challenges establishes common ground and shows people that it’s acceptable to admit you’re not OK.

[ How strong is your EQ? See our related article: Emotional intelligence test: 5 self-evaluation tools for leaders. ] 

2. Prioritize physical health

It’s often said that prevention is better than cure, and this is certainly true when it comes to mental well-being. According to Deloitte, employee mental health initiatives are more effective when they’re designed to build employee resilience.

Regular physical activity promotes overall well-being, providing a much-needed boost for the brain as well as the body. Getting out into the fresh air and exercising raises energy levels, improves cognitive function, and boosts the mood. In one study, researchers even recommended that people do a pretend commute during lockdown to protect their health and create a clear distinction between home and work life.

It’s easy for many of us to reach the end of the workday without ever leaving our desk, so encourage your team to make time in their schedule for some form of exercise. That might mean giving employees a designated lunch break or scheduling 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. Collaboration tools have been our lifeline during the pandemic but it’s important to walk away from the screen from time to time.

3. Build social connections

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

Building social connections is much easier when you’re in the office; chats at the coffee machine or catch-ups over lunch are all part of normal working life. If someone is stressed, you can usually pick up on the signs.

However, opportunities to communicate diminish when you’re working from home, and it can be difficult to know how people are really feeling.

Make a conscious effort to encourage personal connections to help prevent people from feeling isolated. This is even more important given social distancing measures, which have left many without their usual support network.

Check in regularly with your team members on an individual basis, especially those with heavy workloads or who live alone. Build in time at the start of calls for a general catch-up. Not everyone is comfortable chatting on the phone, so also consider using instant messaging to keep the channels of communication open.

Check in regularly with your team members on an individual basis, especially those with heavy workloads or who live alone.

At the start of the pandemic, many of us were flooded with virtual events so it may be difficult to drum up much excitement for team-building activities. However, a short no-agenda coffee break or a non-work item on a meeting agenda really helps keep teams connected and working well together.

[ How do your team meetings stack up? Read also:  Zoom tips: 6 ways to make meetings better. ]

4. Encourage healthy boundaries

One of the biggest challenges of working from home is creating boundaries between your personal and professional life. According to new research, these blurred lines have extended the working day, with some people working an extra 2.5 hours a day. This can lead to fatigue, stress, and even burnout.

Establishing a healthy work-from-home routine is vital. That means setting parameters and sticking to them. For example, encourage your team to take lunch away from their desk and to take regular breaks throughout the workday. And even though our travel options remain limited, it’s still important to take time off and spend time away from the inbox and laptop.

Although not everybody has this luxury, it’s helpful to designate a place to work that is free from distractions and that you can step away from at the end of the working day. Even the simple act of closing the laptop can give people an important sense of distance.

[ Do you have a tools problem – or a manners problem? Read also: Remote work: 10 tips to be a better virtual collaborator. ]

5. Model healthy behaviors

The best way to encourage healthy behavior in your team is to lead by example. Modeling healthy behavior shows your team that it’s OK to prioritize self-care.

As a working mom with homeschooling in the mix, for instance, I find early mornings and early afternoons can be challenging so I block these times out on my calendar. This shows my team that working flexibly around other commitments is both possible and accepted.

I’m also very open about taking breaks when I’m having a tough day, and I hope my team will be inspired to do likewise.

Putting people first

The pandemic has transformed the way we live and work, creating new challenges for businesses and putting new demands on leaders to support their teams. Just as the most effective digital transformation programs prioritize the user experience, the most successful companies will prioritize their people.

In the new world of work, where remote work is likely to continue at least to some extent, retaining talent is no longer enough. Organizations need people who are healthy, engaged – and resilient enough to manage the challenges of hybrid working.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Hannah’s career has seen her work on ground-breaking public sector projects in the UK, US, and Australia. She has crossed sectors from Defense to Healthcare with clients including public sector services supplier SSCL, the BBC and the National Health Service.