Graphic by acework, 2019. All rights reserved.

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
 — Wendy Mass

Mental health challenges for remote workers

In Part I of our Remote Best Practices series, we mentioned how remote and dispersed teams have fewer opportunities for in-person discussions, which may hurt team cohesion and productivity. In addition, this may also be a barrier to knowing if a team member is dealing with a mental health challenge.

You, a colleague or a direct report could seem upbeat, productive and engaged on a project online, while in reality you’re struggling to cope. We miss non-verbal cues when much of our workplace communication takes place through a screen or even asynchronously.

Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Of the 2,500 remote workers surveyed in Buffer’s recent report The State of Remote Work , unplugging after work hours made the number 1 spot as the biggest struggle employees faced with remote working. Loneliness came in second place, while collaborating/communication came in third.

Amir Salihefendic CEO of Doist, states in the report how “we need to acknowledge that isolation, anxiety, and depression are significant problems when working remotely, and we must figure out ways and systems to resolve these complex issues.”

In addition to being a remote worker, I am also the founder of a company. Founders are at additional risk to suffer from mental health issues. I am no stranger to the feeling of self-doubt, and whether I am on the right path. Dealing with rejection is a founder’s daily business. Switching off after work is even harder when you feel the responsibility of a company’s future riding on your shoulders.

The solutions are as diverse as the challenges

We spoke with Hayley Lewis, a chartered occupational psychologist based in London, UK, and founder of HALO Psychology. She has seen firsthand some of the ramifications of mental health and stress in the workplace and helps managers with ways to cope with their team’s mental health challenges. In addition, she also has been a manager herself, supporting staff members with mental health issues such as depression.

As Amir states in Buffer’s report, these are complex issues and there is not a one-size-fits all solution. “When we talk about mental health, especially when mental health is discussed in a general media sense, it’s almost treated in a homogenous lump: good mental health on one side and bad mental health on the other, but it’s so much more nuanced than that,” says Hayley.

Even in their origin, mental health issues could simply be caused by workplace-related stress or could appear due to neurodiversity, or the chemical or genetic composition of someone’s brain. According to Hayley, “There is this whole spectrum of mental health but we need to talk about it as a whole.”

5 Effective Ways to Proactively Address Mental Health from Industry Leaders

While there is no quick fix, the good news is that there are effective and simple ways to be more proactive about mental health for your remote teams.

Acework also spoke with members of two FROGs (fully remote organizations). Andrew Gobran, is in charge of People Operations at Doist, a FROG that creates productivity software; and Marcus Wermuth is the Mobile Lead at Buffer, an intuitive social media management platform to help drive social media results. Here, Hayley, Andrew and Marcus share their best practices for addressing mental health in the workplace.

1. Loosen your grip on policies

Many companies have mental health policies in place, but too often these are too broad and do not represent the nuances of mental health. “It’s like looking at physical health and treating someone who has lost an arm with chemotherapy,” says Hayley.

While having a well-thought out policy in place is a good start, it’s easy to become over-reliant on them. In the worst case, they can even make managers lazy and fearful. “They’re frightened of saying the wrong thing or saying something that may be taken the wrong way,” says Hayley. Here are some helpful and compassionate questions managers can use to learn more about the well-being of their employees.

Hayley recommends managers trust their judgement and instincts. That is, drop the legalese policy content and be courageous enough to step forward and have a human-to-human conversation with the person who is struggling. To learn more, read her researched-based post on the relationship between leadership, mental health and job performance.

2. Create a safe space for open conversation and learning

For Doist, mental health is a hot topic because their team members talk openly about it and share their experiences. To keep the conversation going and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, the team started a mental health initiative. Among other practices, the team prepares a “Mental Health Monthly” to discuss a specific topic such as stress, burnout, or imposter syndrome.

“Navigating mental health is complicated because there’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Before we can even think about approaching mental health issues, we have to recognize that they exist and affect all of us. By creating a safe space for our team members to learn, share experiences and discuss, it doesn’t take long for us to realize that mental health affects us all as remote employees, and as people,” says Andrew.

Learn more about what Doist is doing to address isolation, anxiety and depression in the remote workplace in their recent post.

3. Lead by example

When Deloitte UK launched the “This is Me” campaign, they wanted to break the stigma of mental health in the workplace. Six of their most senior people stepped forward and spoke about their own issues with mental health.

These videos reached over 420,000 people across the UK. “Ultimately, whether we like it or not, we take our cues from the people at the top of the organization; and it requires some bravery from people at the top to step forward,” says Hayley.

But you don’t have to have a massive budget or a nationwide audience to be the change you wish to see.

At Buffer, Marcus shares with his team and direct reports how he takes care of his mental health, which includes therapy appointments. By being open and transparent, some of his colleagues were comfortable enough to let him know that they, too, sought the advice and help of a therapist.

“We consider therapy appointments just like any other health appointment. Leaders and managers are open with their teams, offering an open and comfortable environment that reduces the stigma,” says Marcus.

All Buffer employees also have access to Joyable, an online digital therapy tool that offers proven solutions for depression, anxiety or stress.

4. Embrace compassion

As human beings, we all want to be seen and heard.

Photo by Lina Trochez on Unsplash

Going back to leading by example, managers and leaders should consider tapping into their inherent sources of compassion. This is a tried and true method of helping team members, who are struggling with mental health challenges.

“So many managers dampen down their compassion to be more formal for the workplace. But who are they at home? That great mom, that great dad, that great friend, get them to take those hats into the workplace,” says Hayley.

Next time you notice or have a feeling someone on your team is struggling, keep the following in mind and have a human to human conversation:

  • Hey, I see you
  • I’ve noticed
  • I care enough to say something about it

5. Take an Unsick Day

In addition to sick leave and a flexible time-off policy, Buffer is a founding partner of a program called the Unsick Day. Every employee is encouraged to take at least once a day a year off and book in for preventative treatments such as: counselling, dental cleaning, eye exams or any other treatment that feels good.

Let’s keep talking

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

While mental health is a complex and nuanced topic, the more conversations we have in the remote community the better chance we have to find solutions to isolation, burnout, anxiety and depression.

Personally, I had to build a strong support system outside my company as well. Apart from friends and family, it also includes people from my industry and the startup community. As the founder of a young company, I value these people for their expertise and insight, but also for their compassion and ability to get me out of my own, self-doubting head. Speaking to fellow founders helps a lot as well, since it shows that everyone is struggling in some way or another.

How can managers encourage their teams to speak openly about their mental health challenges (isolation, loneliness, anxiety, etc.)?

At acework we are warriors for greater flexibility and happiness at work. We are always curious how the rest of the remote work community gets this done. Get in touch and let us know your ideas and best practices (hello@acework.io).

Passionate about the future of work and to connect self-determined, driven individuals with opportunities, no matter where they are. Visit Angelina at AceWork.io.
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Passionate about the future of work and to connect self-determined, driven individuals with opportunities, no matter where they are. Visit Angelina at AceWork.io.
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