Working remotely: How to spot signs of struggling employees

Ten tips ahead of Time to Talk Day

clock • 5 min read

Dr Nick Zygouris explores how business owners can support the mental health of employees working remotely during lockdown

With no end to the lockdown in sight, employees are facing the prospect of many more months of working remotely, meaning that the mental health challenges associated with lockdown - isolation, loss of contact with family and friends, and specific anxiety regarding the virus - are set to continue.

Remote working presents an additional challenge for managers trying to identify employees who may be struggling with their mental health, as they are unable to pick up on visual cues and behavioural changes, like someone appearing quieter than normal, that are easier to identify in the physical workspace where you may spend more time together. Employees may likewise find it harder to disclose problems in a remote-working situation, with the option of knocking on a door or a less formal chat with a manager or colleague no longer available.

To support the mental health of remote employees, managers should create an environment where employees feel empowered to open up about mental health.

With remote working adding an extra obstacle to workplace conversations about mental health, managers need to know that it’s ok to ask.

Adopting a compassionate leadership approach can help. Compassionate leadership is not about diluting the commitment to high-quality performance. It is about listening to employees, understanding the challenges they face, expressing empathy regarding their difficulties, and taking caring action to support them - while maintaining professional boundaries.

Here are 10 tips for recognising signs of mental distress among employees, and how to support workers who disclose a mental health problem:

  1. Make talking about mental health normal. Mental health should be established as a regular, legitimate subject for team discussions, for instance by holding events dedicated to the topic, and by using mental health awareness days throughout the year (like Time to Talk Day) as a basis for conversations.
  2. Notice changes in mood and behaviours. When our mental health deteriorates, this shows in changes in our behaviours. The changes can be subtle at first, but the signs are there. So, during video calls and telephone conversations be alert to signs of change. For instance, an employee may look or sound different. Consider whether they appear more excitable, or more withdrawn. Are they still humorous or do they appear more cynical?
  3. If you don't ask, it may be too late by the time you find out. Managers must be prepared to ask questions, which could include how employees are coping with their workload, or whether they are struggling with the lockdown and issues outside of work.
  4. Don't feel awkward about asking. Managers should not worry that asking would make the situation worse or whether they may say the wrong thing. Saying nothing can be more harmful in the long run. Many managers get advice from HR if they don't feel equipped to talk about mental health to their employees.
  5. Make time to listen. When discussing a colleague's mental health problem, it is important to ensure that there will be enough time to talk about any issues that may come up. Ensure these conversations will not be interrupted, and that the discussion is not overheard. It may be easier to hold the conversation on a virtual ‘walk' together by both leaving the house and speaking via a mobile video call. As well as avoiding interruptions, this may help employees to speak more freely if the problem is at home.
  6. Managers don't need to solve their problem - but they can support them to access the right help. If an employee discloses poor mental health to a manager, they should try to understand their difficulties, and direct them to the appropriate support or services. For instance, encouraging them to access wellbeing company resources or visit their GP. An occupational health assessment can provide you with additional insight.
  7. Reconsider the onboarding process. It is important to remember that newcomers to the business may find it harder to form relationships working remotely, identify the unspoken rules of the new workplace and seek help from colleagues. These challenges could make matters worse if their mental health was already challenged by a period of unemployment or furlough. Create extra opportunities for social interactions to support their integration to the team.
  8. Keep teams cohesive. Team members can be updated with regular upbeat communications outlining progress within the business and team achievements. These can foster a sense of belonging and can help counteract the isolation some experience when working remotely.
  9. Be aware of assumptions. Employers should not assume that a particular demographic in its workforce is more prone to mental health issues than others. While there's evidence to suggest that younger people's mental health has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, mental health issues can affect everyone.
  10. Managers have mental health needs, too. Leading with compassion can make a real difference to employees, but managers mustn't forget to take care of their own mental health and wellbeing needs. Being truly compassionate towards employees is not possible unless self-compassion is learnt first.

It's more important than ever to make staff aware of available support, including employee assistance programmes (EAPs) and private medical insurance (PMI), and to empower both the Mental Health Champions and Mental Health First Aiders to function effectively in the world of remote working.

While the casual interactions of the physical workplace are not currently possible, employees may need to be given explicit permission to ask for help and understand that their problem, whether big or small, will be treated compassionately.

Dr Nick Zygouris is consultant clinical psychologist and director of mental health at Maximus UK

What to learn more? Join PA's sister title COVER at Mental Health & Wellbeing 360 on 25 March

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