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How Managers Can Support Employee Mental Health Remotely During Covid-19: 4 Best Practices

To say this is a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty may be the ultimate understatement. COVID-19 has disrupted every conception of what’s considered “normal life,” and as with any significant disruption, it can increase everyday stress. For some, that may mean slightly elevated anxiety and frustration, while for others, life amid the current pandemic […]

To say this is a time of unprecedented change and uncertainty may be the ultimate understatement.

COVID-19 has disrupted every conception of what’s considered “normal life,” and as with any significant disruption, it can increase everyday stress. For some, that may mean slightly elevated anxiety and frustration, while for others, life amid the current pandemic may prompt considerable mental health symptoms.

As a manager, you have a tricky role in all of this. You need to maintain productivity and workflow by keeping teams on track, yet it’s also imperative to keep mental and physical wellness in mind. Even if you’re no longer sharing a physical workplace with your employees, managers are still in a good position to identify signs of distress, and facilitate connection to resources and strategies that can provide vital support. But in a virtual work situation, it becomes more important to create explicit opportunities for employees to express areas of struggle, and to create an environment that makes it okay to talk about emotional wellness.

Consider the following guidelines for any remote work environment.

1. Demonstrate empathy

Many times, simply acknowledging that employees are working in exceedingly challenging circumstances can go a long way toward helping employees feel heard and understood. In your meetings with team members, verbally acknowledge the stress of current events and increased responsibilities at home, especially if childcare or eldercare has suddenly become much more prominent for them.

You can show empathy for your employees by initiating one-on-one conversations about how they’re feeling about their work pace and volume, even if they’re not outright saying they’re under stress, and offering options for support as needed. If an employee is showing signs of distress, do more listening than talking, and stick to open-ended questions and statements like, “What’s going on for you?” and “Tell me more about that.” Be sure to avoid diagnosing and giving advice, while always maintaining strict confidentiality unless the situation requires human resources’ intervention or an emergency response.

Sometimes, an employee may feel there’s a danger of negative evaluation or perceived stigma if they admit to the emotional difficulty they’re feeling. That’s why it’s crucial to let your team know that productivity isn’t expected to be at 100 percent during this time. Whenever possible, proactively offer options for flexibility on work schedules and deadline to your team members, given everything that’s going on globally, locally, and in their own homes.

2. Lead by example

Because they’re used to demonstrating productivity and assuredness, managers may not naturally gravitate toward discussing their own challenges, but it’s exactly this tactic that helps employees feel more at ease. When you mention what’s been challenging for you, or how you’re trying to balance work and home responsibilities, it can help employees feel like they can open up about those issues, too. If your child is tromping noisily through the living room during a regular teleconference meeting and you can acknowledge it without needing to apologize for it, it’s a sign that they don’t need to, either.

At the same time, be mindful not to disclose too much information, as you don’t want to signal that you’re trying to solicit support for yourself. Instead, share from a standpoint of emphasizing that mental wellness is important to everyone, and focus on mentioning the efforts you’ve taken to ensure good self-care, including setting boundaries around work hours and taking regular breaks during the day. If you’ve found prioritizing self-care to be difficult, it’s okay to acknowledge that as well, while still emphasizing its importance 

3. Promote casual wellness check-ins

Remote work can lead to fewer opportunities for the type of casual social interactions that happen every day in a physical workplace. This can spur feelings of isolation and disconnection, which add to stress levels. 

To mitigate this, check in casually with each team member throughout the week about how they’re faring. Even something as simple as an instant message to ask how they’re doing, and what support you can offer, can be a huge boost for someone who’s struggling. This demonstrates your care and concern, and also provides a chance for the employee to share any difficulties that may have come up since the last time you connected.

In team meetings, consider using the first five to 10 minutes to do a “wellness check” by allowing your team members to share about their own self-care, as a way to steer the conversation toward beneficial ideas for managing stress. Encourage people to swap their coping strategy “wins” on a regular basis, and contribute your own. This normalizes the fact that everyone can benefit from prioritizing self-care. It also creates a deeper level of support and community for one other, in which employees see the whole team as a resource for mental health and connection.

Consider holding brief meetings in casual, social formats, similar to hanging out in a workspace for 10 to 15 minutes during a break (for example, a recurring coffee chat). Just as they would be when you’re all physically together, these unstructured meetups serve to focus less on work tasks and project agendas and more on connecting with each other.

4. Remind the employee of available mental health resources

Your efforts as a manager can be significant, but there may be times when your employees need additional support, particularly from mental health care professionals. Again, emphasize that it’s okay not to be okay, and that accessing these services can be helpful—not as a “last resort” type of option.

Refer employees to their Lyra benefit, if offered by your company. If Lyra is not offered, connect employees to your company’s employee assistance program (EAP).  Have information ready about the  available benefits including how to access services. Highlight that this resource is both free and confidential. 

In general, working remotely is challenging for many people, even in the absence of a pandemic. In a pre-pandemic survey of remote workers conducted by cloud computing company DigitalOcean, two-thirds of all respondents said they’ve felt burned out or “work fatigued.”

With uncertainty and stress layered on top of that—as well as additional home responsibilities from childcare or eldercare—working remotely can become even more overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean it’s unmanageable. Strategies like the ones mentioned here can help alleviate the sense of disconnection and anxiety your employees may be experiencing, and give them a better outlook when it comes to emotional wellness.

This piece first appeared on the Lyra Health blog.

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