Not so long ago, working from home was considered an effective way to support employees’ mental health. It was an in-demand benefit that reduced commute stress and improved work-life balance, helping your organization attract and retain talent.
Now it’s just another pandemic reality, and the mental health of remote workers is fast becoming a top priority for companies looking to stand out and create a great employee experience.
Amid the unprecedented pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic, your employees — many of whom are telecommuting full time for the first time — are experiencing anxiety, isolation, work from home burnout and other mental health concerns.
The impact is too big to ignore: Nearly 70% of workers say the pandemic has been the most stressful time of their entire professional career — including 9/11 and the Great Recession, according to a recent survey.
The good news is it doesn’t have to be this way. With a companywide commitment to mental health in the workplace, you can support employees wherever they are.
6 ways to support the mental health of remote workers
Mental health is as important as physical health — and that message must come from the top. As is often the case, managers play a crucial role in communicating company directives. Mental health can be a sensitive topic, so be sure to educate managers on company policies and encourage them to ask questions and share their own experiences.
Here are six ways to demonstrate care to your remote employees and help them perform at their best.
1. Get leaders involved
Leadership must reiterate mental health as a company priority. Eight in 10 workers say shame and stigma prevent them from seeking treatment for a mental health condition, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. For employees concerned about job security, hearing the boss say, “We talk about mental health here,” is a clear sign that it’s OK to ask for help.
Senior leaders can also write or record their own mental health stories to share via the company intranet or communications app.
2. Communicate your resources (especially if they’ve changed)
Employees may be aware that mental health benefits are available through their health insurance plans. But they may not know about the widespread adoption of telehealth, including online therapy (one of the rare upsides to all this upheaval).
Before the pandemic, just 2% of psychiatrists were seeing the bulk of their patients via telehealth, according to an American Psychiatric Association survey. That number has since shifted dramatically to nearly 85% of psychiatrists using mostly telehealth, the survey shows.
Telehealth can increase access to mental health care by removing barriers like travel time and privacy concerns (e.g., asking to leave work early to get to in-person appointments). Managers can further reinforce the company’s commitment to mental health by sharing their personal experiences with telehealth.
Employee assistance programs (EAPs) are offered by 91% of organizations, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. But most EAPs are underused because employees don’t know what they offer. COVID-19 is likely to change that, as companies lean on the programs they have in place to support the mental health of remote workers. Traditionally, EAPs have helped employees with substance abuse (so there may be some stigma around using the programs) but now may cover stress management, marital and family problems, depression, substance abuse, child and elder care, and legal and financial issues, among other topics. It’s important that managers know what their EAP offers and communicate the benefits to their teams — always with a note that EAPs are free and confidential.
Managers also can point employees to their company’s well-being platform if they have one. A good well-being platform can reach all employees by smartphone and deliver messages in multiple languages across multiple countries. It will also offer mental health activities and resources around resilience, wellness coaching, sleep health and mindfulness training as well as physical and financial health support.
3. Promote physical activity during the workday
Exercise is known to have mental health benefits, and managers should encourage their teams to take time for physical activity. Some ideas: Tell employees it’s OK to block off time on their calendars for a workout, hold walking meetings by phone, and bring back stand-up meetings by encouraging your team to skip the video and stretch their legs.
Companies can provide at-home yoga or fitness subscriptions, or encourage the use of fitness resources available through their well-being platform. Employers may want to provide reimbursement for fitness equipment, standing desks (some even stick to the wall or window for small spaces) or treadmill desks.
Consider some lighthearted gamification in the workplace too, like an easy steps challenge using your fitness trackers or well-being app. A little competition is a healthy and social way for your team to stay connected when everyone’s working from home.
4. Make time to socialize virtually (but no pressure)
The mental health benefits of socialization are well-documented, but remote workers have unfortunately lost the chance to catch up with colleagues over birthday treats and hallway chats.
Managers can build some optional social time into their team’s schedule to let employees know they’re not just cogs in the machine: a catch-up coffee break, a 4 p.m. happy hour, a team lunch (extra credit for sending food delivery gift cards), a group watch party or crafting session, or even online game time with small prizes.
According to the Limeade 2020 Employee Care Report, only 31% of employees strongly agree that their employers care about them as individuals. So even with so many meetings these days, remote employees may take to heart an occasional conversation that’s not about a deliverable, goal or project.
5. Encourage use of PTO — and mental health days count
Since the onset of COVID-19, 43% of employees say they’ve become physically ill as a result of work-related stress. And given that remote employees who are physically sick might be tempted to log into their laptop, it’s important to encourage them to use their PTO.
Same goes for vacation time. Pre-pandemic, Americans left 768 million paid vacation days on the table, and that number is expected to grow as employees stay close to home (and work).
Managers can set an example by taking time off themselves — they desperately need to recharge too. A Limeade survey of employee experience during the pandemic found 59% of managers working more hours and 72% “sometimes” feeling pressure to work when sick.
6. Say thank you
Employee appreciation certainly isn’t a substitute for mental health care, but real, honest recognition from the boss sure feels good. Employees are doing what they can to adapt to new ways of working under incredibly stressful circumstances. Something as simple as a thank-you note or praise during a meeting can go a long way. (For more ideas, see our list of ways to show appreciation for remote workers.)
Organizations that prioritize mental health for remote workers will create a better employee experience. Employees will always remember how their company supported and cared for them during the most stressful time of their career.
Ready to take a comprehensive approach to employee well-being? The Limeade Well-Being platform measurably improves physical, emotional, financial and work well-being to create healthy, happy, high-performing workforces. Get in touch with us today.