As many people around the world have started working remotely due to the pandemic, personal communication has become sparser. How can we tell if a teammate has mental health issues when all of our interactions happen behind a screen or a computer keyboard?
Around the world, physical distancing measures and concerns about the continued spread of The new coronavirus has forced many companies to ask all or most of their employees to work from home.
But even though officials in various countries are now beginning to relax physical distancing and lockdown measures, it looks as though more widespread remote work arrangements could remain in place.
Some of the largest and most influential companies have already committed themselves to much more flexible work from home policies in the future.
For more advice on preventing and treating COVID-19, visit our coronavirus hub.
While working from home can have benefits for both employees and companies, it can also bring some pitfalls, such as blurred boundaries between “work time” and “private time,” which can affect employee mental health.
How can employers help employees maintain mental wellbeing while working remotely?
Many people find it difficult to see signs of psychological distress in another person at the best of times, and the fact that many employers and employees now only communicate with each other behind a screen can make this even more difficult.
To find out how employers and colleagues can identify mental health issues in a teammate in a remote work context and learn more about how they can be supported, Medical News Today spoke with two experts: Tania Diggory and Kat Hounsell.
Tania Diggory is a neuro-linguistic programming practitioner and mental health trainer as well as founder and director of Calmer. Kat Hounsell is a leadership coach and mental health first aid trainer and founder of everyday people.
Focus on non-verbal communication
Specialists have pointed out that people who experience symptoms of mental health problems, such as depression, may have changes in body language and their daily behavior.
However, how these changes occur in different people depends on their personality and individuality.
“[I] isn’t important to recognize that we all have our own sense of ‘norm’ and to recognize that a person’s behavior (to them) appears outside the norm usually depends on how well you know them,” stressed Tania Diggory in conversation with MNT.
“Apart from that, body language and tone of voice are powerful forms of nonverbal communication, no matter how well you know someone. [T] These are important signals to watch out for if you feel a teammate is struggling with their mental health,” she added.
But when we no longer share physical space with a person, how can we recognize telltale signs?
“First, let’s remember that many of the observational skills we have in person can be translated online. When we talk via video call, we can still tell the body language [of a person] and [their] appearance, and even without video, we can hear the tone of their voice and listen to the words they use,” Kat Hounsell told us.
Outside of calls, Hounsell suggested paying attention to odd changes in someone’s messaging style and email communication and whether a person has suddenly become less communicative online.
“By email, we may notice that someone’s spelling is changing or that emails are being sent outside of working hours. Just as a sign [of psychological distress] at work can be [that] a person […] is absent regularly; the same applies to the virtual world… are they engaged as much as usual?
— Hounsell cat
Proactive check-ins are a must
But the most important step in making sure that a colleague working remotely is doing well is simply trying to make regular video or voice calls.
Both Diggory and Hounsell emphasized the importance of making eye contact — even if through a computer screen — and really listening to a person speak.
“Check in with each other regularly, whether through one-on-one meetings or team meetings—via video conference whenever possible,” said Diggory.
She also emphasized the importance of conversations that go a bit deeper than the usual small talk.
“If they look or sound vulnerable, they might not talk about it, so you can ask how they really feel and remind them that if they’re having problems, they don’t have to do it alone,” Diggory told MNT.
Hounsell gave out similar advice and said, “To really find out
What’s going on, we need to have a conversation with our teammates, ask them how they’re doing, really listen to the answer, and encourage them to open up when they’re comfortable.”
Speaking with managers and team leaders, Diggory also suggested that allocating dedicated time at the start of team meetings to check in for all colleagues could help ensure they feel heard and supported.
“For example,” she suggested, “you could ask your teammates to express in a few words how they’re feeling without judging, or to share how they’re taking time to stay well this week.”
“Speaking out how we feel in a safe, supportive space and raising awareness of how we can promote our wellbeing are important steps to building our self-confidence and connecting with those around us,” she continued.
Hounsell also urged managers not to forget employees who are currently on vacation or those on sick leave.
“Regular check-ins are important to monitor the well-being of team members, and that includes those who are currently on vacation or illness,” she told MNT.
Hounsell added that employers must consider three steps when thinking about protecting their employees’ mental wellbeing. In your opinion, these are:
- Prevention, which means using measures and strategies that help the team stay healthy
- , intervention, which means “having the confidence to open a conversation when they feel that a team member is struggling”
- Protection, which means “following policies and procedures to ensure the safety of people who feel unwell”
“They are not on their own”
Ask what they would say to someone who currently has mental health issues associated with working remotely or is being aggravated by remote work as a result of the pandemic, both Hounsell and Diggory stressed the importance of seeking help and practicing self-compassion.
“I want to encourage [anyone in need right now] to be empathic and kind to themselves, to recognize that each of us is navigating the sea with different ships and learning to become a captain in stormy waters,” said Hounsell.
“There is support and you’re not on your own,” Hounsell reminds our readers, noting that “many professional support services continue over the phone or online. Booking a telephone consultation with your [doctor] can be a helpful first step.”
Diggory also advised anyone with mental health issues at this time to talk to friends or family they trust, reach out to the relevant people at their workplace and use the mental health resources available to the general public.
First, “[I] am looking at your current support network,” Diggory said. “Who do you trust in your family, friends, and professional networks that you can reach out to talk about how you’re feeling?
“Talking is one of the most important steps you can take to manage your mental health, and studying how you feel with someone you trust can reveal solutions you may not have considered yourself,” she explained.
In a work context, she suggested talking to a manager, HR team, or a trusted colleague so they could negotiate any necessary adjustments to their work.
“Every company has a legal duty of care to support their employees, and if you’re concerned that your mental health is preventing you from doing your job, it’s important that your employer knows that.”
— Tania Diggory
Finally, she urged our readers to remember that mental health helplines are always available for anyone who needs support during a difficult time.
“We’re living in the best possible time to get mental health support,” she said, “and there’s a plethora of charity and health organizations you can contact based on your specific needs.”
“That way, you can talk to someone objectively about how you’re feeling and they can help you identify your next steps and get appropriate support that’s most relevant to you,” Diggory added.
For our readers in the US and elsewhere, here is a list of organizations that provide mental health advice and support.
Hounsell added that those suffering from additional stress and mental health issues while working remotely could benefit from a renewed focus on physical health and wellbeing.
“Maintaining the basics of our physical wellbeing can have wonderful benefits for our mental health,” she said, mentioning “sleep, diet, water, exercise, and getting some fresh air every day whenever possible.”
Ultimately, according to Diggory, everyone should strive “to remember that fighting with […] mental health is a human experience.”
“Everyone who lives on Earth experiences feelings of stress, depression, or anxiety from time to time, and those experiences don’t define you as people,” she added.
“You have a lot of potential within you, and although your state of mental wellbeing may fluctuate, these are important signals in your mind and body to watch out for. [A] Identifying and recognizing when you need help is strong so you can find the support you need.”
— Tania Diggory
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