How to Prioritize Employee’s Mental Health on Remote Teams
By: Emily B. Rose, SVP of Broker and Partnership Sales for LegalShield and Forbes Business Development Council Member and Contributor
How are your employees doing right now? Do you know what’s going on in their work and personal lives—and how these factors are affecting their stress levels, engagement and overall mental health?
It can be difficult to answer these questions even when you see your team every day in the office. It’s even more challenging when you are all working remotely. In early 2020, many of us prepared to work from home for two weeks before we could get back to normal. Over 2 1/2 years later, there still hasn’t been a full shift back to in-person work, and many companies plan to maintain remote or hybrid workplaces for the foreseeable future.
Remote Doesn’t Have To Mean Isolated
While there are advantages to working from home, there are also drawbacks. In a May 2021 survey of remote workers by the American Psychiatric Association, the majority of respondents said they experienced “negative mental health impacts, including isolation, loneliness and difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day.”
October is Depression and Mental Health Awareness and Screening Month, and it’s an ideal time to check in on your employees and make intentional choices about prioritizing their well-being. Here are six tips I have found successful in building a people-first work environment that supports everyone’s mental health.
1. Plan in-person and virtual team hangouts.
Look for regular opportunities to connect with team members online and offline. Aim to have at least one in-person gathering each year with your entire team. These events don’t need to be extravagant; figure out what works for your organization’s budget and schedule—whether that’s a weekend retreat or a few days spent at company headquarters. If you have employees who live in the same geographical area, encourage them to get together for face-to-face meetings, coworking sessions or coffee dates to break up silos and beat the monotony of working from home.
The sales team I lead meets in person every August, which gives us a chance to reconnect and recalibrate as a team. This time is beneficial for brainstorming ideas, planning projects and sharing market feedback. It’s also invaluable for doing team- and culture-building exercises. We like to share a meal or participate in an activity like playing shuffleboard or going bowling—creating a relaxed environment where team members of all levels can relax, reconnect and have fun together.
When your team is working remotely, look for creative ways to take breaks from work tasks. Zoom check-ins, happy hours or weekly coffee chats help build morale within smaller teams. With my team, I try to schedule regular dates for us to put work aside and decompress, through virtual trivia games, Monday morning challenges or lighthearted awards ceremonies.
2. Incorporate regular check-ins.
Make it part of your team culture to know what’s going on in people’s lives. Open up space for people to share what they feel comfortable with and get support when they need it.
At the top of all of our meetings, we do a brief personal and professional check-in—30 seconds where each team member can say one thing that’s going on in different areas of their lives. Sometimes people want to keep it light, talking about their weekend plans or home renovations. Other times, they want to let us know they’re dealing with challenges, such as caring for an aging parent or recovering from an illness.
All of this information helps me know what my employees are going through so I can follow up with them individually. I can focus on them as people, not just employees, to build stronger relationships.
3. Empathize with employees’ work-life balance.
Older generations were taught to work until the work is done. When we worked in offices, we also had lunch breaks, watercooler chats, daily commutes and other moments away from our desks. In a remote setting, we have to be aware of and respect everyone’s home life. The new workday doesn’t consist of long hours chained to a desk. Trust that if you’ve hired the right talent and set clear goals and expectations, the work will get done.
Encourage your team to manage their own time and block out mental health breaks every day—and set a good example yourself. Don’t be tied to meetings and calendars. Take the dog for a walk at 10 a.m. Catch up with your kids at 3 p.m. when they come home from school. Call a friend for a quick midday chat. Close the laptop in the evening, and do what you need to recharge your batteries.
4. Support the use of PTO.
During the early phases of the pandemic, it was hard for people to take PTO. You may have employees who haven’t taken a real vacation in over two years. Strongly encourage people to take time off to fully disconnect, emphasizing that these breaks are essential for their mental health at work and at home.
5. Recognize good work.
Celebrate the efforts, big and small, of your team. When you’re in an office, it’s easy to applaud someone’s great idea or ring a bell when you get a sale, but you need to be more intentional about appreciation in a remote environment. Be open with your praise and feedback; start a Slack thread for shouting out wins, email the entire department about individual successes, spotlight project successes in team meetings.
6. Share mental health benefits and resources.
Sometimes employees are dealing with more serious mental health challenges, like anxiety, depression or burnout. Take time to do individual check-ins with team members, and make it clear to all employees what health benefits your organization provides. Being open about programs and tools available, while still respecting individuals’ right to privacy, helps to destigmatize mental health services in your organization.
I’m a big believer that the person leading a team must set the right tone for everyone else. Incorporate these practices yourself, and empower your employees to do the same, to build an environment where people feel understood, connected and supported.
This article originally appeared in Forbes on Oct. 31, 2022.