Improving mental health in the remote work environment
10 October is World Mental Health Day and therefore the perfect opportunity to talk about something we all share – mental health. This day should be a reminder of the importance of looking after it, talking about what’s on our minds and getting help if we need it.
History of World Mental Health Day
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recognises World Mental Health Day on 10 October every year. The day was created in 1992 and its overall objective is “to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and to mobilize efforts in support of mental health”. This day is important not only because it raises awareness, but also because it educates people and helps them to find the right resources. Normalising the conversation when it comes to mental health issues also helps to reduce any stigma that surrounds them.
Here at AJT, making sure we do all we can to support our team with whatever they might need on their mental health journey is very close to our hearts, particularly as we’re a fully remote company. Looking after our people is one of our core values and we strive hard to keep our team happy and (mentally) healthy.
Mental health in a remote work environment
In general, our understanding of mental health and the importance of mental wellbeing is better than it was pre-pandemic. It’s a topic that has been thrust to the forefront with many people experiencing feelings of loneliness, as well as symptoms of depression and anxiety, during the countless lockdowns. Perhaps it’s therefore not surprising that a 2021 public opinion poll by the American Psychiatric Association reports that 54% of respondents found their employer to be more accommodating to their mental health needs as a result of the pandemic.
With many people feeling more isolated having been forced to work at home, it also comes as no surprise that there is still a debate about the pros and cons of remote working among the public, decision makers and the media.
On one side, “team remote” revels in headlines such as “81% Of Employees Say Remote Work Improved Their Mental Health”, whereas “team office” cites very different headlines such as “Remote Workers Report Negative Mental Health Impact, New Study Finds”.
The fact is, however, that as the pandemic is waning, we have more and more people working remotely than ever before (the period of forced remote working due to lockdowns aside): “millions of workers are on the hunt for remote jobs” and “people are still very actively searching for at least partially remote roles”. The numbers speak for themselves. Not only have the postings for WFH jobs increased significantly, “the number of searches has skyrocketed [by] 790%”!
So, it seems, it is important for many of us that we know how to look after and improve our mental health while working from home – individuals and employers alike.
What can employees do?
Whereas it is of the utmost importance that employers look after the mental health of their employees, let’s start with a few tips and thoughts about how we as individuals can look after our mental health.
1) Don’t be a stranger
We’re all different and while some people might strive in and enjoy solitude for others this characteristic of remote work can be a major drawback. Loneliness can have far-reaching consequences for our mental health. Of course, it’s fun to use Slack to send your colleague the latest meme or to see their cat curling up behind them during a weekly Zoom meeting but we should not underestimate the power of real human interaction and social relations. Online interactions and social networks can give people a false sense of connectedness. Emotional support provided by social ties enhances psychological well-being, which, in turn, may reduce the risk of unhealthy behaviours and poor physical health. So, we still need to see other people face to face for the sake of our own mental health. At AJT we know how important it is to spend time together in real life. Therefore, each team member has a meet-up-budget they can spend to catch up with colleagues in person. But many of us forget that you can be part of a community which is not made up of your colleagues… or friends and family. If you live and work in one place, take your work with you – think co-working spaces, coffee shops, libraries (even small interactions with other people, e.g. saying hello to someone as you walk past them on the road, can lift your mood and give your wellbeing an uplift). If time permits, attend networking events. Find a group in your local area. What hobbies do you have? Yoga, knitting, board games? More likely than not, there’ll be a social group for it.
2) Have a break
KitKat optional. Taking a break allows your mind to rest, recharge and refocus. Studies have shown that breaks lead to higher productivity, greater job satisfaction, a more balanced emotional health, and a stronger desire to go above and beyond. Use these breaks to disconnect from work and do something else: eat mindfully, meditate, read a book, take a walk, sing, dance – whatever takes your fancy.
3) Consider the space we work in
We’re not suggesting that moving your desk to the window can solve the mental health crisis but, for us as individuals, small steps can go a long way. So, talking about that window… Numerous studies show that natural light (and artificial bright light) can significantly improve health outcomes such as depression, agitation, sleep, circadian rest-activity, and seasonal affective disorder. If you’re struggling to get enough natural light, maybe make some adjustments to your daily routine. Something as small as taking a walk during your lunch hour will help. If you don’t have time for a walk and the closest park is miles away, bring the outside in. Think biophilic experiences, i.e. bringing experiences of nature to us in the built environment. This can include natural materials and textures, living plants, water, daylight. One study on real foliage plants as visual stimuli found that the presentation of the living plants was associated with more positive mood states, such as feelings of comfort and naturalness. They also improve concentration and attention. The advantage of remote working is that (often but not always, of course) you decide where you work and can create your own set-up. Surround yourself with things you love. Be it scented candles, your favourite colour scheme, a cosy blanket (as I write this, I’m currently wrapped up in last year’s Christmas gift from AJT – a woollen blanket from Cornwall), pictures of loved ones (and yes, your cat does count), art that inspires you or images of nature – all of these things can help to soothe our brains.
You don’t need to suffer in silence. We often assume that everyone and their dog have it all figured out and are managing things much better than we are. More often than not, they don’t and they aren’t. Psychologist Heide Grant says that “people wildly underestimate the odds that others will help us”. We’re afraid of rejection and fear that people might think less of us, when, in fact, as Grant points out, “evidence suggests that people like us more for asking for help”. Often, all you have to do to get help is ask for it.
5) At the end of the day
Something that comes up in many a survey is that people WFH try to overcompensate and have difficulty getting away from work at the end of the day. It can be hard to switch off from work mode and change into home mode if they both fall under the same roof. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to set boundaries. Many cultures are built around work being a central part of our lives (and often our identity) but “work won’t love you back”. One thing that can help is to create a fluid structure (there is no such thing as a perfect routine) and find an imposed ending to your working day. This could be sport or a walk around the block. Even something as simple as changing from work attire (if you are so inclined) into lounge wear. If you’re a fan of scented candles, blow one out at the end of your working day. Clean your desk, cover up your computer. Does your desk also act as your kitchen table? Maybe you have things you need for work that you could put away in a box for the day (keyboard, mouse, pencils, etc.). Do something symbolic to indicate to your brain that your working day is done.
What can employers do?
Positive mental health should be a shared goal of employers and individuals alike, and employers can play a big part in looking after employee wellbeing. All employers, by law, have a ‘duty of care’. When most people hear these words, they think of physical health first, but this duty extends to the mental health and wellbeing of a company’s employees. The shift to remote work environments has made it harder to “see” how people are feeling, so there is an even bigger onus on making mental health a priority and opening up the conversation on how we’re feeling. If staff feel they can talk openly about mental health, problems are less likely to build up.
Here are some things for businesses to keep in mind when trying to reshape work environments to protect and promote mental health. First and foremost:
1) Act now
Companies need to be proactive and employ an anticipatory approach to mental health issues and ditch any “we’ll fix it when it’s broken” mentality.
2) Lead by example
We all know the saying that “actions speak louder than words”. A boss who demonstrates that mental health is a priority – their own and the mental health of their employees – sets a good example. Paying attention to their staff’s behaviour – do they take enough breaks, are they leaving on time, have they booked in their holidays? – can be crucial for the overall wellbeing of their team. Do not celebrate long working hours. And let me tell you, it works. When I see our Business Development Director Mark updating his Slack status to “gone surfing – will be back at 2pm” or our Managing Director Anja’s status as “Portuguese lesson – DM me for urgents only”, I know they aren’t only leading by example (another one of our core values at AJT) but taking care of their own mental health. And I think, yes! There’s more to life than work.
3) Constant promotion
People often think that once a mental health policy is written, that’s it, it’s done and dusted. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Keep the conversation going, organise regular events or training modules and tie mental health into other aspects of your team’s day-to-day working life. Send out information on mental wellbeing and encourage people to share it with others. Highlight the support that is already available and make sure it’s accessible. Mental health support in the workplace needs to be ongoing and – which leads me on to my next point – carried out over different channels.
4) Multiple channels
Don’t just use one channel to promote mental health. People are different – age, gender, religion and culture are all factors that influence how people might feel about mental health. Use various channels and tools, be it team coaching, 1-2-1 opportunities, reading materials, training courses. Make it easy for your staff to access the services that are available – in-house or externally. At AJT, for example, we can chat with Nikki, one of our Mental Health First Aiders, through her “open door” initiative whenever we want to get something off our chest. Keep chatting to your team, the opportunity to talk about what’s stressing them out can open the door to a conversation about mental health. You could arrange for line managers to schedule infrequent check-ins with team members. Or make them aware of mental health topics organised by theme every month and link them to an (awareness) event, e.g., Blue Monday, Mental Health Awareness Month, etc. Maybe your company could afford to pay a subscription for digital mental health options (online therapy) or simply sponsor a mental health app for your workers such as Calm or Headspace.
5) Sharing and transferring knowledge
The mental health of team members should never be the responsibility of just one person. If you have one person dedicated to mental health in your team, make sure that this person’s knowledge does not disappear when they walk out of the (virtual) door. This knowledge needs to be transferred. Train your team in mental health. At the very least, managers should be prepared to understand the signs of mental distress. It could be a couple of people (depending on the size of your company) are keen to volunteer as Mental Health First aiders and attend one of the many courses on offer.
What steps can you take today to open up the conversation at your company? With 1-in-4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) each year, it is paramount to start having and continue these conversations. Given the present economic situation, the NHS being in its biggest ever crisis and the fact that less than 1 in 10 employees are currently seeking support for their mental health, despite over half experiencing feelings of anxiety or depression, it’s clear why we simply can’t stop talking about it. As journalist Bryony Gordon writes in her book “Mad Girl”: Only by talking about our mental health will we start to be taken seriously.
If you’d like to learn more about fostering a culture of wellbeing in the workplace and how to thrive as a remote team, have a look at my colleague Arianna’s article “Sharing is (self)caring: fostering mental wellbeing in remote teams”.