At the beginning of the pandemic, many Canadian workers experienced a deterioration in their mental health at work. A sudden loss of social interaction, lack of managerial guidance and uncertainty about the future led to loneliness and a decline in confidence levels. Rolling your office chair over to chat and collaborate with a coworker was no longer an option. Instead, supervisor desks were suddenly far away, and colleagues were only available by video, phone or email. 

In the ensuing months, many workers were able to adjust to remote work. A large number of others, however, began to feel genuinely isolated and burned out. A 2020 CAMH study discovered that — among others — women, parents, individuals in financial crisis and young people were all more likely to feel anxious and depressed in the midst of COVID-19.

Want to know how to support your remote employees amid such an historic health crisis? Well, you’re in the right place. In this article, we’ll list a few of the reasons people feel overwhelmed, and then we’ll explore some of the best ways to help them stay motivated, connected and on track.

Man working at home
Man working at home

how the pandemic is impacting mental health at work

Some individuals are more susceptible than others to the mental health effects caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In general, however, most people are:

  • worried about getting ill
  • worried about friends and loved ones getting ill
  • grieving for friends and loved ones lost to COVID-19
  • financially stretched
  • feeling adrift because of changes in routine

People who haven’t personally experienced loss or illness related to COVID-19 have still felt the pandemic’s drain on normality. Local lockdowns, loss of social connections and new habits — masks, for instance — have turned the familiar into the unfamiliar. 

how to help employees cope with mental stress while working remotely.

The pandemic is a formidable foe, but there are ways you can reduce COVID-19’s impact on community mental health — starting with offering broad and unconditional support to your employees. As an employer, you can use the following tactics to support your employees who are working remotely.

create clear guidelines and goals

You might not be able to call your remote team in for an in-person meeting, but you can still set clear project guidelines and goals so that workers feel motivated and focused. Create a list of positive expectations and a detailed agenda — including dates and, if applicable, times — and send it to all team members via email. When your expectations are clearly stated, and employees know the goals they’re working toward, it’s easier to stay focused and not feel overwhelmed. 

talk about mental health at work

When they’re removed from a social office setting, many workers begin to feel isolated and may find themselves struggling to cope. You can combat this effect by normalizing discussion about mental health. Encourage your staff to talk about how they’re feeling frequently, to voice if they’re feeling stressed or overworked, and to offer support to one another as much as possible. As a leader, you should be at the forefront of these conversations. Share your own challenges and struggles with the shift to remote work. Openly sharing your own feelings can normalize it and make employees feel more comfortable doing the same.

check in with remote workers

Remote workers are comparatively isolated. Some of your team members probably live alone. Instead of assuming they’re fine, set up regular video calls to check in as a team and one-on-one. Encourage workers to share their concerns about their work and more broadly what’s happening in their lives. You can also share some of your own struggles to let employees know they're not alone and destigmatize conversations about mental health.

provide managers with mental health training

Training can help managers learn best practices and techniques to communicate effectively with their employees in a sensitive and meaningful way that encourages open, vulnerable conversations. Most managers are doing their best to support their employees in the ways they know how. Providing virtual mental health training sessions allows managers to upgrade their interpersonal and management skills, so they can provide a deeper level of support to their direct reports. When managers lead the way and set the expectation that talking about mental health openly is welcome in the workplace, it  leads to increased understanding and a healthier workplace atmosphere.

update your team regularly

Knowledge is power — and it’s even more important to share information with your team now, when you can’t physically meet to discuss projects and priorities. People feel stressed when they don’t know what’s going on, so make sure to pass on any new information and share updated goals regularly. This includes discussing your COVID-19 transition plans. Working from home indefinitely is difficult for many workers, and they’re eager to hear updates about how and when you plan to return to your workplace. 

encourage questions

Remote workers tend not to ask questions as much as employees in physical office settings. They may not feel comfortable reaching out to someone who they haven’t talked to in awhile, or worry about ‘bothering’ a colleague. Instead of reaching out to a colleague via email or chat, they  may try to figure things out independently. This leads to less collaboration and working together cohesively. To tackle this remote working side effect, encourage employees to ask questions and clarify tasks and expectations on the fly. Many people are struggling to adapt to remote work, and hesitant to voice their concerns. Having an open door policy, provide people who are facing challenges (either professionally or personally) with an avenue to discuss their issues and consult with leaders or other team members to come up with a solution.

be as flexible as possible

Not everyone can tolerate a fixed remote working schedule. Some people — those who’d usually take walks at lunchtime, for example — benefit from a more flexible timetable. Working parents on your team have to juggle not only their own work, but their kids’ work too.  Instead of insisting that workers stay at their desks for hours at a time or trying to micromanage every minute of your employees’ days, try to let your employees manage their  work. As long as deadlines and key performance metrics are met, it should be less important how employees reach the end result.

encourage a healthy work-life balance and establish social time

Remote work can take over your life if you let it. Encourage employees to create a healthy work-life balance based on their individual lifestyle and needs. If your employees need a little nudge to achieve better work-life balance, some tactics you can try include: banning emails after 5:00 p.m. and on weekends, ending work an hour early on Fridays, having a virtual happy hour after work, or encouraging workers to get up frequently throughout the day to stretch their legs or go for a short walk. In addition, create opportunities for informal conversation between workers — and between workers and managers too. Since casually chatting around the coffee pot is no longer an option, you need to make a conscious effort to retain these small social moments when working remotely.

supporting your team while working remotely

Isolation and burnout shouldn’t be the hallmarks of working from home. Instead, support your workforce with a flexible timetable and encourage open conversation about mental health issues. Provide your supervisors and managers with mental health and mental health training options to help them build stronger teams, and establish social time to keep that office camaraderie going.

want to learn more about remote workforce management? download our comprehensive guide on managing your workforce remotely to turn this curveball into a growth opportunity.

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