These are challenging times, to put it quite lightly. From individuals to humankind as a whole, the spread of COVID-19 is affecting every level of society in ways we’ve never seen before.
Amid the global turmoil, businesses are having to adapt to changes overnight. And as much as people—those with the luxury to do so—are talking about maintaining productivity or the practical challenges of managing remote teams, what’s perhaps most at risk in this strange new world of work is our mental health.
“The change to almost complete remote work around the world has initiated unforeseen mental health challenges associated with work for many employees, which employers have a significant role in alleviating,” says Silja Voolma, Ph.D., applied behavioral scientist and CEO of Behavioral Design Global.
For the foreseeable future, remote is the new normal for a fairly big chunk of the world. Beyond that, not much is certain, and employers are feeling the pressure to navigate the unknown. Tiina Saar-Veelmaa, psychologist and founder of happyme.ee, puts her finger on what makes this global crisis particularly tough to handle: “The situation is complicated by the fact that business managers can’t predict the length or full extent of the crisis,” she says. “The survivors will be businesses whose cultures are built on honesty, inclusion, transparency, and flexibility.”
So how can you make sure you and your teams come out of this situation (relatively) unscathed? Here's your guide to supporting remote employee mental health during a global crisis.
Let’s start by identifying the specific mental health challenges we’re trying to tackle.
Mental health challenges your employees are likely to face during the COVID-19 crisis
“Anxiety is by far the biggest source of mental health distress employees are likely to experience in this time of crisis,” Dr. Silja Voolma says. In addition to showing up as recurring intrusive thoughts or concerns, irritability, worry, and fear, anxiety often also involves physical symptoms like dizziness, sweating, trembling, and a rapid heartbeat. Persistent anxiety isn’t only disruptive to daily life, but it can also affect physical health.
Acute and chronic stress
Feeling stressed out is, even in relatively calm times, one of the most common work-related complaints you can expect to hear. “Stress is actually the physiological response of our nervous system to a stimulus from the environment which can be perceived as threatening or motivating,” Dr. Voolma explains. “When the body’s stress response system is activated, hormones flood into the body, elevating the heart rate, increasing adrenaline and making you more alert. This is very useful for any kind of simple problem-solving you might have to do.”
But a worldwide health emergency hardly constitutes simple problem-solving, and the situation is likely to snowball for some. “As we are still at the beginning of this crisis, people are most likely experiencing mostly acute or short-term stress related to it,” Dr. Voolma says. “In some cases, however, this acute stress might turn into chronic stress if not alleviated in time. Chronic stress has health and productivity implications for your employees and your company as even beyond the COVID-19 crisis, people might experience heightened levels of stress and lower levels of productivity.”
Excessive and prolonged stress can lead to burnout—a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. In the case of COVID-19, many people find themselves managing additional workloads: taking care of children, the elderly or other vulnerable community members—as well as their own health. Not to mention trying to keep up with their actual jobs.
As your employees navigate these changes to their work and home lives, you’re likely to see higher levels of burnout, Dr. Voolma warns.
Procrastination—the avoidance of a task that needs to be completed by a deadline—is another very common response to prolonged stress. “During periods of acute and chronic stress, such as the current crisis, your employees might be overwhelmed and the expectations and conditions of their life and work changing too fast for them to self-regulate optimally,” says Dr. Voolma.
Not everyone can consider their home the safest place to be. One in three women globally experience domestic violence during their lifetime and it is also a concern for many men (World Health Organization, 2019).
“As you send your employees home for an undefined amount of time, be aware of the warning signs of domestic violence,” Dr. Voolma cautions employers. Signs of domestic violence to watch out for during remote work include, but are not limited to:
- Signs of physical or emotional distress in the employee;
- Failing to turn up to scheduled meetings and check-ins;
- Employees might not be completing their tasks regularly.
How you can support remote employee mental health during the COVID-19 outbreak
Identify meaningful work and set impactful goals
In the world of remote work and especially during a global crisis where everyone has extra demands placed on them both physically and mentally, it’s particularly important to identify which tasks actually need completing and what is just busywork that can be abandoned if needed.
“This is an opportunity to discover which tasks are closest to business goals and revenue,” Dr. Voolma says. “Explore the notion that productivity equals the amount of meaningful work done, rather than hours spent or impact-adjacent tasks completed.”
Together with each employee, take a step back to evaluate their to-dos and answer the question: “Which of my tasks will make the biggest difference to the company’s goals?”
Be as flexible as you can
Many of your employees will need to take care of children and/or elderly loved ones during this time. Work with your employees to make sure they don’t feel overwhelmed. Clearly communicate your expectations in terms of deadlines and speed of work. In the first two months of lockdown, Dr. Voolma recommends weekly check-ins and expectation calibration to ensure both employers and teams adjust to this new world successfully.
And in shaping your own expectations, remember that understanding and flexibility are key. “If an employee can only focus on two hours of work per day, that’s OK,” says Alina Basina, Senior Technical Talent Partner at TripActions. “Because we know you’ll come back stronger in six months. If you need to work only during the hours when your kids are asleep because you want to not feel guilty about throwing them in front of the TV for hours on end, that's OK. Companies will recover just fine if they take care of their employees today.”
Remember, too, that while it’s easy to presume that working remotely with no distractions from the outside world should be an extra productive time, this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone in a worldwide emergency situation. As Basina puts it: “Employers should offer their employees the flexibility to do whatever an individual needs to do to stay sane.” For example, she says, some of your team members may want to throw themselves into their work, while others will want to prioritize their families, their own mental wellbeing, or sorting out their financial situation. The best thing you can do right now is to find a way to support them in this.
“Instead of asking employees to ‘be your best self’ or ‘now is the time to be creative’ or ‘now is the time to work out like you never have before’, how about just letting them be their authentic selves without the pressure of what is expected.” — Alina Basina
Organize company-wide digital health events
Most of us have probably noticed by now how difficult it can be to stay active while you’re cooped up at home. This lack of physical activity can, in turn, lead to a drop in energy and mood levels, which then leads to even less physical activity. To help break this vicious cycle, Dr. Voolma recommends creating a daily online event where the whole company gets active for 15-30 minutes.
If possible, offer subscriptions or allowances for digital therapy
If you are in a position to offer such benefits, now is a great time to give your employees easy access to digital health platforms that provide online therapy and counseling.
If you can’t afford this kind of support financially, even pointing your team towards some good resources can be helpful. To start with, Dr. Voolma recommends you take a look at TalkSpace and BetterHelp and note that meditation app Headspace is offering free content during the coronavirus crisis.
Provide communication channels for those who might not feel safe in their homes
As we covered above, domestic violence is highly likely to increase exponentially now that people are confined to their homes. As an extra precaution, Dr. Voolma recommends that employers set up a “crisis line”—a phone number or a designated person to contact for employees who feel unsafe at home or need additional advice beyond what you’re already providing.
If you feel like you’re not equipped to address this very serious issue, don’t worry. You’re not expected to be an expert. But even if you don’t feel confident offering advice to someone who’s experiencing domestic violence, you can do your best to make them feel supported by keeping an open line of communication. Make sure people know they can turn to you and can count on your discretion. Share resources and contacts of local shelters or helplines.
Communicate with honesty and transparency
Good communication is the answer to pretty much everything. Tiina Saar-Veelmaa stresses the importance of open communication in a time of crisis. “Business leaders can take on organizing regular briefings to give updates on the situation,” she says. “The guiding principle should be: there are no stupid questions, together we’ll find solutions and answers.”
So although people will absolutely look to you for leadership, don’t take on the impossible task of having to find all the answers on your own. Create an environment where you and your teams can share thoughts and concerns openly.
For example, many people are worried about potentially losing their jobs, so keep that in mind when you’re sharing updates with your team. Transparency is the best policy. If you’re not expecting layoffs, reassure people. If layoffs are looking likely, don’t undermine the trust your employees have for you by sugarcoating or avoiding the subject. Even if you're unsure what to do, don't stay silent. At the very least, let your team know you're working on a plan.
Foster a sense of community and humanity
Humans are notoriously social animals. While many people certainly enjoy solitude and are having a blast talking to no one but their houseplants right now, it’s probably safe to say that no one can stand loneliness. We all hate feeling alone with our fears and anxieties.
There are countless small ways everyone on your team (not just you) can contribute to creating an environment driven by a sense of community and shared humanity. Here are a few:
- Share your experiences. Have a great hack for working from home while your kids are dumping the contents of your pantry into the bathtub? Tell the other parents on the team about it.
- Ask for advice. Need a great hack for working from home while your kids are dumping the contents of your pantry into the bathtub? Maybe someone on the team has already been there.
- Don’t lose sight of the radical notion that managers are people too. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you want to support your team, but please remember to allow yourself the same support and flexibility.
- Keep the fun alive. The situation is serious, but has anyone ever survived a serious situation without humor? So share that #relatable meme on Slack. Not everyone has to participate in the silliness, but the option should be out there.
- Talk about the serious things too. What new safety measures has your government implemented? Support each other as you adjust to the restrictions. Pat yourselves on the back for being amazing at social distancing.
Expat bonus round: How to support your international employees
If you have an international team, your expat employees are in a tough position right now. Far from loved ones, possibly feeling powerless to help or perhaps even guilty for being away, they might need some extra support.
Be flexible about their working hours
We’ve already covered flexibility in general, but this is perhaps particularly relevant in the case of foreign employees who might need to speak to family and arrange caretaking for elderly loved ones located in different time zones.
According to Dr. Voolma, it's important to allow your people the flexibility to take calls during working hours so they can return to their tasks guilt-free once their family on the other side of the world is taken care of. In addition to allowing the flexibility to cover urgent matters back home, actively encourage people to keep in touch with family and friends. Video calling loved ones is an essential lifeline that everyone should be taking advantage of these days, regardless of the time of day.
Make sure people have local support
Expats tend to have smaller support networks in their adopted home countries. And what’s more, they tend to consist largely of other expats. Although expat communities can be wonderfully active and supportive, there are times when help from locals really comes in handy.
Don’t forget to check in with your international team members and make sure they have a local person they can contact if they need help, Dr. Voolma urges. It doesn’t have to be you—but if they have no one else, try to ensure that someone from your team can act as their local crisis buddy. Everyone needs a crisis buddy.
Keep your foreign employees fully informed
“One of the scariest experiences in life can be to get sick in a foreign country,” says Dr. Voolma. You have no direct control over the health of your employees, but you can make sure your foreign team members understand all the vital information and feel supported throughout this crisis: provide translations of government information and help them navigate your country’s healthcare system. Keep an eye on press conferences, recommend reliable local English-language news sites or Twitter accounts to follow. Anything you can do to bridge the language gap for your international team members will help them feel less isolated and more in the loop.
This is not a drill.
If there ever was a time to make employee mental health a priority, it’s now. There are no silver bullets here to make everyone perfectly happy, focused, and productive. But as you try to make sense of a world that's changed beyond recognition almost overnight, stay open, honest, flexible, and stay human.