Disability Works

Holding Mental Health Conversations with Remote Employees

Remote employees are at risk of social isolation and never unplugging from work which contributes to anxiety. Organizations are developing strategies to help remote workers feel socially connected and are learning how to have mental health conversations.
— By Jeremiah Prince

There is increasing awareness that remote working is not for everyone. People who are socially oriented, have weak self-discipline as far as keeping work hours at an acceptable amount, and have difficulty feeling connected to the organization, despite managers reaching out, are not good candidates for remote working. There are also people who need to work remotely for work-life balance or simply prefer to work alone.

Yet, a demand for work location flexibility and a global workforce have created a large remote workforce with an estimated 70 percent of global professional employees working remotely once a week, according to a study by Zug, a Switzerland-based serviced office provider.

Whether an employee asks for remote work or must work remotely in order to work for a particular employer, the person is at risk of feeling like an outsider and experiencing a high level of stress or anxiety. Organizations need to develop and implement strategies that help remote workers feel like part of a team, validate the importance of their work contributions, and offer opportunities to hold sensitive employee-employer conversations.

What Are You Feeling?
As more people work remotely, more is understood about the experience. One of the emerging facts is that remote workers are at greater risk of feeling social isolation. Managers also tend to place emphasis on productivity rather than hours worked. The remote employee may find he or she cannot switch off work, and work-life balance becomes an ideal rather than a reality.

Lack of coworker support, regular manager feedback, and opportunities to express feelings of stress or anxiety creates a downward cycle. Some remote workers even experience clinical depression.

Most workplace culture and employee engagement discussions focus on the onsite workplace. Managers have become adept at talking to employees face-to-face about their work experience and stressors. When people are working at the same location, it is much easier to notice someone experiencing anxiety or having trouble meeting work productivity goals. The remote worker could be working 16 hours a day to reach goals, and unless logging into a remote computer, no one knows.

The lack of connection to the regular workforce and the company as a whole can create negative feelings in several ways.

A Harvard Business Review study of 1,100 employees found that remote workers feel their colleagues do not treat them equally and are more likely to feel their coworkers mistreat them and intentionally leave them out. Remote employees gave examples of not being notified in advance of changes to projects, non-remote workers lobbying against them and saying negative things, and colleagues not fighting for the remote worker's priorities. The result is that relationships with onsite employees are poor, and remote workers are challenged with maintaining productivity, meeting deadlines, maintaining good morale, and managing stress.

How Can I Help?
Managers may feel at a loss as to how they can engage remote employees and hold conversations about sensitive topics like stress, anxiety, and feelings in general.

One strategy is to establish one-on-one meetings online with each remote worker to promote employee trust and help the employee feel included. Technology today makes it easy for managers and employees to have "face time" via internet programs like Skype or Zoom, or even on smartphones. Remote employees need the same consideration as on-site employees.

FaceTime is also helpful in identifying signs of anxiety because body language speaks about a person's stress level. If the manager detects anxiety or stress in things the employee says or in the employee's body language, it is time to follow up with statements like, "I can see you are experiencing some anxiety about your work. How can I help?" If an employee appears to be in distress, it is important to acknowledge it and not take the easy route of ignoring the signs. Avoiding talking about mental health issues will send a message the manager does not care.

Building the trust level is a critical step in engaging remote employees and in getting them to share their feelings.
Building the trust level is a critical step in engaging remote employees and in getting them to share their feelings. Managers need to acknowledge in a non-judgmental manner the struggles remote employees may be having. One way to initiate such a conversation is by asking compassionate questions concerning mental health. The conversation can begin by asking the remote employee what the manager or organization can do to make things as good as possible for the employee. The expression of empathy may trigger honest employee feedback.

Ask a simple question like, "Do you want to talk about your experience as a remote employee? Can you tell me the good and the bad aspects?" An honest answer to this question can reveal mental health issues, and that is the manager's cue to say, "Let's talk about it."

An important step in the communication process is following up on whatever the employee reveals. There are many ways to respond. Some organizations encourage remote employees to work outside their home at least one day a week, like in a coffee shop where other people are working or at a leased workshare space. If there are remote workers within reasonable travel distance of each other, they could be encouraged to meet somewhere once a month to interact and share their experiences.

Businesses also establish policies that require the remote workers to spend a day onsite once month or quarterly. The time spent onsite should be quality relationship building time with the remote employee interacting with project team members, coworkers, and leadership.

Want To Talk About it?
Fear keeps people from telling the truth about their work-related anxiety or stress – fear of failure, criticism or job security.

Organizations need a mental health initiative that embraces all employees – onsite and remote. Include remote workers, for example, in monthly mental health webinars and training sessions.

When Deloitte UK launched the "This is Me" campaign, six senior leaders spoke about their personal mental health issues. The campaign is a series of videos in which employees share stories about mental health and how they sought help. Videos are accessible by all employees. This is a powerful way to build trust and initiate honest conversations.