Do remote & home workers have different requirements when it comes to Mental Health support?

In a word, “yes”. For all the benefits that remote or home working potentially brings, in terms of perhaps removing the daily commute and allowing for more of a work life balance, it’s certainly not for everyone. In particular, removed from a physical office or team environment, people are more susceptible to feelings of isolation, plus the lack of a clear dividing line between work and home can actually mean people work more hours and struggle to switch off: all of which can impact resilience.

Shaking hands through a computer screen

Successful long-distance management

It’s perhaps because of such issues that flexible working – an idea conceived 20 or more years ago, believe it or not – has apparently plateaued, according to a new report by the CIPD. This may come as somewhat of a surprise when you consider that the enablers, such as technology, are now much more accessible than ever. That said, there’s a lot riding on the skills of line managers to make such an arrangement work (and that’s assuming the Board have bought into the benefits of flexible working in the first place). So along with upskilling line managers when it comes to mental health support in the workplace, there’s a need to also incorporate ways to better support home - or globally mobile - workers.

Colin Grange, Clinical Director at LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, says that dispersed teams create new challenges for managers. 

“How can you manage your employees’ performance when you can’t see what they are doing? How can you foster team work when your team can’t spend time together? How do you know when a remote working arrangement just isn’t working out?” he asks.

“The secret to successful long-distance management is to apply those skills and practices that make for good in-person management with even more diligence. In a way, it’s about managing people with your brains instead of your eyeballs.”

Keep employees “in sight & in mind”

As mentioned earlier, remote or home working can negatively impact resilience (the process of negotiating, managing, and adapting to significant sources of stress or trauma) as people can feel they are “out of sight, out of mind” says Brendan Street, Professional Head – Emotional Wellbeing, Nuffield Health. 

To counter this, employers need to understand and attend to key resiliency components. 

Brendan describes these components as having: perspective; emotional intelligence; a clear sense of purpose and values; strong social network connections; and the ability to manage physical energy.

“Perspective and emotional intelligence become much more difficult when an individual is isolated from day to day contact with others,” he adds. “Also, it is more difficult to maintain a clear sense of purpose and values in a vacuum. We all know that it can only take one badly worded email from a colleague to either make us question the worth of our job or be convinced we are going to be sacked any minute. This is even more the case when sat isolated at home without your team around you.”

Overcome communication challenges

Communication undoubtedly represents the biggest challenge to long-distance management. It has to be planned, unlike when employees work in the same location and enjoy informal, everyday encounters, says Colin.

It’s important to find a mechanism for replicating these personal interactions, says Alison Pay, Managing Director at Mental Health at Work. “You have to find a mechanism for keeping in touch with the person, not just the work,” she adds. “All too often, when working remotely, interactions with colleagues and managers centre on process and objectives.”

Alison and colleagues work remotely and have found a way to achieve this. “On top of one to ones and team meetings, we have a daily meeting via Skype using video and voice. Once you get to know people, these conversations become much more normal. It’s a checkpoint on how things are going from a business sense as well as an informal ‘how are you?’. 

“In this way, if we start to notice changes with someone’s quality of work, for example, it might be more obvious that something else is going on in their life because we’ve got to know the person.”

Alison says that training for line managers is critical. A bespoke approach is recommended to help line managers support the mental health of teams, the members of which at any one time may be travelling, in the office, working from home or offsite.

Brendan adds that it’s important to include the remote team in any updates, newsletters or nights out. Also, a sense of connectedness can be achieved via simple means such as including photographs in the Outlook email profile. Also, by ensuring a face-to-face opportunity with office-based colleagues at least once per year.

Mental health support

Probably the most effective support tool for all employees – whether office based, remote or home – is the provision of access to counselling services and any other support via an EAP. To ensure total wellbeing and effective communications, platforms are available that integrate EAPs with social engagement through a newsfeed, rewards and recognition, a company directory and personal and group-wide wellness challenges, adds Colin.

Carrying out stress and health assessments on individuals and teams, ensuring follow-ups and reviews, could also prove valuable. 

Brendan adds that setting out a health and wellbeing programme is important. “This should clearly state that as an employer you both expect and welcome individuals to talk about their mental health; let you know if they are beginning to struggle; that staff will not see their career negatively affected purely by reporting mental ill health.”

Once someone has disclosed a mental health problem, there are also additional things to consider where remote and home workers are concerned, says Alison. “In terms of what to look out for and how to act [for line managers] it’s the same for all workers but where remote individuals are concerned, you’re not there to see the changes – that’s the key difference.

“It’s important to put a process in place while the individual is well. For example, with long term conditions such as bipolar disorder, we would structure a wellness action plan focused on the physical signs and symptoms that their manager should look out for as they move from issue to illness. This obviously won’t work for remote workers, so the plan has to be adapted to focus on what happens to things like the individual’s work capacity and language when they are moving from issue to illness.”

Physical health support

As mentioned earlier, one of the main challenges for remote or home workers is the ability to draw a line between work and the rest of their lives. This can result in unhealthy habits of working longer hours, checking and responding to emails at night and weekends etc. This can impact sleep, which has knock on effects for physical and mental health.

“Managers should lead by example,” says Colin. “If you manage people who work from home or in different time zones, be mindful of your actions and the examples you set. You don’t want to be contributing to burnout of an employee by encouraging the blurring of work-life boundaries.”

Brendan suggests providing healthy living advice with regards to sleep, activity levels and nutrition, perhaps also providing gym membership, access to mindfulness apps, plus discount vouchers for healthy food.

Still room for growth

In spite of the CIPD’s report that flexible working isn’t growing anymore, there’s enough evidence to suggest that it will: perhaps once many of the challenges highlighted here have been ironed out. Generali UK’s own survey of HR leaders from multinational companies found that the top health and wellbeing problem area was work life balance (74 per cent of respondents). 

In short, recruitment, retention and engagement depend on getting this right.

The author is Tracey Ward, Head of Business Development & Marketing, Generali UK Employee Benefits

This article is provided by Generali. 

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