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Morale and Mental Health Challenges

Common questions covered here
Are remote employees more likely to struggle with mental health issues?
How do I know if employees who work from home are struggling?
How do I build empathy and trust on a remote team?

In a distributed team, it’s much harder for a manager to get an informal pulse for morale and mental health. You can’t manage by walking around; you don’t see who’s staying late or leaving early, who eats lunch alone at their desk, or who seems unusually withdrawn or dejected.

The very nature of remote work can also contribute to an environment where morale and mental health issues develop more easily and go unnoticed. Studies show that social isolation is correlated with mental health problems.* Loneliness, also associated with social isolation, both predicts depression and is a symptom of depression.* Loneliness and depression drive people to withdraw, often avoiding taking steps that could help them recover or manage. Loneliness also lowers a person’s ability to recognize social cues,* which isolates them further. This emotional disconnection is in turn highly linked to clinical anxiety and depression.* Anxiety and depression can change people’s perceptions of themselves and the world around them*—it is more likely that someone suffering from anxiety or depression will interpret an interaction as negative.

All of these factors create a pressure cooker for morale and mental health issues, and are likely to lead to burnout if not treated or addressed. In turn, overwork can precipitate these factors. Shedding light on the importance of mental health by creating an open and safe environment is an important first step for managers of remote teams. Managers can increase the chances of talking openly and respectfully about mental health by doing the following:

  • Modeling. Managers can talk about their own activities to support their mental health, and add their own therapist appointments to a public work calendar.

  • Sharing strategies. It helps to encourage discussions of specific strategies for managing anxiety or depression in dedicated venues, like a group chat channel dedicated to mental health.

  • Avoiding ableist terms. Don’t use terms like “crazy” or “insane” as adjectives or jokes.

  • Providing opt-in peer groups. Slack channels or email chains shared by all the company’s joggers or meditators or meal-planners can help encourage building healthy habits, even when people aren’t physically together.

  • Supporting mental health leave days. Allow personal days or mental health days as a form of sick leave. It’s good to make sure you know what kind of mental health benefits your company offers—if there aren’t any or they are minimal, you can talk to HR or even the CEO about increasing what’s offered.

  • Discussing openly and privately. Encourage mental health discussion in one-on-ones and in public forums and workshops. This helps build, and maintain, psychological safety on the team that is not just about raising issues about work-related tasks, but also about mental health and how to ask for help.

  • Fostering trust on your team. We cover this in detail in Building and Cultivating Trust in Remote Teams.

importantWhen sharing your own experiences, it’s critical never to disclose anyone else’s experience. If you’re trusted with a disclosure, best practice is to thank your direct report for their act of trust in you, and maintain their confidence.

cautionSimilarly, you will want to be sensitive around transmitting your own problems to direct reports, and make sure you avoid oversharing in a way that’s unhelpful—trying to garner sympathy, artificially deepen a relationship, or sharing raw pain are hallmarks of what vulnerability researcher Brené Brown calls floodlighting, which is using vulnerability as a form of manipulation or attention-seeking.*

An overall culture of empathy, trust, and inclusion acts as an antidote to the loneliness remote workers can experience, so investing in those aspects of your culture pays dividends for mental health, too. Empathy and compassion, in particular, are linked with greater overall emotional resilience at work.

Burnout Risks of Remote Work

Burnout is a warning sign of a toxic work environment. The response should be to focus on making the environment less toxic.Dr. Christina Maslach, burnout researcher and expert*

Christina Maslach, a social psychologist at UC Berkeley, has found that professional burnout results from a systemic combination of exhaustion, cynicism, and professional or organizational inefficacy that drive a feeling of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.

Remote workers are at particular risk if they are overworked, isolated, and struggling against communication structures optimized for an in-person team. Remote employees are also more prone to job exhaustion because of tacit pressure to ‘prove’ their contributions. In an office, as long as you are physically present, your manager and co-workers are unlikely to wonder whether you’re really working. But when someone isn’t co-located, an unproductive day can trigger fears about whether people will think they’ve been watching TV instead of working. Research shows that remote employees work a full extra day per week compared to their co-located counterparts.*

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