Our collective mental health is caught in the crossfire of uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.
Even those without a history of anxiety and depression are feeling overwhelmed. Mental health apps and platforms have seen a rise in users since the start of the outbreak, and organizations like the United Nations and World Health Organization are preparing for growing mental health concerns across the globe.
People are concerned about their health and others’, rising unemployment rates, mixed messages from global leaders about the outbreak's severity, and extended periods of isolation. With stay-at-home and social distancing orders in place, many are also dealing with the practical and emotional challenges of working from home alone, while others compete for a quiet workspace or attempt to work while parenting/caring for children.
These unique circumstances present an opportunity for managers to practice empathetic leadership by acknowledging the unique challenges facing their team members and implementing policies to help ease anxieties within their control (full research available to Gartner clients). In doing so, they’ll find long-term value in supporting their employees through a crisis.
Let’s take a look at six companies that found innovative ways to support mental health in the remote workplace, and what you can learn from them to do the same at your business.
Who said video conferencing and collaboration tools can only be used for meetings and discussing business goals and metrics? These tools are as dynamic as the imagination of the teams using them, and Smart IT is finding creative ways to connect using technology they already have.
Sergey Konoplich, COO of custom software development company Smart IT, said that his team uses technology to host casual video chats, online game tournaments, and attend virtual concerts, letting people connect and decreasing feelings of isolation.
The team also participates in daily themed challenges announced in Smart IT’s Instagram story.
“It could be making a new dish, suggesting a book or a movie that they'd recommend, sharing an experience they had, or getting crafty,” Konoplich said.
Participants are encouraged to post a photo or video of them completing the challenge using the hashtag #SmartITatHome. These challenges allow employees to act as brand ambassadors, while promoting team bonding and healthy outlets.
“At a time like this, it has been crucial to remind team members that the company is looking out for them and give them an opportunity to relax and bond at the same time,” Konoplich said.
If your business is already using video conferencing software, use it to host casual chats to give people non-work related breaks throughout the week and stay connected.
Big companies such as Nike, Apple, and Google have been investing in mindfulness training for employees for years, recognizing the positive effects of meditation and reduced stress on employees’ mental health and productivity.
The Wheaton Group, a professional moving company, also recognized these benefits and hosted free pilates and yoga classes in its conference room on Mondays and Tuesdays. But they paused these exercise classes after the outbreak hit.
Director of marketing Jaymie Shook said that now, people are working remotely and dealing with a lot of uncertainty while adjusting to their new work environments. To help reduce stress and anxiety, the company started to offer virtual yoga and meditation classes.
“Wellness initiatives let employees know The Wheaton Group is thinking about them and values them as part of the organization,” Shook said.
Mental wellness activities can take different forms, the most popular of which include yoga, meditation, and deep breathing exercises. If your company can host these types of events with a trained instructor, do so using conferencing software.
If you can't, point employees in the direction of wellness resources they can use when they need to. For example, managers can give employees the option to take a wellness class during working hours as long as it doesn’t interfere with meetings or deadlines.
Follow the example of Lee Rubin, CEO of event planning platform Confetti, and her team, who compiled a list of free and donation-based fitness classes for people to enjoy while social distancing.
Maintaining work-life balance can be tricky for employees who are new to remote work. Without the office environment to regulate their work schedule, some may forget to take moments to recharge.
Breaks are good for the brain, and can boost productivity (full research available to Gartner clients). That's why marketing agency Hoot Design Company encourages its employees to step away from their work for 30 minutes and is paying them to do so.
“Hoot Design Company has looked at emotional health holistically and implemented new policies,” said Abby MacKinnon, a copywriter. “Not only do [these policies positively] affect my days and weeks, but they also make me feel valued as an employee.”
Encourage your employees to take short breaks when they need to recharge. Consistently communicate the importance of breaks in weekly meetings and 1:1s.
On a practical level, ask employees to add breaks longer than 15 minutes to their calendar or update their status in collaboration tools so their colleagues know they’ve stepped away from their computer and to expect a delayed response.
Managers should lead by example to set these expectations for their teams. If employees see their manager taking mental health breaks, adding breaks to the calendar, or setting their status to “away,” they’ll feel more comfortable doing the same.
Connecting employees to the resources they need to manage anxiety is another way companies can support mental health in the remote workplace.
Neal Taparia, CEO of Solitaired, a game and brain training platform, recognized that employees might be struggling and offered to cover half the costs of therapy sessions for any who wished to begin such sessions. Subsidizing therapy is an investment, but Taparia believes the benefits are worth it.
“I don't think everyone is comfortable talking about personal anxieties to loved ones or colleagues, and it can occupy your mind and be distracting.” Taparia said. “While hard to measure [results], we believe it helps our team get a strong mental footing.”
Taparia is also looking to introduce Ginger.io, an employee benefits therapy platform, as a more sustainable, long-term option for his employees even after the COVID-19 outbreak subsides.
Offering therapy benefits for employees isn’t realistic for many businesses at this time. Businesses without the means to subsidize mental health care can destigmatize taking mental health days, review and promote mental health benefits already covered in their employee benefits plan, and share resources with employees to point them in the direction of assistance.
Working from home presents unique challenges: People living alone may feel isolated, and those living with others may be struggling to find a new work-life balance (full research available to Gartner clients).
Employees working from home while caring for their children, for example, may find it challenging to parent while being expected to perform as they did in an office environment. This challenge can be an easy one for company leadership to acknowledge, and ease employees’ worries.
Matt Satell, SEO growth manager at venture capital firm Mechanism, said CEO Breanden Beneschott was empathetic to employees' various situations and decided to reset expectations to accommodate their new work environments.
“[He let] us know that it's OK to reschedule a meeting and take some time to focus on our families,” Satell said.
In addition to adjusting expectations, Beneschott also created a Slack channel to give employees an outlet to share funny stories, photos, or videos from working from home with kids.
“His message provided much-needed comfort during a challenging time,” Satell said.
Managers and company leaders can acknowledge employees' challenges and open up a dialogue around shared struggles, such as working from home with children.
Use your collaboration tool(s) to create outlets where employees can share anecdotes from their remote workplace. This presents opportunities to bond as a company while easing employee anxieties around productivity, all while sharing lighthearted content or brainstorming solutions to challenges they're facing.
Companies around the world are using technology in creative ways to connect with their employees, embodying the “apart but not alone” sentiment.
People are struggling, and how companies like yours treat and support employees during this time can have a lasting impact on your brand.