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Stress and anxiety are, unfortunately, a part of your employees’ lives. But when these feelings become chronic or overwhelming, they can have a huge effect on their physical and mental health.

With the advent of COVID-19, anxiety and depressive disorders have risen sharply. In the months prior to the emergence of COVID-19 in the United States, 11 percent of adults reported having symptoms of anxiety and depression. One year later, roughly 30 percent of adults living in the United States reported having these same symptoms.

Perhaps this is why employee stress has risen to become the number one concern for employers — and why more employers are eager to address this mental health crisis head on. In fact, in a recent Ten Spot survey, 40 percent of respondents stated that their companies had engaged in mental health awareness programs.

Mental health awareness programs do not need to be limited to in-person work environments. In fact, mental health awareness may be even more important in a remote workplace, where employees often feel more isolated.

Below, we discuss ways to create a culture of awareness around mental health in a remote or hybrid workplace.

The Importance of Raising Awareness of Mental Health

COVID-19 has been a major stressor for many in the workforce. Concerns about getting sick, loved ones becoming ill, and the social isolation required to stop the spread of the virus have all had an impact. In one study, 55 percent of adults stated that their lives have become more stressful since COVID-19 emerged. In another, nearly four times as many adults reported having major symptoms of anxiety or depression. And in another, 75 percent of employees stated they have struggled with anxiety at work since the pandemic.

While COVID-19 has certainly been an issue, workplace stress predated COVID-19. Unfortunately, it will continue even after the virus is under control. Certain workplace conditions are known to exacerbate mental health issues, including working in a job with high-risk conditions, inadequate safety and health policies, long hours, and more. A chaotic work environment can also take its toll. Poor management practices, lack of control over one’s work, limited say in decision making, unclear tasks or objectives, and inflexibility in working hours all contribute to employee stress.

Some workplace stress is to be expected. When it becomes chronic, however, it can lead to anxiety and depression. These conditions have a serious impact on both the mental and physical health of employees, including heart disease, diabetes, obesity, musculoskeletal disorders, respiratory disorders, and even death.

Anxiety and depression also interfere with employees’ ability to work effectively. Employees with depression and anxiety report having a harder time concentrating. They also miss more work. One study found that stress was the biggest cause of absenteeism, with over half of the 550 million working days lost each year being due to stress. All told, the World Health Organization reports that depression and anxiety cost the global economy $1 trillion every year in lost productivity alone.

Despite the importance of good mental health on employees’ well-being and workplace productivity, the majority of adults do not receive the mental health services they need. That’s poised to change, thankfully.

Increasingly, employees are looking for that support from their workplace. Eighty-eight percent of employees responding in a TELUS survey stated that it was important to them that employers prioritize their employees’ mental health. A majority, 57 percent, of respondents stated that they would consider quitting their job for a position with a company that focused more on employees’ mental health.

Ways to Bring Awareness to Mental Health in a Remote or Hybrid Workplace

Employee well-being is key to employee happiness and workplace productivity. This may be particularly true in today’s increasingly hybrid and remote workplaces. Without face-to-face interactions, those daily check-ins and moments of self-care can fall to the wayside, creating a cycle of even more stress. Employers can contribute to employee well-being with the practices below.

Start a company-wide conversation about stress, self-care, and mental health. 

Employees are hungry for information about mental health resources. Conversations, trainings, and resource-sharing around mental health are important for multiple reasons.

  • First, they provide awareness of the symptoms of anxiety and depression. Employees who may normally write off their current mental state as “just stress” could find that there is actually a deeper mental health issue they could use help with handling.
  • Second, conversations around mental health decrease the stigma that is too-often associated with mental illness. By speaking honestly and openly about mental health, employees may feel encouraged to seek help without worrying about being judged.

When speaking about mental health, make sure employees know that you support them in their self-care and with their mental health needs. Encourage them to take time off if needed to attend therapy sessions, use some sick time to decompress from a stressful week, or even step out for a walk during their lunch break to practice self-care and mental health maintenance.

Educate managers on signs of mental health issues.

In addition to helping employees be more aware of the signs of mental health issues, managers need to be trained, too. Mental health training should be mandatory for company leaders so they are versed in what to do if they see signs of emotional distress. Sometimes just a friendly check-in from a trusted supervisor can spur an employee to seek help.

Offer free, anonymous mental health screening.

When employees are in the grind, they may not be able to recognize that their mental health is suffering. Encourage your employees to take part in regular mental health screenings. Organizations such as Mental Health America offer a number of anonymous, free screening tools. Once an employee recognizes they are experiencing a mental health issue, they may be more likely to seek help.

Include mental health in your DEI strategies.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives and mental health are inextricably entwined. Employees from diverse backgrounds are often underrepresented at work and the target of microaggressions, bias, and other stressors. This can have a long-term impact on the well-being of diverse employees. And yet, access to mental health is lagging.

Employers can help address this gap by offering inclusive, culturally competent mental health services. This may include using digital health tools that address disparities in access.

Promote work-life balance.

Whether spoken or not, many company cultures praise workers who arrive early and stay late. But the relentless push for more working hours can ultimately hurt morale and your company overall. Employees who work these long hours ultimately find that their productivity declines and they burn out. This is especially important as the workforce turns remote or works in hybrid workplaces. Being able to shut down for the day is hard when your office is your kitchen counter.

Companies can help promote work-life balance by ensuring that vacation time is taken and limiting off-hours emails. Encouraging hobbies and activities outside the office, or even just more time with family and friends also shows employees that work is not all that matters.

Offer flexible work schedules.

Employees with flexible work schedules are less stressed and have higher job satisfaction, and companies see less absenteeism and lower turnover than those working on a set schedule. Particularly during the pandemic, as childcare and elder care needs come up, quarantine is a reality, and life just generally throws a wrench in the 9-to-5 schedule, flexibility can go a long way to easing workplace stress.

Address workplace issues that may worsen mental health.

People experience different stressors from their work environments. Check in with your employees, particularly your remote employees, to see what adds stress to their work environment. Difficulty with background noise? Offer to purchase noise-cancelling headphones or a white noise machine. Difficulty managing their workload? Check in about time management training or delegating tasks more effectively.

Check in frequently with remote and hybrid employees.

There are great benefits to working remotely. That said, employees who work exclusively or mostly from home may feel lonely and isolated from their coworkers, and these symptoms can be difficult to detect when there’s little or no face time. That’s why it’s so important to check in regularly with your remote or hybrid employees. Have open conversations with them about how they are handling working remotely. Share your company’s mental health resources with them and encourage them to use them whenever they want.

Allow remote employees to leave their cameras off during meetings, which can reduce fatigue.

As work culture turned to video, we all became familiar with “Zoom fatigue,” that feeling of exhaustion after spending a day on long or multiple video calls. A recent study from the University of Arizona found that the camera might be a big contributor to that fatigue because of the pressure to have one’s self and environment looking put together.

The study’s author suggests allowing employees to choose whether to have their camera on or off. If the camera is off, employers should make clear that this does not reflect on employees’ productivity or distractedness. Often, turning the camera off can actually lead to increased attention and productivity.

Offer employees benefits that support mental health.

Offer an employee assistance program (EAP) that allows for a certain number of free therapy sessions per year and other well-being services. Then tell your employees that you have this program: Your employees may not know that such a benefit exists.

Also keep in mind that other benefits can indirectly promote better mental health. For instance, offering childcare and eldercare support services can help reduce the stress of caring for children or older loved ones while also trying to balance remote working. Financial counseling and tools can alleviate employee stress around paying off loans, handling unexpected bills, and saving for upcoming expenses. Consider what external factors are causing your employees the most stress and see if you can tailor a benefit to that stress.

Offer virtual fitness, meditation, and socializing opportunities for employees.

Offering health-minded virtual events for remote and hybrid employees increases connection, reduces feelings of isolation, and creates awareness of self-care techniques. Provide regular company-wide yoga classes, meditation skills, nutritional seminars, or stress management tools. In addition to teaching useful skills, you’ll also help employees build relationships with their coworkers and reduce feelings of isolation.

Conclusion

An employee’s mental health is crucial to their overall well-being and to the success of your company. Particularly for remote workers, who may experience increased loneliness and isolation, it is important to have a well-considered plan for supporting employee mental health.

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