Remote working: 5 mental health challenges and hands-on solutions

recent global workforce survey by Oracle and Workplace Intelligence found a strong correlation between mental health issues (e.g. feeling isolated and lonely) and working from home. Does that mean that remote working models are not possible without serious repercussions on mental health? Not at all! Does it mean that remote working models need to address mental health challenges? Yes, absolutely!

But what are related challenges and, even more interesting, what are potential solutions to these challenges? We discussed exactly this with leading experts and have clustered challenges and solutions across five main topics.

1. Feeling isolated and lonely

Challenge
The lack of interpersonal contacts and informal exchange makes people feel isolated and lonely. Many people have not yet adapted ways to “socialize” in a digital setting, though this would be totally feasible if not even easier compared to non-remote settings.

Potential solutions
Cultivate (scheduled) informal interactions with people you like. When we are in the office, we chat with others when getting a coffee or going to the restroom. This, of course, does not happen by chance when we are not in the office. But, what keeps us from calling people we like when we’re having a break at home? The answer to that is twofold. On the one hand, we often feel “guilty” when having a nice chat with a friend during a regular workday. On the other hand, there is an inherent aversion against scheduling informal catch-ups with friends, as we associate scheduled calls and video conferences with work rather than just chatting about what we did last weekend.

Schedule time for informal exchange during virtual meetings. Video calls are usually output-driven and do not provide time for informal chats before and after the actual meeting like physical meetings do. But, why do they not? Simply add a five-minute informal exchange to the agenda and, if you have a larger meeting, randomly split the group into smaller groups via breakout rooms. The argument “we do not have time for this” is hard to believe, as people do have time for such informal exchanges when meetings take place in the office.

Set up regular one-on-one check-ins. Regular one-on-one check-ins between team leaders and their team members are now more important than ever. Such check-ins do not require more than 15 minutes and provide a great opportunity to understand how team members are doing while discussing and proactively supporting their personal development at the same time.

2. Blurred lines between work and personal lives

Challenge
Research clearly indicates that drawing lines between work and private lives is crucial to stay mentally healthy. When your dinner table turns into your work desk and colleagues are sending emails 24/7, this becomes a challenge.

Potential solutions
Establish effective boundaries between work and private life. Such boundaries can take many forms and should address four dimensions: temporal, spatial, emotional, and social. Here some suggestions:

  • Define collaboration hours. Companies should set clear guidelines on collaboration hours and proactively limit any form of communication outside of these hours.
  • Establish a dedicated workplace at home. Having a dedicated workspace at home creates a spatial separation between private life and work.
  • Establish routines. Routines can range from putting on proper clothes to going for a 10-minute walk before starting to work to scheduling an activity at the end of your workday.
  • Disable any work-related notifications. This includes emails as well as other communication channels. If there is something super important, people can call.

3. Being overworked

Challenge
study covering 3.1 million workers across Europe and the US clearly shows an increase in working hours over the past year. On average, we work 48.5 minutes more per day and, thus, lose this time to do other things and recharge our batteries. To some, this may not sound like much but looking at a full year, this translates into 20 working days more per year which is equal to 80% of most people’s annual holidays.

Potential solutions
Don’t feel guilty and say no. Many of us create our very own constraints, which make us feel guilty for being lazy or not good enough. Those constraints translate into not taking the required time to recharge and recover. TIGNUM came up with the concept of work-life freedom to tackle this issue. The concept covers three key aspects: (1) Reshape your self-image by being fully present whatever you do; (2) Reframe your inner dialogue and replace stories of guilt with positivity; (3) Invest in your own growth and development.

Do not publicly thank people for working the extra hour. Working the extra hour every now and then happens and is absolutely okay. However, publicly thanking people for doing so can trigger pressure for others to do the same, which can turn into a vicious circle and eventually turn into a toxic new status quo.

4. Lack of recognition and appreciation

Challenge
There is an inherent craving for recognition and appreciation in humans, which Dale Carnegie already described in 1936. However, the power of positive feedback on mental well-being is still hugely underestimated and in remote settings, providing feedback is even harder, as especially appreciation strongly relies on informal exchange.

Potential solutions
Give positive feedback, a lot. First, the awareness around the importance of positive feedback must be increased. Second, people must be taught how to give positive feedback. Eventually, (team) leaders must serve as role models in giving positive feedback a lot to trigger a culture shift towards a feedback culture.

Be explicit about what you are doing. We must be explicit about what we are doing to ensure visibility and allow others to recognize our contribution. This has nothing to do with bragging about achievements. It’s merely about keeping others up to date and being recognized for the value we bring to the table.

5. Loss of structure

Challenge
Everyday structures provide a feeling of continuity and stability, which is crucial for many people’s mental well-being. Working remotely on the other hand is often perceived as a state of limbo caused by losing a good deal of our normal structure. This implies mental stress and can even trigger anxiety in extreme cases.

Potential solutions
Enable people to self-organize. The solution to this issue seems straightforward. (Team) leaders must provide employees with the structure they need. However, providing structure e.g. by scheduling regular calls is often perceived as control rather than support. Therefore, employees must be enabled to give themselves structure through formal training and coaching.

Summarizing all these recommendations, it becomes obvious that ensuring mental well-being in a remote work set-up is hard work and requires an effort from both the employer and the employee. Offering extra holidays to recharge, such as Google, LinkedIn, or SAP, is surely a good starting point, but is not at all sufficient. Employers must provide guidelines (e.g. on collaboration hours), training, and create awareness on different aspects. At the same time, employees must be open and willing to change and adjust routines or establish new ones.

What are your personal tips and tricks to stay connected and mentally healthy when working remotely? And what does your company do to make sure people stay mentally healthy when working remotely? We are looking forward to your thoughts and inputs on this highly relevant and interesting topic!

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