As many people worldwide have started working remotely due to the pandemic, face-to-face communication has become more sparse. How can we tell if a teammate may be experiencing mental health struggles when all our interactions are from behind a screen or computer keyboard?

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In this Special Feature, we look at how to identify tell-tale signs of mental distress in a remote work setting.

Around the world, physical distancing measures and worries about the continued spread of the new coronavirus have forced many companies to ask all or most of their employees to work from home.

But even as officials in different countries are now beginning to ease physical distancing and lockdown measures, it looks like more widespread remote work arrangements may be here to stay.

Some of the largest, most influential companies have already committed to much more flexible work from home policies going forward.

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While working from home can have benefits for employees and companies alike, it can also have some pitfalls, such as blurred boundaries between “work time” and “private time,” which can harm employees’ mental health.

So how can employers support their employees in maintaining their mental well-being while working remotely?

Many people find it tricky to spot signs of mental distress in another person at the best of times, and the fact that many employers and employees now only communicate with each other from behind a screen can make this even more challenging.

To find out how employers and colleagues can spot mental health struggles in a teammate in a remote work context, and to learn more about how to support them, Medical News Today spoke with two experts: Tania Diggory and Kat Hounsell.

Tania Diggory is a business neurolinguistic programming practitioner and mental health trainer and founder and director of Calmer, and Kat Hounsell is a leadership coach and mental health first aid instructor and founder of everyday people.

Specialists have pointed out that people who experience symptoms of mental health issues, such as depression, may exhibit changes in body language and their day-to-day behavior.

Yet how these changes appear in different people depends on their personality and individuality.

“[I]t’s important to recognize that we all have our own sense of ‘norm,’ and identifying that someone’s behavior seems out of the norm (for them) will usually come down to how well you know them,” Tania Diggory pointed out in speaking to MNT.

“That being said, no matter how well you know someone, body language and tone of voice are powerful forms of non-verbal communication. [T]hese are important signals to pay attention to if you sense a teammate is struggling with their mental health,” she added.

But when we no longer share a physical space with a person, how can we pick up on tell-tale signs?

“Firstly, let’s remember that many of the observation skills we have in person can translate online — if we’re speaking by video call, we still have the ability to notice [a person’s] body language, [their] appearance, and even without video, we can hear the tone of their voice and listen to the words they use,” Kat Hounsell told us.

Outside of calls, Hounsell suggested looking out for any odd changes in a person’s messaging style and email communication and noticing if a person has suddenly become less communicative online.

“On email, we may notice a change in someone’s writing manner or emails being sent outside of work hours. Also, the same way that a sign [of mental distress] in the workplace may be [that] a person […] is regularly absent; the same applies to the virtual world… are they engaging as much as usual?”

— Kat Hounsell

But the most crucial step in making sure that a colleague who works remotely is doing well is, simply, to try and fit in regular video or voice calls.

Both Diggory and Hounsell stressed the importance of making eye contact — albeit via a computer screen — and really listening to a person as they speak.

“Have regular check-ins with each other, whether through one-to-one catch-up calls or team meetings — via video conference whenever possible,” Diggory said.

She also emphasized the importance of conversations that probe a little deeper than the usual small talk.

“If they look or sound vulnerable, they may not speak up about it so you can choose to ask how they are truly feeling and remind them that if they are struggling, they don’t have to do it alone,” Diggory told MNT.

Hounsell issued a similar piece of advice, saying that:

“To really find out what’s going on, we’ll need to engage in a conversation with our teammate, ask them how they are, truly listen to the answer, and encourage them to open up if they feel comfortable.”

In speaking to managers and team leaders, Diggory also suggested that allocating dedicated time at the start of team meetings to check in with all the colleagues could go some way towards ensuring that they feel heard and supported.

“For example,” she suggested, “you could ask your teammates to express how they feel in a few words, without judgment, or share how they’re choosing to make time for their well-being that week.”

“Voicing how we feel in a safe, supportive space and bringing awareness to how we can nurture our well-being are important steps for building our sense of self-awareness, as well as connecting with those around us,” she went on to explain.

Hounsell also urged managers not to forget about employees currently on furlough or those who have taken sick leave.

“Regular check-ins are important to help monitor the well-being of team members, and this includes those currently on furlough or sickness absence,” she told MNT.

Hounsell also added that when thinking about safeguarding their employees’ mental well-being, employers must bear in mind three steps. According to her, these are:

  • prevention, which means applying actions and strategies that help the team stay well
  • intervention, which means “having the confidence to open up a conversation if they feel a team member is struggling”
  • protection, which means “following policies and procedures to keep people safe who have become unwell”

When asked what they would say to someone currently experiencing mental health issues related to, or exacerbated by remote work as a result of the pandemic, both Hounsell and Diggory emphasized the importance of seeking help and of practicing self-compassion.

“I would encourage [anyone experiencing distress at this time] to be compassionate and kind towards themselves, recognizing that each of us is navigating the sea in different ships and learning how to become captain in stormy waters,” said Hounsell.

“There are supports out there, and you are not on your own,” Hounsell reminds our readers, noting that “many professional support services continue via phone or online. Booking a phone consultation with your [doctor] may be a helpful first step.”

Diggory also advised anyone experiencing mental health issues at this time to speak to friends or family members whom they trust, to reach out to the relevant figures at their place of work, and to make use of mental health resources available to the public at large.

First, “[l]ook to your current support network,” Diggory said. “Who do you trust in your family, friends, and professional networks who you can turn to for a chat about how you’re feeling?”

“Talking is one of the most powerful steps you can take to managing your mental health, and exploring how you feel with someone you trust can reveal solutions you may not have considered on your own,” she explained.

In a work context, she suggested speaking to a manager, the human resources team, or a trusted colleague so that they can negotiate any necessary adjustments to their work.

“Every company has a legal duty of care to support their employees, and if you are concerned that your mental health is inhibiting you from carrying out your work, then it’s important for your employer to know.”

– Tania Diggory

Finally, she urged our readers to remember that mental health helplines are always available to anyone who may need support at a difficult time.

“We’re living in the best possible time to receive mental health support,” she pointed out, “and there is an abundance of charity and healthcare organizations you can choose to contact, depending on your specific needs.”

“This will allow you to speak to someone objectively about how you feel, and they can help you to identify your next steps and receive appropriate support that’s most relevant for you,” Diggory added.

For our readers in the U.S. and elsewhere, here is a list of organizations that can provide mental health advice and support.

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Hounsell added that those who are experiencing added stress and mental health issues while working remotely might benefit from renewing their focus on physical health and well-being.

“Looking after the foundations of our physical well-being can have wonderful benefits for our mental health,” she said, mentioning “sleep, diet, water, moving, and getting fresh air each day if possible.”

Ultimately, Diggory said, everyone should strive to “[r]emember that struggling with […] mental health is a human experience.”

“Everyone that lives on Earth experiences feelings of stress, depression, or anxiety from time to time, and these experiences do not define you as a human being,” she went on to add.

“You have masses of potential within you, and while your state of mental well-being can fluctuate, these are important signals in your mind and body for you to pay attention to. [A]cknowledging and recognizing when you may need help shows strength so that you can seek the support you need.”

– Tania Diggory

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