A constant state of availability and being connected, coupled with a possibly unstructured and isolated working environment can be tough for the mental health of remote workers. As work and life grows closer together, it becomes increasingly harder to distinguish the two. Coupled with an "always online" culture and remote way of working, it can suddenly become hard to disconnect. Stress-induced syndroms and burnout are often the result of that.
But not only the work itself can influence worker's mental health, the change of structure can factor into a change of headspace too. Isolation from face-to-face time with coworkers, and even the loss of having to prepare for a commute and daily structure can be really tough as remote worker.
Tracking Mental Health
While remote workers are responsible for keeping their own mental health intact, you as an employer are certainly not powerless. As a remote employer, you should provide a framework that continuously tracks mental health, just as if it was another performance metric.
Tracking "mental health" as a whole is difficult. What's easier and more productive is to track symptoms of decline of mental health. GitLab has put together a nice list of points they track, and they could be a great starting point for you as well:
- Being constantly tired
- Losing joy
- Suffering job performance
- Physical health issues, such as constant headaches
- Not wanting to be seen, e.g. on video calls
- Being anxious and concerned about whether you do enough
- Constant worry whether your contributions count
Just as you might be tracking leadership and contributions, these things may count towards job performance and might need intervention before they go too low.
Feedback and Intervention
A good format to have these conversations are 1-on-1 meetings (premium post) between a manager and a report. By doing these regularly, you can get honest answers to the points above and can track any decline and improvement you might see. Besides personal issues, work-related issues are usually the number one reason for stress and burnout. By checking in often, you can not only prevent these issues, but also anticipate any goals that might be missed.
Another good way of tracking this is through text – especially for employees that identify as introverts. Something like "Dailybot" or similar could be the way to have daily or weekly check-ins, all around the workplace, mental health and similar. The results of these might be anonymous at first – some sort of company metric that shows how people are doing – but should also be able to show you where individual actors might be falling down and how to help them.
The earlier you can recognize the signs, the better you will be able to help. After all, one week off might be all that's needed.
Fighting burnout, isolation & co.
As an employer hiring first-time remote workers, it's also in your responsibility to fight the reasons that will cause burnout, isolation and similar. There are a handful of reasons why remote workers are more vulnerable to mental health issues.
As we often say, remote work is not the same as "Work from Home". There are plenty of people who can't work from home, especially because it is so hard to set boundaries between work and personal life. Whether it's kids, a partner or simply the inability to turn the computer off in the evening, setting boundaries is important.
It's recommended to have a separate work room you can walk out of, maybe even close after working hours. Should that not be possible, a company should at least cover the expenses of a co-working flex desk to get out of the house.
As a remote worker, it's really tempting to wake up late and start working, but that's not the routine of a normal worker, and that's an issue. Instead of going straight from bed to desk or coffee machine, it's a good opportunity to prepare a bigger breakfast and eat in a different room, take a walk, or go to the gym before work. A commute isn't needed, but a routine is.
Even when you're staying at home, try spending an hour of leisure time between work and wake-up, so that your brain is able to get activated and prepare for the day.
Every employee needs a good PTO policy and enough days off. Even if you could work from home with a flu, or work on the flight to a vacation destionation, it should not be the norm. Just as it's acknowledged that office workers need enough time off and may need to stay at home with a fever, it's the same for remote workers.
Isolation & Social Contacts
At some point, employees might miss those short watercooler conversations, or chit-chat in the hallway. Without all of that, it's really easy to get isolated. There are a variety of programs you can implement to advance social gatherings: Shared team lunches (online) are a good way, scheduled breakout sessions another one. If you can, meet people for a day of coworking.