Remote workers are facing a mental health crisis. We created a culture checklist to empower leaders to support wellness and reduce stigma.
Remote workers face a crisis that will continue past the oncoming vaccine. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of Americans have struggled with mental health issues stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. The stress of caring for children, loss of loved ones, and prolonged quarantine have put many in a rough spot.
With nowhere to go, remote employees see work as an escape. Teammates have worked longer hours through the pandemic. Coupled with near-constant stress, this creates an unsustainable cycle with serious consequences. A survey by Flexjobs and Mental Health America revealed 75% of workers experienced burnout in 2020. We can no longer pretend that work has little to do with employee mental health. To truly care for coworkers, companies need to address anxiety and depression.
A company’s wellness efforts boil down to the following:
If you’re dissatisfied with your answers to the above, you’re not alone. Only 45% of U.S. employees strongly agree that their organization cares about their overall well-being in the light of the pandemic. This shortcoming starts at the top. It’s up to company leaders to set the tone of how mental health issues are approached and equip each teammate with proper support.
Supporting a coworker with their anxiety and depression boils down to listening with empathy. When we say listening, we mean hearing a person without expecting to understand their exact struggle. As a matter of fact, claiming to “understand” a person’s issues often comes off as generalizing or dismissive. Instead, leaders should empathize with a coworker’s struggles, lean into compassion, and use curiosity. Ask them what they need in the moment and suggest that there are resources available to help.
As an organization, creating a culture that supports teammates through mental health problems can feel daunting. That’s why we’ve created a simple checklist to help remote leaders show they care:
If you feel shaky on any of these points, don’t sweat it. We’ve broken them down for you and shared tips for how to improve each item.
This may feel ambiguous at first, but including mental health in your company values sets the tone for employee wellness. It means you put mental health first and use this standard to make the right choices for employees. For any work-related decision, your people come first.
Companies that hesitate to do this often worry that mental health breaks may be an excuse for performance drops or patchy attendance. However, mental wellness isn’t a zero-sum game. When remote leaders can trust their coworkers and invest in their wellbeing, all aspects of business and life improve. Teammates that feel cared for invest more attention and effort in their work, without falling into the toxic cycle of burnout.
Like most values, adding “mental health” to a list of mantras means nothing if they’re not acted on. The best remote companies use their values as guidelines for process iteration and dialogue. Here are a few companies that prioritized mental wellness in major ways:
The 130-person social media management company has been working remotely since 2010. It’s remote culture has become the gold-standard for many startups for its forward thinking and people-first mindset.
Despite being remote work veterans, Buffer’s people struggled to adapt to the pandemic’s extremes. In March and April 2020, they surveyed teammates to find the best way to cope with the stresses of lockdown. They found that more people wanted time to address childcare, quarantines, and self-care. In response, Buffer began trialing a four-day work week. After six months, happiness and stress improved without a dip in productivity. Buffer prioritized mental health and used this value to guide a major shift in processes.
Asana helps teams collaborate and organize their projects, with over a thousand employees worldwide. Their values of “Mindfulness” and “Be real (with yourself and others)” puts mental health at the forefront of their culture iterations.
Like many companies, Asana shifted to a complete work-from-home model in March 2020. They created two initiatives based on teammate feedback to combat the increase in burnout and Zoom fatigue. “No Meeting Wednesday” ensures that no coworker schedules a meeting on Wednesday. This helps teammates unplug from otherwise constant Zoom calls and normalizes taking moments for yourself. “Forced Out of Office Days” have also become more common, where leaders at Asana mandate that everyone takes time off for a particular day. This ensures that everyone has a break without feeling like they’re slowing down other departments or teammates.
Remote work has an all-too-common pitfall: when you don’t see coworkers in person every day, it’s easy to assume everything is okay. As Brené Brown often says, the story we tell ourselves often leads to trouble. Coworkers may spiral into arguments because a curt message is taken as annoyance rather than tiredness from the sender. A teammate may avoid asking for help, drawing out blockers because everyone else seems too busy. A series of bad days may go unnoticed until a drop in performance catches a manager’s attention.
It’s no wonder why mental health is such a sinister problem in remote work. To achieve mental wellness, teams need to get visibility on coworker emotions. That’s why we built Kona’s daily mood check-ins.
Of course, messaging “How are you feeling?” in Slack can easily lead to crickets. To get an honest response from your team, you need to create a culture of vulnerability and psychological safety. Here’s what we mean:
Opening up about your feelings at work is still taboo for many industries. For decades, we’ve thrived off “professionalism” and the idea that vulnerability at work means weakness. However, being brave enough to be honest helps teammates foster trust and support one another.
According to Brené Brown, leaders can't get to courage without rumbling in vulnerability. Managers can encourage vulnerability on their teams by addressing every shared emotion with understanding, compassion, and empathy. They can model vulnerability themselves by opening up about their day-to-day struggles and building trust with teammates. Most importantly, vulnerable leaders create a vault and keep sensitive details to the team.
This is best summed up by the remote company, Doist, “Leaders need to acknowledge the challenges people are dealing with and make space for them to talk about how they’re doing. This may seem scary, but it can be as simple as asking colleagues how they’re feeling, giving them space to name their emotions, and modeling the same vulnerability in return.”
We’ve talked extensively about psychological safety, but it’s essential to name it again here. When we describe the belief that “you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with questions, concerns, or mistakes,” we include mental health’s stigma in that list as well. We must acknowledge that there can be serious mental health issues related to remote work and that anxiety and depression are normal in a pandemic year. Teammates should be able to discuss these struggles openly, without the fear of consequences or humiliation.
There’s a few ways to build psychological safety around mental health issues:
Psychological safety and vulnerability build off one another. In order for teammates to trust that they won’t go punished for opening up about their struggles, they need to have their vulnerability rewarded. Managers need to be persistent and consistent with their efforts. Over time, you'll be able to get a better idea of your coworker’s holistic lives.
Flexibility is one of the biggest benefits of remote work. Without an in-person office, teammates can work in the comfort of their own space and at a pace that works for them. Asynchronous teams, or teams that don’t rely on instant replies and meetings, can even work outside of a set schedule. This flexibility allows for errands, family time, and self-care. Giving coworkers command over their schedule goes a long way for promoting better mental health and less overtime.
Unfortunately, many companies that transitioned to remote work in March 2020 have maintained office-like expectations after a full year of work-from-home. They monitor employee’s activity at work, rely on near-constant meetings, and reward hours rather than results. These expectations are unrealistic for pandemic-era remote work and create unnecessary stress. As put by Doist, “Flexibility is only possible if leaders resist the urge to monitor employee activity or require constant communication in video meetings and team chats.”
The goal is to break the overworking cycle and encourage work-life balance. There have been plenty of examples of how companies have used trust to lead to a more flexible work day:
The 100-person E-learning startup helps over 5 million students with test prep and studying. Beginning in April 2020, their CEO announced that employees could work 50-80% days at full-pay, no questions asked. The idea is to help coworkers with caretaker burnout and encourage more time for wellness.
Gitlab is the leader in fully-asynchronous, remote work with over 1,000 employees spread across dozens of countries. They go above and beyond to create flexibility for each of their teammates, ensuring that company communication can be read at convenience. Their weekly announcements are made into videos and slides. Meetings are always optional and come with an agenda and recording. Leaders encourage teammates to block out family time, fitness, and meditation to create transparency about out of office moments.
No one expects your organization to transition to fully-asynchronous work in a day. However, there are simple steps that can make the transition easier:
We’ve talked about the importance of team building for remote companies before. However, we can’t talk about fighting isolation without acknowledging how isolation affects mental health. The increased confinement of the pandemic and remote work can exacerbate depressive symptoms. Given that isolation is one of the biggest problems remote workers face, mental health problems are next to follow.
The last thing managers want is for struggling teammates to avoid asking for help. However, a lack of regular touch points and trust makes silos the default. It takes incredible vulnerability to open up about mental health issues, and a disconnected team can be a huge hurdle. That’s why we encourage wellness efforts to include team morale. Companies need to invest in fun in order to invest in their people.
Before COVID-19, the most lavish company culture activities would often be company-wide retreats. However, there are plenty of other ways to get together and build relationships without a physical meet-up. We’ve included our favorite activities in our team building article, but here’s a few to note:
Many remote teams include fun Slack channels to encourage conversations about non-work subjects. Teammates at Buffer, Cloudbeds, and Knack shared delightful topics like #dogs, #mycat, #whereImWorkingToday, #familynews, and more. By encouraging discussions that aren’t transactional, teammates can find friends at work and a support network beyond your team.
X-Team has plenty of unique company bonding strategies. The remote group of high-performing developers prioritizes team engagement and creates many in-house games for their coworkers to win. For example, they recently created a Battle Royale game called “The Arena” in their Slack with a set number of health points and round-based attacks. The idea is to encourage play among coworkers and friendly opportunities for competition.
Saying thank you can easily make someone’s day, but it can also lead to better mental health outcomes. We’ve written extensively about the importance of gratitude practices, but it doesn’t hurt to go above and beyond. That’s why some remote companies use services like SnackNation or Swag.com to send personalized gift boxes to their teammates’ door. These gift boxes can be personalized with company branding and make teammates feel special.
Some mental health issues require professional help. In addition to baking vulnerability and open conversations into everyday culture, companies need to offer professional resources to help coworkers struggling with anxiety and depression. Many People Ops teams are including mental health packages in healthcare benefits and perks.
However, we still have a long way to go. In a study of over 1,000 remote employees by Stoneside, only 39% said their employer offered mental health resources during the pandemic. There are two parts to this problem: most coworkers don’t know which benefits are available OR they’re too scared to redeem them.
The first problem can be solved with better information sharing and transparency. The second, however, relies on a shift in culture. Creating an environment where open conversations about anxiety and depression are common makes it less taboo to recognize these issues in ourselves. By encouraging this discussion in threads and in one-on-ones, managers can support more coworkers in seeking help.
There are many ways to offer professional help to teammates. Here’s what two companies did in particular:
The popular professional network has over 15,000 employees across 30 cities. The tech company has entire roles and departments are dedicated to employee wellness. Scott Shute, Head of Mindfulness and Compassion at LinkedIn, says, “To help employees at LinkedIn, we created Mindful Moments, a self-paced online learning program to learn about mindfulness.” Shute also advocates for a more humanized workplace where workers are treated as people first and employees second. He discussed mental health days with personal time off, no meeting days, discussion sessions on mindfulness and burnout, and online learning resources.
The internal knowledge base startup doesn’t hesitate when it comes to answering questions about employee wellbeing. Not only are employees encouraged to take advantage of mental health services, but they transparently list out costs and direct employees on how to find their first therapist. They also list out meditation, journaling, and focus apps to cut out on the noise.
Mental health discussions aren’t limited to therapists. We’re facing a crisis in mental health that’s directly related to forced work-from-home. It’s up to remote leaders to normalize discussions of anxiety and depression, build vulnerability, and offer up resources. At the end of the day, supporting your team is simply about treating workers as people first.
Corine is Co-Founder of Kona. She writes regularly on emotional intelligence and empathetic remote leadership. Her work has been featured by Yahoo, TechCrunch, Entrepreneur, Harvard Business School, Forbes, and more. She’s a speaker at remote work conferences like GitLab Commit 2021 and she’s advised Fortune 10 companies on remote strategy.