7 Ways Leaders Can Champion Their Team’s Mental Health In A Virtual World

Today, employees and employers, the world over, are learning, to many a surprise, that working from home can be just as mutually beneficial, as working from the confines of office cubicles. Several might wager that remote work has exponentially increased their levels of productivity and personal accountability.

On the flip side, COVID-19 has mandated stay at home rules that can make remote working conditions extremely isolating for employees, especially when work and personal/family demands are bleeding into each other. Boundaries of work have become blurry.

If you’re a leader who was used to walking through the halls of your organization or your manufacturing plant where you'd see people on a regular basis, or you’d have morning huddles or discussions, this world of remote work has been challenging for you. The challenge comes from the inability to see your team daily, or just feel connected to what people are working on. A big piece of that challenge is also being able to manage the mental wellbeing of your teams through virtual environments.

I get it.

For twenty-five years, I had never worked remotely or with a virtual team. Back then, the most virtual I got with my team was either across buildings or campuses where I could easily walk over to their offices when I wanted. I preferred meeting face-to-face because I could observe my team and colleagues’ physical demeanor when we met. All my senses were cued into the meeting. It gave me a holistic picture of how well or not the meeting was going, of how engaged the other person was. My office was often the coffee kiosk. On the flip side, being in a virtual team environment made me feel disconnected from the energy and synergies that face-to-face meetings allowed room for.

Not being able to see people face-to-face was a tough concept to wrap my thinking around. That I could not see or read people’s body language, made me feel like I was missing a whole layer of information that was critical for me to be able to support their mental wellness.

Fast forward to seven years ago, when I started my own consulting company, I had to get over my reservations against virtual teams and meetings fast because I became part of a consortium of global colleagues. This was the first time that I started working virtually with clients and helping support them to work virtually with their employees, as well. It didn't take me long to learn how to work remotely with people, given the plethora of technology available in the market.

But when I began working with my remote team, the first loss I felt was a perceived inability to manage my workflow. I felt, if I couldn’t see them, the work wasn’t getting done. I led popcorn-style. I’d fire off directives that would pop at the top of my head, asking questions like, “What are we doing with that project?” or “can you get that done by end of the day?”

Gradually, I realized that I had to be more planned in how I approached my remote team meetings. Now, I prefer a telephone call to Zoom or Skype calls when I am coaching. I have discovered that I listen differently when I am not distracted by looking at people.

I have learned to listen for things like hitches of breath or voice inflections. I know that I have hit a hot spot in a conversation by a change in the tone of the voice, or by the length of a pause. I have learned not to jump into a pause because the person on the other side of the line could be reflecting about our conversation. It’s not that they don’t want to answer. It is just that they’re taking more time. Focussing on how I listen, rather than watching for physical cues, has taught me to be more intentional during phone calls. Perhaps, even more patient.

I became more mindful about the questions I was asking. I had to remember what I asked my team to do last week, before following up with them this week. It required a lot more onus and accountability on my part to be comfortable with how work was getting done.

Two weeks back, Gallup published “3 Strategies for Leading Effectively Amid COVID-19” in which it said what we all have experienced directly or indirectly, that “The coronavirus is turning out to be a critical leadership stress test. It has challenged virtually every contingency plan and risk mitigation strategy that leaders have ever envisioned.”

The authors of that article went further to state that “Gallup’s research shows that followers have four fundamental needs -- trust, stability, compassion, and hope. So, it's alarming that a Gallup Poll found just about half of U.S. employees believe their "employer has communicated a clear plan of action in response to the coronavirus" outbreak. And nearly one in four felt the leaders in their organizations are successfully managing emerging challenges.”

Indeed, “When the whole world has changed, employees need steady leadership most -- but that's also when it's most difficult to lead.”

It’s critical for leaders to understand that even though their employees may be in a mentally stable place, in working from home, they’re dealing with financial and other uncertainties that are beyond their control. These stressors are enough to create mental health issues. For employees with existing mental health conditions, going to work provided some semblance of structure, routine, and support that they can no longer pull on.

Loneliness is taking a toll on those employees who thrived while interacting with their colleagues across cubicles or looked forward to physically going to work to distance themselves from home pressures. These are conditions where your team’s mental health can be fragile. We’re in a situation where we’re trying to manage our lives during work hours.

In 2017, a Fast Company article titled “Could Working Remotely Be As Bad For Your Health As Smoking?”, pointed to a research finding that “social isolation increases the risk of mortality by 29%.” “Loneliness has a much more complicated effect on mortality, but its effects are just as strong or only slightly less strong than obesity and smoking,” says Dr. Dhruv Khullar, a resident physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who has written about the impact that social isolation and loneliness has on his patients.” 

As leaders, there are pivots we can make to help support the mental wellbeing of our virtual teams. Here are seven ways leaders can champion their team’s mental health in a virtual world:

  • Be an example of good mental health yourself. It all starts with leaders taking care of themselves. If you are not taking care of yourself, if you are struggling, if you are being overly productive or logged in 24/7 because you feel like you need to manage the crisis, think about what example you’re setting for your team. Ask yourself, how am I taking breaks? How am I sharing what's going on with me? How am I being real? Now more than ever, if we can have empathy and compassion for ourselves, it translates to empathy for others.
  • What’s your mindset? Understand that employees right now have other priorities in addition to their workload. Yes, work is important, but remember, it's being managed in the context of life like never before, so you may not get 100% out of your employees or your team right now. Be clear on your priorities and expectations.
  • Do regular check-ins with your team. Check-ins and checkups are two vastly different things. You’re not checking up on your team because you don't trust what they’re doing, or how they’re doing their work. Frame your narrative around checking in with your team to see where they are on tasks and how people are doing. Be mindful of how regularly you're doing your check-ins. If, in the context of your traditional workspace, you only checked in with your team once a week, don't start daily check-ins, suddenly. It heightens the sense of panic or mistrust within your team.
  • Encourage your team to create a work schedule and let you know their off-hours. Clearly communicate that the intention behind this is not to micromanage, but to know that if anyone in your team has children to attend to during certain hours of the day, they will not be available for meetings. The goal is to be mindful of their needs.
  • Be explicit and intentional about your communications, expectations, and your timeline. Ask your team what expectations they will be able to manage or meet. If they are not, ask about the challenges and barriers they face, so you can work on how to help them manage their workload.
  • Use good online collaboration tools for work. If you haven't managed virtually before, and worry that people aren't doing their jobs, use technologies like Slack, Trello, or Monday.com, to create channels of communication and workflow where your team can collaborate and track each other's progress, efficiently.
  • Start your meetings by asking people how they are. Don’t go into the blood and guts of the work right away. Do a check-in with each other first. It will give you a chance to notice if someone is behaving differently than usual. Perhaps, they’re not turning on their cameras anymore, or they’re declining one-to-one catch-ups, or not speaking up as often, or you hear shallow breathing when you speak with them. These are signs that could indicate something's not right. And if you do see changes, notice the frequency of the unusual behaviours. Don’t jump to address it right away.  Someone might just be having an off day.

How you enter the conversation makes all the difference. And as leaders in that conversation, the tone needs to come from a place of “I'm concerned about you, I'm concerned about what I'm seeing, and I want to talk about it” as opposed to “you're in trouble for not doing this.” It's not disciplinary. It's not punitive. It's coming from a place of empathy, concern, and compassion. The employee is going to know so by the tone of your voice and how you ask questions about them.

Recently, I hosted a webinar with Leslies Bennett, Mental Health Strategist, Executive Coach, and Management Consultant from Mental Health Innovations. Together we explored several ways in which leaders can foster mental wellness, in an environment where business is not as usual. Check it out and share your thoughts with me.

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