Remote Work and Culture — 7 min
How do you balance mental health and remote work?
For leaders, this is a question about which benefits to offer and how much oversight to exercise over employee activities. For remote workers, it’s a question of self-regulation, avoiding burnout, and (in some cases) finding a better role. Both groups need answers.
We have discussed the relationship between remote work and mental health before. Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, spoke at length about his mental health and leadership strategies on Remote Talks. We also published a post last year on how to optimize your home office for better mental health.
Whether you need tips for your remote team or want to improve your own mental wellbeing, we’re here to help. Our network of remote work experts have shared some of their best tips to protect your energy, support your team, and enjoy the full mental health benefits of remote work.
“Many leaders are so focused on the growing output rates that they neglect to look behind the scenes and realize that their workforce is burning out from overwork and stress, only producing out of fear of losing their job,” says Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting.
Rule number one of improving mental health in any work environment: reducing stress is easier than mitigating it. If you set unrealistic expectations, workloads, and deadlines, your team’s mental health will suffer no matter what perks you offer.
“Businesses can help remote employees manage their mental health by keeping manageable and sustainable project cycles internally,” says Rhiannon Payne, author of The Remote Work Era. “This means not constantly ‘sprinting’ and giving employees time to reflect and cool down between big projects.”
One of the best ways to manage workloads is to observe all-company holidays. Remote hosts regular self-care days to give our team members a break. The key to a good company holiday is to ensure as many people as possible take advantage, so no one returns to work with an excessive backlog.
Remote work blurs a lot of lines: the line between the home and the office, the line between working hours and all other hours, and the line between casual conversation and work talk. People in offices spend plenty of time talking about everything but work, and remote teams should get the same opportunities.
“With remote work, you have to create these moments for team bonding on your own,” says Remote CEO Job van der Voort. “The only way to do that is to think deliberately...At Remote, we have multiple bonding calls at different times, play games together, have fun Slack channels, and an always-on hangout where people can go to talk about non-work topics.”
Companies with remote teams often face questions about how to create camaraderie within teams. The secret is that it’s not a secret at all, but it does require leaders to acknowledge the need and provide spaces where connections can happen.
“Team members can feel isolated at times, so it is very critical to organize remote activities that enable individuals to feel more connected with each other,” says Qasim Salam, co-founder and CEO of remoteBase.
Ultimately, maintaining good mental health is a personal challenge. No matter how supportive the organization is, employees must be able to recognize their own needs and act in their own best interest.
“Although the responsibility of health and wellness truly lies with the individual, organizations need to take the lead to adapt every policy and process with wellbeing in mind, from remote policies and communication charters to team rituals,” says Farrer.
In practice, this means leaders need to be public about their own mental health maintenance. If everyone at the director level and up works long hours and never seems to take a break, employees will follow that example and the company will suffer. When leaders are public about using PTO, taking the occasional sick day, and signing off to do things that aren’t work, employees see those actions as tacit permission to do the same.
Don’t let the truth of personal responsibility make you insensitive to the needs of employees. Yes, it’s up to them to manage their wellness, but you can and should support their efforts to maintain their mental health.
A home office is a home first and an office second. More importantly, though, that office belongs to the person using it — not the company at which that person works.
“A lot of people are concerned about sharing their personal concerns with remote work,” says Chris Herd, CEO of Firstbase. “They’re trying to replicate the office remotely, and that becomes an incredibly invasive thing. Now you’re in people’s homes, and that’s a big problem.
People have been reluctant to share negative feedback against that because of what we're living through. Increasingly we’ll see people rebel against that.”
Homes have things like pets, kids, chores, and distractions inside them. Not everyone has multiple rooms to create distance from home life and work life. Life’s many little interruptions must become a normal part of remote work life if employees are to feel safe and valued.
“Normalizing interruptions from SO's, kids, pets, family and friends, takes a lot of anxiety away during video calls,” says Remote’s head of people, Nadia Vatalidis. “We are remote-first: this is normalized from the outset for all of us.”
While remote work can provide incredible mental health benefits, humans are social creatures who benefit from real-world connections. Working remotely allows us to be more selective in how we create those connections. For example, saving time on a commute leaves more time to spend with family and friends. That said, for better mental health at work and increased team cohesion, real-life meetups can make work feel a little more welcoming.
“Twice a year, we do these retreats,” says Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier. “We haven't been able to do one now for over a year, and we're noticing it. Even in a fully remote company, that in-person time is really effective at bringing that camaraderie, building those bonds, building that sense of community...If you're going to go fully remote, don't forget that some amount of in-person connection does go a long way.”
Bringing an entire global company together is an expensive endeavor, but the rewards are worth it. However, not every gathering has to include every single person at the company. Small gatherings for individual teams and meetups for people who live in the same region are great, relatively inexpensive ways to lift spirits.
Working remotely comes with its own challenges, but overall, remote work offers a host of mental health benefits the office can’t quite match. To realize these advantages, companies must recognize their responsibilities to support employees in unconventional ways.
Offer company-wide self-care days. Let people keep their cameras off during meetings if they feel more comfortable that way. Laugh it off when a pet or a child decides to participate in a serious meeting.
Life has enough hard times. Give your people (and yourself!) some well-deserved breathing room.
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