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Remote Work 28 min

How to build a remote work mental health program

Written by Nadia Vatalidis
Nadia Vatalidis

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Every workplace wants its employees to be mentally healthy, but it’s only recently that employers started taking responsibility for their teams’ mental wellbeing. Counseling, awareness of burnout, and the inclusion of Employee Assistance Programs in benefits packages are quickly becoming common. 

Despite this new emphasis on mental health, however, employers may not be quite as on top of mental health care and awareness as their employees would like. Research shows that although 65% of employers believe mental health is supported well at work, only 51% of workers agree. That gap gets wider when frontline workers are involved: 71% of employers believe they are supporting frontline workers’ mental health well, but just 27% of those workers agree. 

Remote teams have their own special considerations when it comes to mental wellbeing, and remote workers may struggle to understand how to support those workers. 

This guide will help you understand the mental health issues that affect remote workers, the tools available to help your team with their mental health, and how your organization can build an inclusive environment that supports the mental health of your team. 

The prevalence of mental health problems today

Mental health problems are common. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 1 in 5 adults suffer from mental illness. In the U.K. 1 in 6.8 people experience mental health issues in the workplace. Although mental health problems affect everyone, the majority of mental health issues are reported by women

Despite the prevalence of mental illness, there is still a stigma that surrounds mental health. Team members may not be willing to share their struggles with their colleagues for fear of being judged. They may also struggle with their own feelings about therapy, needing medication, or needing time off to deal with mental health-related problems. With this in mind, it’s important to build a supportive culture around mental health in your remote workplace.

See also: New to leading remote teams? Start by reading our introduction to remote work. 

How does remote work affect mental health?

As many benefits as remote work offers, the mental health advantages of working outside the office can quickly diminish if companies are not careful. A recent study from the University of Southern California Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy found that remote workers spend, on average, 90 more minutes a day working than they do at traditional, office-based jobs. 

That additional time comes with stress: anxiety, depression, trouble sleeping, low motivation,  and difficulty with focus. According to researchers, 74% of the workers who responded to the survey said they’d experienced a new mental health issue since they started working remotely, while 55% said they’d experienced two or more new mental health issues. 

Remote workers struggle with issues their traditional counterparts don’t: they’re home, where the separation between work and personal life can get blurry. They also don’t have the physical connection with their teammates; they’re not seeing colleagues in person. That can be stressful for extraverts, who are energized by socialization and human interaction. Lack of face time may mean that remote workers often assume the worst when they don’t hear back from a manager or colleague, for example. 

Negativity bias: A remote work stressor

Negativity bias, also known as the negativity effect, is a psychological phenomenon in which people tend to focus on the negative things about a situation. 

Given two things of equal importance — say, a message from a manager praising a team member’s work on a problem and radio silence in answer to a question about taking a day off — a person is more likely to concentrate on the thing they perceive to be more negative. Sure, the boss is happy about their performance, but why aren’t they getting back to them about the day off? 

This tendency to focus on the negative aspects of work can be exacerbated by remote work, where there’s distance between co-workers and team members can’t always read body language or hear the tone of someone’s voice. 

Certain team members may drive themselves harder or work longer hours because they perceive silence as anger or disapproval from colleagues or a manager. 

See also: Expert tips to reduce stress for remote teams

How can remote work improve mental health?

Workers’ experience with remote work is not one-size-fits-all. Just look at the results of a 2020 survey of workers returning to the workplace: 19% wanted to get back to work as soon as possible while 15% wanted to keep working from home indefinitely. (The rest wanted to wait until later in the pandemic to make that choice.) 

J.D. Alex, talent research at Stripe, notes that companies should not seek to micromanage their remote team members.

Remote work if properly rolled out can be extremely positive in regards to mental health. On the flip side, if ‘we’ continue to control aspects of remote work such as 'time in seat' or require persons to check in and out via slack, or micromanage our teams, then the opposite of the above can happen and lead to an extremely quick burnout rate.

As much as it can cause stress, remote work also has the potential to improve mental health. Take the experience of introverts, who draw energy from being on their own. For these team members, remote work gives them the chance to work in an environment that’s comfortable for them. 

The same is true of neurodiverse workers: team members with sensory processing disorders may feel more comfortable working in their own space, where they control the environment, rather than spending mental energy putting up with bright lights or other people’s perfume. Autistic workers may benefit from remote work because they don’t have to worry about social interactions or office politics, two things that may cause stress. Workers with ADHD may find that asynchronous work helps them handle the stress of being productive at different times of the day. 

Remote work also reduces the stress of workers who need to stay home for family reasons or who live in regions that may not accept their gender expression or sexuality. For all of these workers, remote jobs can help remove stress — if team members can maintain a healthy life-work balance. 

That’s the goal for Remote — we want all our employees to feel psychologically comfortable and be mentally healthy. 

“Mental health support is something that is important in all workplaces, but in remote teams, we focus on flexibility and the incorporation of life events/activities more holistically into an employee's day-to-day,” says Wesley Hattingh, total rewards specialist for Remote. “This means that it is crucial that we provide this support to enable employees to live fulfilled lives, both professionally and personally.”

See also: How to build a strong and supportive remote work culture

How can we help our remote team manage their mental health?

It may seem a tall order to help team members manage their mental health, but if recent years have taught us anything, it’s that mental health is critical in every context.

Ali Greene, co-founder and co-author of Remote Works, says remote work creates new challenges for leaders looking to support mental wellness.

Remote work impacts mental health in many of the same ways work impacts mental health — people may be struggling with burnout, stress, and even toxic coworkers. The additional considerations specific to a remote workplace, for good or bad, usually depend on how well-versed the company is in remote operations.

According to McKinsey, there are five pillars when it comes to supporting mental health in the workplace: 

  1. Make mental health a priority

  2. Enhance mental health supports 

  3. Communicate available supports

  4. Cultivate an inclusive culture

  5. Measure and hold accountable

While some of these may seem like obvious steps, it’s important to commit to mental health from the top down and ensure team members know what’s available and can easily access those services. 

There are also special mental considerations for different kinds of  teams. 

  • The hybrid workforce: Hybrid workers get the best and worst of both worlds. They work from home sometimes and can be social in the office. However, hybrid teams made up of in-person workers and remote workers may have unforeseen issues. The temptation may be to think of your team as a workplace with some remote workers, but that can leave remote team members feeling like second-class employees, which isn’t good for team morale or remote mental health. For this reason, we encourage a remote-first culture: your team is a remote workplace with office perks, not an office with some people outside it. 

  • The global remote workplace: Mental health can take on a different meaning for a globally-distributed team. Mental health is treated and stigmatized differently in different cultures. When your team has varying cultural experiences around mental health, it’s important to communicate, provide education, and know where everyone is coming from. 

See also: Expert mental health tips for remote teams

How does Remote support its own employees’ mental health?

Remote has an entire policy dedicated to mental wellness support for our team members around the world. Anyone can read it as part of our public handbook!

In addition to our internal programs, Remote’s internal employees receive access to Lifeworks, a mental health and wellbeing platform. Through Lifeworks, Remote’s employees have access to counseling, crisis support, self-help programs, wellbeing assessments, and more.

We are strong believers in the necessity of strong mental health support for distributed teams, and we are constantly looking for ways to improve our ability to support our team members all around the world.

See also: Careers at Remote

What steps can managers take to improve mental health in remote teams right now?

While implementing comprehensive mental health programs at work can take time and collaboration with people across the organization, there are some things managers can do right now to support mental health at work. 

  • Communication is key: When working with a remote or hybrid team, it’s important to over-communicate. Because remote workers can’t always detect tone of voice or body language, make sure you spell expectations out, and check in with your team often. The more you communicate, the less likely team members will be to read anything you did not intend into a short message or silence.

  • Document everything: Documentation helps to clarify interactions and expectations. At Remote, we believe in a culture of documentation. This is especially important for a remote, asynchronous team — if everyone isn’t working at the same time, it’s important to know what has been done on a project. However, it’s also important to reduce stress and confusion around tasks.

  • Don’t celebrate overwork: When a team member works overtime, or does much more than their share on a project, we naturally want to celebrate them. While it’s always appropriate to recognize hard work, constant fanfare for team members who blur the boundaries between life and work sends a message to the rest of the team, and can encourage them to blur their own life-work boundaries. 

  • Learn to spot burnout: Job burnout is a state of work-related exhaustion, and it’s a very real issue. Learn to see the signs and step in if necessary to encourage time off. In remote workers, this can look like missed deadlines, withdrawing from online conversations, or mistakes that a person might not normally make. Burnout can also manifest as emotional outbursts, snappishness, depression, anxiety, or a series of illnesses. If a team member seems to be burning out, or simply not acting like themselves, take the time to reach out and find out how they are doing.

  • Model time off: If a manager never takes time off, staff will probably be reluctant to take their PTO as well. Take your own time and model self-care. You may also want to talk to staff members about their PTO plans or self-care goals during meetings, if that’s appropriate for your company culture. 

  • If your workplace offers mental health care, remove hurdles keeping your team from accessing them. McKinsey’s research indicates that even when a workplace does offer mental health programs, those supports aren’t easily accessed; 67% of workers say mental health programs are challenging to access, and 84% of employees with substance abuse problems have difficulties accessing programs designed for them.

Jesse Chambers, founder and CEO of Wrkfrce, advises companies to lean into asynchronous work.

At wrkfrce we believe you should design your career around your life — not vice versa. Within our team, I emphasize and promote asynchronous work, and as a business, we help others learn to use this simple, effective strategy to empower our audience to be the best versions of themselves, in their careers and their lives. 

See also: Common mistakes made by first time remote managers. 

What benefits can a mental health program give your business and your team?

Poor mental health affects the entire workplace, not just the individual or the team. Interpersonal challenges, problems with focus, the lack of creativity that comes along with mental health challenges — all of these issues affect your work environment. According to research from the World Health Organization (WHO) mental health challenges are estimated to cost $1 trillion in lost productivity a year. 

It stands to reason that the converse is true: providing mental health care will benefit your business and your team. 

  • Mentally healthy workers are productive workers: When team members are overworked or depressed, their brains are just going through the motions of life. They don’t have the mental energy to come up with creative solutions or do their best work. Workers who take care of their mental health can devote their energy to higher-order tasks, like planning, strategy, and problem-solving.

  • Stop drama before it starts: Every workplace has some conflict in it, but if someone’s mental wellbeing isn’t being looked after, there’s a potential for conflict to become toxic. A mental health program can help your team members talk out issues before they become problems. 

  • Create a culture of inclusion: Mental health is often stigmatized. By talking about it at work and offering solutions for the whole team, you can help build awareness of mental health.

  • Improved wellbeing: Mental health issues can contribute to physical health problems if left untreated. By offering mental health programs, you can help improve health and wellbeing.

What should you include in your company’s mental health support program?

Darren Murph, head of remote at GitLab, is a pioneer in mental wellness for remote teams.

Keep it simple. On your first 1-on-1 of each month, include a line item entitled ‘Let's talk about time off.’ When you normalize the conversation of rest with your manager (and force yourself to answer to future-you), you build healthy habits.

A good mental health program is multifaceted, including everything from resources to policy. Below are some of the items you should consider including in your mental health support program: 

  • Mental health policies: Policies that support mental health are the first and most vital step in any mental health support program. All the awareness and education in the world won’t help if your organization isn’t creating meaningful change when it comes to mental health. This means making sure you have an official stance on mental health and substance abuse; having policies in place to address mental health crises, and other policies that support wellness, such as unlimited time off; and creating an environment of psychological safety at work..

  • Education: Mental health awareness training is an important way to communicate your policies and services to your team, as well as a way to encourage discussion of mental health issues. By providing education, you can ensure everyone in your organization has a common vocabulary around mental health.

  • Manager training: Managers should know how to spot overwork, burnout, and other signs of a mental health crisis. In addition, they should have the tools to respond to a crisis and to assist struggling team members. 

  • Resources: Consider offering resources, such as an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which offers employees counseling, referrals, and assessments. All of these services must be confidential, and remote employees should be able to access them online. 

  • Easy accessibility: Being able to access services is an extremely important step for employees who are taking care of their mental health, no matter where they are located or what time zone they are in. If there is a subset of team members who are excluded, this creates inequity and unequal experiences. This also means being sure services are constantly available and that emergency support is available as well.

  • Multilingual support: Part of accessibility means that support should be offered by local providers who speak the same language as your team members. It’s ideal if users can receive help in their native language and from someone who understands the culture in which they live.

  • Confidentiality: Not only should all services be confidential, but you should also ensure that your employees know the services are confidential. This could be the difference between someone using and not using a resource.

  • Different modalities of support: 1:1 counseling is important, but not everyone wants therapy. By offering a variety of resources, like meditation apps or digital content, you’ll be able to serve the needs of more team members.

  • Wellbeing apps: Applications are another kind of resource you can encourage your employees to use. Wellbeing applications are available in many different forms, from fitness trackers to mindfulness apps. Providing a paid subscription to one or more apps is a way to invest in your team’s mental health, no matter where they are located. 

See also: Elements of a sustainable remote work culture

What products and services are available to help you provide mental health support?

Several tools are available to help your team manage their mental health, including everything from therapy to coaching. It really depends on the type of mental health support you want to provide. Just remember: you have to be able to offer support in every location where you have employees.

 Some key global providers of mental health services include:

  • LifeWorks: Human resources company LifeWorks now offers health and mental health support in more than 170 countries.

  • Ginger: Ginger partners with employers to offer mental health care to employees, including therapy, psychiatry, and coaching.

  • Lyra Health: Lyra Health works with organizations to provide mental health services, offering access to a large network of providers, both in person and online.

  • BetterUp: BetterUp is a coaching service that allows employees to set goals and reach them as a form of development.

  • Calm: Calm is a mindfulness app that allows your employees to listen to audio for meditation, sleep, relaxation, and self improvement. The app’s audio library offers several meditations that help workers de-stress and relax. 

  • Bravely: Bravely is an app that tracks the progress users have made between therapy sessions. 

  • TalkSpace: TalkSpace is a therapy app that pairs employees with mental health providers in their area. Therapy is conducted through the application both via voice and via chat. 

  • OpenMinded: An organization founded to transform the way we deal with mental health. 

  • Hummingly: Based on a popular card game, Hummingly helps gamify mental health with games and cards that help players get through crises.

  • SonderMind: A therapy platform in the U.S. that matches users with therapists, either in person or online.

  • Clearhead: A New Zealand-based therapy app that pairs users with therapists. 

  • MyTherapist: A digital therapy platform and the largest app for mental health in China.

  • The Contentment Foundation: A mental health program for schools. 

  • Sanctus.io : A coaching and mental well-being app.

How to generate buy-in for a mental health support program

Mental health support starts at the top, but it may not always be easy to get the top brass on board with starting a mental health program. 

When talking to company leaders about setting up a mental health program for team members, it may help to point to the bottom line. According to the UK-based Mental Health Foundation,mental health support in the workplace can save UK businesses up to £8 billion per year. 

J.D. Alex at Stripe agrees.

Leaders must be willing to openly admit that burnout and mental health issues are a real occurrence even for our top level leadership including CEOs.  By showing team members that leaders are open to and willing to admit mental health awareness is a top priority for them, others will be less hesitant to do the same.

You may also want to talk about the reaction of employees to mental health initiatives. When you provide mental health care and encourage your team to use it, they know your organization values their well-being and their health. When employees know their company is loyal to them, they are more likely to be loyal to the company. 

How can you measure the success of your mental health program?

It may seem difficult to measure the success of something as personal as a mental health program, but you can’t manage what you can’t measure. In fact, monitoring the health and wellbeing of the workforce has become a trend in the last couple of years. So how can you manage your program without being intrusive? 

  • Program usage: Are your employees using the programs and resources you’re providing? Which aspects are being used the most? By understanding the apps and services that are used most, you can understand which parts of your program resonate most with your team. ”Generally if you have more than 70% of your organization signed up for the service and a recurring usage of 30% on a monthly basis you know that it is a success,” says Remote’s Hattingh. 

  • Employee surveys: When in doubt, ask. Hattingh says it’s always best to get feedback from your workforce. “Include a question in your engagement survey, or run a dedicated benefit survey,” he says. “This will give you an idea of where the program glows, but also where the system is falling short.”

  • Try a rating system: Sometimes surveys aren’t the way to go. Remote Senior People Specialist Keah Nguyen recommends tracking users’ response to services over time. “For 1:1 coaching and therapy care, it’s important to understand if people are having positive experiences and the sessions are impactful. It is ideal if there is a way for individuals to rate their session (for example: out of 5) immediately after the session has ended. Over time, you will see what is the average rating to determine the overall experience that everyone is having.”

  • Productivity: How productive was your team before the mental health initiative? What about afterward? 

  • Attitude: Does the company attitude toward mental health seem to have changed? Are people openly discussing mental health in meetings and on chat platforms? “A mental health support program is successful when conversations about it happen in a work environment,” says Nguyen. “We encourage managers to ask about their team members’ mental well-being in a 1:1, for example, as this could mean a lot to somebody when you show that you care.”

How do you encourage your team to keep life-work balance?

You may not be in the office with your team, but company leaders and managers are still responsible for creating a culture that encourages life-work balance. This is especially important for remote teams, where work and life isn’t always neatly separated, and boundaries can blur easily.

Mine Dedekoca, founder of Happy Work Studio, says it all starts at the top.

Employees watch and learn from repeated behavior. If managers exemplify how to take time off then the team members will feel the psychological safety to repeat the same attitude.

If your organization doesn’t make a point of prioritizing a balance between life and work, it’s likely that individual team members won’t feel they have permission to take time off when they need it, draw hard lines between personal and work time, or speak to managers when they feel they are burning out.

Despite this, leaders may worry about coming off as insincere when discussing mental health and work-life balance. Encourage vulnerability in managers; the team may feel more comfortable when managers model good work-life balance and mental health care, and they may be more likely to take advantage of resources and your mental health program. 

Work-life balance can be difficult for remote workers. It’s sometimes easy to isolate yourself and work too hard, burning out in the process. This can be a real problem for managers who might not notice the signs of burnout remotely.

To learn more about spotting burnout and helping your team take better care of their mental health, check out this guide to remote life-work balance from Remote and Greenhouse.

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