How to support your remote team’s mental health
Last updated September 21, 2021
No expert would recommend making the shift from a full-time, in-person team to a fully remote team in the span of a few days. And yet, because of COVID-19, that’s exactly what’s happened to nearly every office around the world.
Managers are now tasked with managing teams of stressed employees, from a distance. And many of these employees are working from home for the first time while balancing work with kids’ boredom and schoolwork, needy pets, lengthy trips to the grocery store, and even navigating questions about what to wear. (I highly recommend the WFH mullet—and hey, I’ve seen the numbers.)
A manager’s job is to ensure that their team is functioning at their very best, but right now, our very best looks a little different. Skilled managers are going to be able to support their team and maintain productivity in these shifting times—and here’s a little help from a licensed trauma therapist about how to recognize common stress reactions, what to look out for, and how to help support employees with moments of connection.
A manager’s job is to ensure that their team is functioning at their very best, but right now, our very best looks a little different.
[Related read: How to ask for a mental health day from work—because we all need one]
Common stress reactions
With a global pandemic running rampant outside our homes, and shifting personal relationships on the inside, it’s no wonder that a shelter-in-place order raises a lot of emotions and causes some very healthy stress.
Natalia Amari, LCSW and owner of Rebel in Bloom, is among those of us who have pivoted; part of her practice is now to offer virtual consultations for leaders looking for help with how to lead through this time. According to Amari, employees are going to feel a wide range of emotions, and there are two common reactions that managers can look out for:
- Mobilization: Think of mobilization as your fight or flight response. Mobilization is our attempt to solve the problem that we’re facing. “For many of us, mobilization looks like panic buying, stockpiling, and over-productivity,” says Amari. We all know that buying rolls upon rolls of toilet paper won’t protect us from COVID-19, but it makes us feel safer and more prepared. Mobilization might look like over-productivity—some employees may work longer hours and more efficiently during this time.
- Immobilization: “Immobilization might look like hopelessness, sleepiness, difficulty in motivating oneself, and a lack of productivity,” says Amari. For many managers, immobilization will be a lot more obvious than mobilization. “What’s important for everyone, especially managers, to understand is that immobilization is a natural, human reaction to a crisis,” says Amari. And while it’s not great for productivity, it’s necessary. Immobilization is a necessary rest period after a burst of energy or mobilization.
Using a hyperbolic example, if you were faced with a tiger (not to be mistaken with the Tiger King) and you ran for miles to escape it, you’d expect yourself to be tired afterwards. The same is true for those of us sheltering in place to protect ourselves from COVID-19. The only difference is that this enemy is invisible and takes a long time to outrun.
Both mobilization and immobilization are natural human reactions. They’re what we do naturally when faced with a crisis—and they work. But we don’t want to get stuck in either mode.
[Related read: How to keep remote agents engaged—and empowered]
Managing through all the feels
While all the talk of a “new normal” might assure us that life will stabilize, no one’s getting off the emotional rollercoaster anytime soon. According to Amari, it’s normal to vacillate between a wide range of emotions while facing a crisis, especially one that’s invisible and enduring.
It’s important “to acknowledge that we’re human together and that what we’re experiencing is part of the human experience,” she says. “That’s the goal: ‘How can we cultivate a feeling of togetherness?’”
Part of the human experience involves navigating these very real challenges, which managers should keep in mind:
- Lack of boundaries. While working from home has its upsides (Yay, no commute!), it also presents some curious problems. Especially when both partners are working from home, we live in cramped city spaces, and there’s no available child care. Additionally, there’s literally no boundaries between our professional and personal lives. For those who struggled to find work-life balance before, this might be even more difficult now.
- Relationship strain. While for most of us our homes are a sanctuary, or place to escape the outside world, that’s not true for everyone. It’s important that managers keep in mind that “we don’t know what people are going through at home,” says Amari. “Even before this crisis they may have been experiencing a strained relationship with a loved one.” Those relationships will only be more stressed when everyone is kept at home all the time.
It’s important “to acknowledge that we’re human together and that what we’re experiencing is part of the human experience,” [Natalia Amari] says. “That’s the goal: ‘How can we cultivate a feeling of togetherness?'”
- Hypervigilance and adaptability. Our enemy in this fight is invisible. When we feel threatened we become vigilant. That vigilance, especially when facing something invisible, can become hyper-vigilance.
Our ability to adapt to changes is a skill we learn or don’t learn early on in life. Some very successful adults don’t have high adaptability. “Feeling overwhelmed right now? Fuck yeah you are. It’s ok to just do our best,” says Amari. Your best right now might not look like your best normally does, and that’s okay.
- Reduced connection. Our lives have been turned upside down—we’re not allowed to leave our homes or see our friends in person. For many, not seeing family and friends removes a critical self-care and self-soothing mechanism.
- Lack of resources. When full-time office workers shift to working remotely, they often do not have the time and funds to invest in the resources and tools they need to be most productive at home. People are having to get creative and use what they have to do the best they can.
[Related read: 7 ways to build your team’s communication strategy—especially when remote]
Tools and methods to support your employees
If you’re managing a remote team for the first time, your first instinct might be to crack down and require multiple check-ins a day and increase the number of meetings. In reality, what you need is empathy, radical trust, and good communication. There are a number of ways you can support employees during this time.
Results, not hours
With all the changes we’re all adapting to right now, the most important thing a manager can do is encourage self-sufficiency and focus on results instead of hours worked. By focusing on results, you allow employees to work in the way that’s best for them, when it’s best for them.
For those taking care of children or a sick loved one, traditional 9-to-5 hours may not be possible right now. They may be able to get their work done in a few hours before the kids get up and a few hours after the kids go to bed.
Your best right now might not look like your best normally does, and that’s okay.
A manager’s job is to support their team so they can have optimum output and productivity. As any good manager knows, everyone is different. “Be explicitly non-judgemental, transparent, compassionate, and curious in a caring way,” suggests Amari.
Instead of doing daily check-ins for everyone, ask employees how they would like to be supported. Some may want daily check-ins while others will feel smothered and controlled by that amount of oversight.
Be transparent about job security
One of the biggest stressors for people right now is job security. While managers may have limited control over what information they know or can share with employees, Amari recommends having transparency around job security.
Remember: Transparency doesn’t require you to know all the answers. “Talk about the resources the company has to weather this, tell employees what you’re doing to pivot, and share that you don’t know all the answers, but you care,” she says.
Make connection intentional
“Right now, the happy hour after the business meeting that would have happened naturally has to be intentional,” says Amari. Personal relationships between employees are still important, they’re just going to take a little more work and coordination.
With all the changes we’re all adapting to right now, the most important thing a manager can do is encourage self-sufficiency and focus on results instead of hours worked.
Build fun and personal connection into meetings and work days with:
- Virtual team-building exercises
- Video lunch dates for employees who don’t know each other
- Zoom breakout rooms during a meeting for an ice breaker or social hour
- Weekly virtual happy hour
- An AMA with a manager or executive
Reduce meeting stress
In an AMA with the founder of Basecamp, Jason Fried, an attendee asked “What’s the best way to manage a virtual meeting with 30 attendees?” His response: “Don’t.” At Basecamp (which has a mostly remote team), meetings are held with no more than 5 people. This keeps meetings interactive, personal, and efficient.
Reduce the stress around your meetings by limiting how many meetings you’re having, the number of attendees, and by setting expectations up front on when it’s okay to be off camera. You can also check out and take tips from scrum-style meetings.
[Related read: Building and managing a virtual support team]
Don’t pretend this is normal
If there’s one simple step you can take to care for your employee’s mental health, it’s acknowledging that this isn’t normal. Say it out loud in meetings, share it when speaking one-on-one, and talk about how these changes are affecting your life. This isn’t normal. Pretending it is will only cause more stress.
Encourage stress management
Stress management is all about self care. One of the best ways to encourage stress management is to be vulnerable about your own emotions and talk about your self-care techniques. Self care will look different for everyone, but the point is to do something that makes you happy, brings you joy, or makes you feel accomplished.
If there’s one simple step you can take to care for your employee’s mental health, it’s acknowledging that this isn’t normal. Say it out loud in meetings, share it when speaking one-on-one, and talk about how these changes are affecting your life.
Supercharge your empathy
As a manager, keep in mind the basic tenet that we’re all human and we’re all going through a crisis. We’re going to react differently and feel our highest levels of stress at different times. When an employee acts out or has a bad day, try to be understanding of that reaction. Don’t forget: supercharging your empathy can also leave you feeling drained.
[Related read: Talking about mental health at work, now part of the employee experience]
Make sure you’re supporting your own mental health
We’re all struggling to cope and we’re finding our own ways of adapting and managing the crises that we’re facing. This includes managers and bosses. Allow yourself grace and understanding that you might also not be at your best right now and that’s okay, too.
Just like in an airplane emergency, you’ve got to put your own mask on first. As a manager, you’re taking care of and watching out for your employees while also dealing with your personal life and adapting to outside changes. So take care of yourself and increase your own self care so that you can be there for your team.